The Coven, Part CXII

Read from the beginning.

I bid Prudence a final farewell, took Abbess Joy’s arm, and left the dormitory.

Abbess Joy seemed distracted during our walk. She hardly spoke but to comment on the beauty of the pre-dawn sky, or to point out one or two interesting insects that crawled alongside the path. I must have been distracted as well, because we’d reached the Cathedral before I realized something was amiss.

“Wasn’t Raven supposed to be joining us, as well?” I asked.

“Raven? I’m sorry; I’m not sure where she’s gone,” Abbess Joy replied.

“Wait here; I will go look for her,” I said.

I ran back up the path, and soon I met Trusty on the road.

“I’m glad I found you,” Trusty said breathlessly, running toward me. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to catch you before you left. Raven was growing restless, so she’s already gone ahead to the pavilion.”

“Good. I should get back to Abbess Joy.” I paused, and then leaned closer and lowered my voice. “There is one thing I wanted to say, though. Tell the others- the Ancients and the Oculists who are going to the wildlands- that these talks are tenuous at best. Don’t wait for things to descend into chaos, and then be caught in a trap. If you don’t receive word from me by noon…”

“I understand,” Trusty said, nodding.

I sighed, half relief and half regret.

“Goodbye, Trusty, and good luck,” I said, clasping his hand.

I turned and ran back up the path, and I found that Abbess Joy was waiting just where I’d left her. She had pulled some pieces of grass from the side of the road, and was weaving them into an odd sort of pattern.

“Strings are interesting, don’t you think, dear Grace? You can do such amazing things with only three.”

“Are you alright?” I asked.

Abbess Joy dropped the strands of grass and reached out to pat my hand.

“I’m perfectly well, my dear. Thank you for asking. Now- shall we be off?”

We continued to walk a little way, but as we passed del Sol’s borders, Abbess Joy suddenly stumbled, and when we’d walked a little more into the rolling knolls of the midlands, she fell.

“Are you hurt?” I asked, reaching to help her stand again.

“I’m not hurt at all,” she said placidly. “It’s just these darned legs- I can’t get used to them. Bend the knee, up-down-up-down; it’s a lot to remember, you know.”

“Why would you need to remember how to walk?” I said, dumbfounded. “Are you ill?”

“I’m not ill. I’m just a little out of practice.” Abbess Joy took my outstretched hand and stood. Then she bent one knee, and then the other, over and over again, marching in place.

“There! I think I have it. Off we go, my dear,” Abbess Joy said, offering her arm once more.

“Abbess Joy, this is really too much,” I said. “You can’t meet the others, like this. Reverence and Wisdom will eat you aliveif they detect any weakness.”

“I’m not Abbess Joy. Dear child, can’t you see the glamour I placed on this body? And I worked so hard on it, too.”

“Of course I can’t see the glamour; I’m an Ancient.”

“An Ancient? Oh! That’s right.” Abbess Joy snapped her fingers, and then laughed as though surprised by the sound, and snapped them again. “How silly of me to forget. If you were not an Ancient, you would see a long white beard, a golden crown, and a snow-white robe- just like the painting inside the cathedral.”

Abbess Joy pointed up the road, at the Cathedral del Sol beyond.

“Do you mean the portrait of Order?”

Abbess Joy’s eyes flashed bright white, and her voice lowered, booming in a regal tone that echoed through the morning sky.

“Yes, child- I am Order.”

I fell back, clutching my hand to my chest.

“Order… how,” I whispered.

“Don’t worry, dear child. Joy hasn’t broken any pesky promises to bring me here. This isn’t her fault in the least, and we can tell Wisdom so, if he asks,” Order said, reaching out to take my arm once more. “My children have been so noisylately that I couldn’t sleep. The battle yesterday was the last straw, so I thought I would just pop in and give that young upstart- Wisdom- a piece of my mind.”

“Is Abbess Joy alright? Is she safe?”

“Oh yes- Joy is perfectly safe in here.” Order raised a finger to tap Abbess Joy’s temple. “In fact, she won’t stop shouting at me; she is a very healthy girl, you know. You needn’t worry, because I would never hurt Joy. She is my daughter.”

Order stopped and laughed. “Since Joy considers you her daughter, that makes you my granddaughter. What a happy reunion, this is! Come here, child.”

Order pulled me into a bone-crushing hug.

“Stop,” I protested, pulling away.

“You’re cross with me, aren’t you?” Order said with a heavy sigh. “It seems that everyone is cross with me, lately. Joy is cross with me just because I borrowed her body for a little bit, even though I promisedto give it back. Chastity is cross with me because this whole ruckus has interrupted all the fun she’s been having with irrational numbers.”

“I’m sorry- irrational numbers?” I asked.

“Yes, irrational numbers. There are all of those decimal places to fill in, and there are just so many of them- I don’t think she’ll ever be done with it. But irrational numbers are ever so much more important that this silly war. Take that sol flower, for example.”

Order stepped off the path, walking toward a patch of sol flowers that grew on the side of a small slope.

“Wait! We have to go to the peace negotiations,” I said, following him off the road.

“Ah yes, peace. That would be lovely.” Order remained in the patch of flowers, however, picking one after another, and weaving them into a chain. “Do you see how the seeds in the center grow? Isn’t nature remarkable?”

“Please, we must go,” I said.

“Certainly. But first, will you tell me why you are cross with me?”

I couldn’t suppress my bitter laugh. “Where should I start?”

“Start roughly in the middle. It’s pointless to start at the beginning; you can’t everfindthe beginning,” Order said. “Or perhaps the present moment is the true beginning, and we go forward as we go backward.”

“You took me away from Joy when I was only five,” I said.

“Your father wanted some time with you. I was going to send you back to del Sol after a few years, once Joy had calmed down. It was only fair.”

“You never sent me back,” I said. “I grew up, and your church married me off to Lord Frey.”

“Oh dear- you’re right,” he said, looking me up and down. “I must have slept for too long. Still- you didget to see Joy again, didn’t you?”

“Not until I’d already grown,” I said. “And then your church didn’t let me choose whom to marry- to choose my ownhappiness.”

Order’s eyes filled with concern. “Was Lord Frey a bad husband?”

“No, but-”

“Was he cruel to you? Did you hate him?”

“I love him,” I said, “but that isn’t the point.”

Order sighed, linking the ends of his flower chain together.

“You’re being terribly unfair. I wanted you to be happy- to have a good husband and a good life. The high priest insisted that the marriage would keep peace in Aeterna. Wasn’t it a nice to arrange a marriage for two young people, so that they would have someone to care for when they grow up? Isn’t it good to ensure peace in the land?”

“Human hearts don’t work that way,” I said.

Order sighed again. “Human hearts are fundamentally flawed. Why else would all of humanity be so cross with me after I’ve given them everything they asked for, and a paradise in which to live?”

Order turned and placed the flower crown on my head, and then he stood back and smiled.

“Beautiful.”

Order took my hand and led me back to the road. “Now, let’s go to those peace negotiations, smooth things over with everyone, and then we can enjoy this lovely day. Try to be happy, my child.”

“You’ve enslaved the Ancients, and so many humans, besides,” I said. “How can you smooth that over? How can I be happy?”

Order patter my hand paternally as we continued down the road. “I don’t know anymore, dear Grace. The humans insisted that they would never be happy, or feel safe, unless I gave them control of the Ancients, so I gave control of the Ancients to the church. Then the humans said that they could never be happy unless a few of their number were subservient to the others, so I allowed that, too. Then the humans insisted they would never be happy unless distribution of wealth and the family structure were both tightly controlled, so I allowed that. I tried to do everything the majority of humans wanted to be happy, but pretty soon most people fell into one minority or another, so they were all miserable.

“This all made little sense, so I decided to sleep on the problem, and then solve it when I woke up,” Order continued, and then heaved a huge yawn.

I stared, unbelieving, at the God who spoke so calmly of atrocities while wearing Abbess Joy’s face.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “You don’t understand human feelings at all, anymore.”

“Yes, my dear. On that count, we agree.”

We turned a bend in the road and came upon a blue and white striped pavilion, which was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers.

Order and I passed through the field of soldiers unmolested, and when we reached the tent, the two dragoons who stood guard at the entrance trembled and fell to their knees. I was obliged to help them stand once more, and eventually they were able to show us inside, though they trembled all the while.

 

 

#

 

 

Reverence- who was still wearing Pride’s face- Lord Frey, Lux, Raven, and Wisdom were already assembled, and I could hear their bickering as I walked inside. As soon as Order and I stepped into view, however, they froze. Then they all fell to their knees, gazing up at Order with expressions of awe and fear.

“Oh look- a tin lantern.” Order said. He quickly strode past those who knelt before him, toward tin lantern which was impressed with the symbols of Order, Reverence, and Chastity. “How lovely!”

“We can look at the lanterns later,” I said gently, striding to catch up with Order. “Didn’t you have something you wished to say to Wisdom?”

“Oh yes- where is the young upstart?” Order turned around and fixed his gaze on Wisdom.

“Joy- she broke her oath,” Wisdom whispered.

“Now now, don’t you start with that,” Order chided, shaking his finger at Wisdom. “This isn’t Joy’s fault, as I was telling my dear granddaughter. You’ve all been making such a ruckus that I couldn’t help but awaken. All of the souls crying out in confusion, the turmoil, gnashing of teeth and so forth- it’s fairly annoying, to be quite honest. Knock it off, so a fellow can get some sleep.”

Then Order turned back to me. “There- I’ve spoken to Wisdom. May I play with the lantern, now? All of those dots make the most interesting patterns on the ceiling when you spin them around, and this ceiling has a nice slope.”

“My Lord,” Reverence stood and bowed deeply to Order. “My deepest apologies if we’ve disturbed you. I have the situation well in hand, so if you wish to go back to sleep-”

“Nonsense- the ruckus has only gotten worse since you woke. Instead of coming here to annoy poor Joy, you should be helping Chastity with her irrational numbers.”

Slowly, Wisdom rose to his feet. He crept forward and whispered to me. “What is wrong with him?”

“He has lost his humanity,” I replied.

“Let me tell you what humanity is, young man,” Order said, spinning around to face Wisdom once more. “Humanity is the complete loss of a sense of proportion. Take this young lady as an example.” He pointed at me. “It is a splendid morning outside- sunlight, oxygen, gravity- everything a human needs to be happy. We could have spent the morning together, picking sol flowers and discussing irrational numbers, but instead she insisted that we come to this cramped tent and hold peace negotiations.”

Wisdom looked at me, and then back to Order. “Lady Frey isn’t human,” he ventured.

“Ancient, human, it doesn’t matter,” Order said, waving this aside. “Her brain functions roughly the same, so my point stands. In fact, if any one of you really gave two figs about peace, you wouldn’t hold tense negotiations inside of a heavily-guarded tent. You would all come outside and pick sol flowers with me.”

“You know, I hate to admit it, but Order has a point,” Hope said, clambering to his feet. “If you lead the way, sir, I will be happy to join you.”

Order clapped Hope on the back, and then led him back through the tent flap. For a moment, the rest of us stood in stunned silence, listening to Order’s jovial laugh outside. Then Reverence scrambled after him, followed by Wisdom and Lux, and finally, Raven sighed heavily and followed, as well.

Soon, the whole party sat together on a gentle knoll, picking and weaving Sol flowers together.

“I fail to see,” Reverence said after a time, “how this is helping matters at all.”

“Things are quieter, now,” Order said, “and that was my goal.”

Wisdom stared openly for a long time at Order, who was entirely focused on creating his flower chain. Finally, Wisdom spoke.

“My lord, how did you come to… to gain your sense of proportion?” Wisdom asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Order said. “When I ascended, my mind expanded with each new follower I gained- you must have experienced the sensation, by now. Over time, the continued affairs of humanity became so small- so petty- and the call of infinite universal truths grew so tantalizing, that I couldn’t help but drift away. After exploring the true powers of my mind for a time, I found I no longer fully understood what a limited human mind needed to thrive, and to be happy.”

Order closed his flower chain and held it up, smiling. “I decided that humans must be the arbiters of their own happiness. I would listen to the prayers of my people, and then instruct my high priest to implement the law that the majority wished for. It didn’t work, though. Everyone is even more miserable than they were when I started.”

Order yawned again, and then he reached over and placed the flower crown on Wisdom’s head. The bright yellow flowers shone like gold in the morning light, and Wisdom blinked, as though startled by the benediction.

“The people need discipline,” Reverence interrupted. “If I were in charge-”

“Come come- you’ve made people just as miserable as I have,” Order said. “All of that ‘universal dignity and mutual respect’ you used to speak of didn’t last five minutes after you ascended. Your people demanded a hierarchy, and you gave it to them.”

“And rightly so!” Reverence said, shaking his flower garland at Order. “How else will we ensure that the law is fulfilled, and that Terra remains clean and healthy? The humans don’t remember the disaster on the Red Moon that almost wiped them out.”

Wisdom turned to me. “Is this what you meant, when you said you saw the seeds of my corruption? Will I drift away like Order, or will I harden, like Reverence?”

“No- your seed of corruption is different. It was planted by Order.”

Wisdom turned back to Order, who was staring at Brother Lux.

Order snapped his fingers, laughed, and said, “Oh! I get it. You two bound your souls together, so that when Wisdom ascended to godhood, his angel would keep him anchored to humanity. What’s more, you made sure to do it beforeWisdom ascended- before you had a chance to drift apart like Joy and Reverence.”

Reverence crushed his flower garland in his fist, but he said nothing.

“Since you are very fond of each other, it was a good idea,” Order continued. “Otherwise, I would have advised you not to bother. A god’s mind is far more powerful than an angel’s. You will take Lux with you, Wisdom, when you outgrow humanity.”

“How long will that take?” Wisdom said quietly.

Order shrugged. “Fifty years? A hundred? It happens so gradually, you know, that it’s difficult to tell.”

Lux hesitated, and then he stood and placed his flower crown on Order’s head.

“Thank you for the warning,” Lux said. “It may be pointless, but I am going to try, anyway. I’m going to do everything I can to keep Wisdom from losing his humanity.”

“Don’t be too disappointed when you fail,” Order said, clapping Lux’s shoulder. “You’ve already been corrupted. You both share one mind, after all.”

“I wouldn’t give up on them, yet,” I said. I had found a patch of terra flowers among the sol flowers, and I was arranging them in an alternating patter on my chain- terra, sol, terra, sol. “Lux was able to help Wisdom when I asked him to trust me. If Lux keeps trying- who knows. He may be able to break the cycle and cleanse the seed of corruption.”

I closed the circle, and then stood and placed the flower crown I’d made on Lux’s head.

“You still haven’t explained what that seed of corruption is,” Wisdom said.

“How do I put this…” I sat down and began to gather flowers again. “Wisdom, you wanted to save people from torture, both from the church in this world and from hell in the next. In order to do this, you tortured your own friends- a desperate act, but one you knew to be was necessary. You find it disturbing that each Ancient who is born faces eternal death, so to prevent this from happening anymore, you were willing to commit genocide. You want to prevent Order’s followers from assassinating your sovereign, and to prevent scientists from discovering dangerous information, so you are willing to imprison people for committing thought crimes.”

I lay one flower after another on the ground as I listed Wisdom’s actions, and then I began to thread them together. “You are brilliant. I have no doubt that you thought long and hard about each of these acts before you committed them. In the end you couldn’t think of any other way. You chose to rise up and impose your will by force- and in your anger and fear, you lost control. The other day, when you were arguing with Prudence, I saw that fear in your eyes. It was the same fear that caused me to lose control at the Cathedral Lux.”

“My fears aren’t unfounded,” Wisdom said. “There are horrors in this world, Lady Frey- horrors beyond anything you’ve ever seen. I had no choice but to act as I did.”

“To defeat those horrors requires courage,” I said. “If you had acted with courage, you would have trusted all of your friends- not just Lux- to help you, instead of imprisoning them. If you were able to trust others, you would have seen that the ministry you were creating was powerful in its own right. The truth is that you didn’t really need the public trial to sway the masses to follow you. Look how happy you made Miss Taris and Miss Mirth when you helped them. Look how happy you made all of the people in Rogue Village when you healed them. Those feelings are powerful.”

“They are powerful, certainly, but they are not enough,” Wisdom said.

“I think they are enough. Remember your own feelings of happiness during moments of unexpected grace. Do you recall showing me the nebulae on bluebell hill, or the time you danced with Lux at St. Blanc? I saw true happiness in your eyes, then. That kind of happiness can heal.

“But the curse that Order inflicted on you- the feeling of doom- colored everything that you did. Even after you ascended, and Order’s curse was broken, you acted out of fear, for what is a soul but a pattern of thought? And after so many centuries-”

“The pattern had become part of me,” Wisdom whispered.

“Then Order is right,” Lux said. “I failed you, Wisdom, because I was afraid.”

“This is ridiculous.” Raven, who had been silent until now, dropped her flowers and stood. Her eyes flashed red with fury.

“You aren’t the only one who has suffered Order’s curses, in case you’ve forgotten,” Raven said to Wisdom. “Why are we sitting around making flower-chains with the God who inflicted them? Perhaps the rest of you can suffer this madness, but I can’t.”

“I thought you enjoyed chaos,” Lux said smoothly, reaching for another blossom.

“Chaos and madness are not the same thing,” Raven said with an indignant sniff. “Chaos isn’t realsuffering- just confusion. But my people are going mad, slowly, as century after century passes. Wisdom, I suppose, doesn’t care anymore, having achieved his own power.”

“No- I meant for the other Demons to join me. If you pray the litany-”

“I would rather suffer forever,” Raven scoffed.

“Please, dear child, don’t make yourself uneasy,” Order said. He stood and placed a flower crown on Raven’s bright red locks. “The Angels said that they would never be happy unless there was some kind of punishment for the uprising. The curses weren’t supposed to be unendurable, and I was going to end them soon.”

“It’s been millennia,” Raven cried, ignoring the flower garland. “The oldest among us went completely mad ages ago.”

Order’s face fell. “Oh no- does that mean that poor Red-”

“My father was lost to madness long ago,” Wisdom said. “We can only draw on his power to cast curses, now.”

Order closed his eyes. “It’s been a long time, indeed. There is a fail-safe to end the hell protocol, but I can’t remember the code. It’s so much more difficult to remember things, now that my follower’s numbers have dwindled. Perhaps Chastity will remember? But no- she wouldn’t. The code wasn’t an irrational number.”

“You should let them suffer,” Reverence said with a smirk.

Raven lunged toward Reverence, who stood to meet her, hands outstretched as though preparing a spell. Before he could cast, however, the sky grew dark. I looked up and saw the huge, white bulk of the Maelstrom, hovering ahead, blocking the sunlight.

The Maelstrom passed over us, moving toward the pavilion behind the hill. Three loud explosions, warning shots, resounded in the air.

Raven looked up from her attack, her eyes fading from red back to brown. “What the hell is that?” she sputtered.

“That is a misunderstanding,” I said, standing. “Please excuse me for a moment.”

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The Coven, Part CXI

Read from the beginning.

Every living Ancient crowded onto the beach at the southern shrine to honor Dare’s memory. I helped the other Ancients to dig her grave- an easy task in the soft, sandy soil. When she was buried, I stood with them to sing the Ancient songs Dare had taught me- the songs she had taught to many of the young Ancients.

Many members of the oculist guild were also present, and they filed past the grave to pay their respects as the Ancients sang. When Sir Silas reached the grave he fell to his knees, staring down in silence for a long time. Eventually, Trusty came and took Sir Silas by the arm, leading him away. When Sir Silas looked up, I thought I saw the traces of something- something that had died before it had the chance to blossom.

Abbess Joy stood at the front of a group of sisters, watching as the guild filed past. Then she raised her hand and two of the sisters stepped forward, bearing a heavy tombstone between them. The tombstone was placed upon the new grave, and then Abbess Joy took a brush and ink, and wrote an epitaph on its smooth, grey surface.

 

 

Teller of tales,

singer of Songs,

and beloved friend.

 

 

      Abbess Joy kissed her hand, pressed it against the tombstone, and walked away.

Then Prudence stepped forward, holding Celeste’s hand. Celeste was bearing a wreath made of yellow paper terra flowers strung together, which was half as large as she was.

Celeste placed the wreath on the grave, and whispered. “Raven and I made these during the battle, and I thought you should have them.”

My voice broke, and I put my face in my hands until my tears stopped flowing, and the next song began.

After the last song was sung, the Ancients filed past the grave, paying their last respects. But no- I realized suddenly that these were not the last respects we would pay to Dare. Her name would be repeated when we added her story to the collection that she’d passed to us from our ancestors. Dare’s story would live as long as the Ancient people survived.

I would make sure that it did.

As the mourners began to disperse, I spotted a man standing in the shadows of one of the broken columns. I approached, and I saw that the man was Pride. He was dressed all in black, and his hands were folded, but he did not bow his head in prayer. He simply stood and watched as the mourners passed.

“Dare was right, you know,” Pride said when I drew near. “You fought like your mother. Harmony would be proud of you.”

“Would she?” I asked. “I turned down the offer that she accepted.”

Pride’s eyebrows raised. “You were offered a soul? Ah- I can guess who offered; it was a clever move.”

Then Pride shrugged. “I don’t believe Harmony would think any less of you for making your own choice. She never thought any less of Dare.”

“I wanted to know; is there a possibility that-” I suddenly stopped speaking, because the question seemed unworthy of this place.

Pride stared at me for a moment as I hesitated, and then said, “oh! You want to know Harmony’s death had anything to do with you. I never considered the question. I’d worried that there might be some complications, since she was with child, but I was most concerned how the process would affect the fetus, and you were born healthy. Perhaps there was something I overlooked.”

“Please consider the question,” I said in a low voice. “I trust you to tell the truth, even if it hurts my feelings.”

“Hmmm.” Pride put his finger to his chin in thought. “My concerns were not strong enough to make me put off the procedure until after your birth. Of course, I may have rushed things, because Harmony seemed so unhappy. But the process is so simple that I thought it would be fine. An Ancient must will herself to gain a soul, and then accept a transfusion of Celestial blood. I acted as the blood donor, and Order promised to do the rest.”

“Do you think my father could have tampered with the process in some way?”

“Oh no- he supported the plan. He assumed that once Harmony gained a soul, she would be constrained by the blood oath they’d made. I never doubted Harmony’s will, either. She truly wished to be with Joy.”

Pride sighed, and then said, “Harmony’s body did not reject the Ancient blood, but it reacted in a strange way. It was almost as though Harmony were attempting to will something completely unprecedented into existence, and then failed. That is the best way I can explain what happened. I don’t believe the failure had anything to do with you.”

Something new, I’d thought to myself. Mother- what secrets did you know? What secrets did you lack?

      “I’m sorry I failed her, Lady Frey.”

I shook my head. “You tried to help her; thank you.”

Pride looked down, and did not respond.

“Tell me, how long did you know Dare?” I asked.

“I knew her as long as I knew Harmony. The two were almost inseparable, so I would often see them both when I came to visit the Abbess Joy. Dare was an exceptionally bold woman. You know how often people mistake my honesty for insult, but Dare was just as frank with me as I was with her.”

I laughed a little, tears welling in my eyes once more.

“I’m sorry for my part in her death, Lady Frey. I should not have trusted Reverence again, after everything he had done.”

“Why did you trust him?” I asked.

“Because I loved him,” Pride said. “He was like my brother, once.”

Then Pride leaned closer to me and whispered, “can you tell me why, Lady Frey? Why did Dare reject my offer of a soul? Why do the Ancients accept death?”

“I can’t speak for Dare; I honestly don’t know,” I said. “I think the Ancients accept death because it was the last true choice we had as a people- to keep our minds free and separate, and remain truly ourselves.”

“Is that why you rejected the offer of a soul?”

“No. I want the freedom to choose something else- something beyond a soul.”

Pride looked at me for some time with a quizzical expression. Then he smiled and said, “I suppose you are like Harmony, after all.”

 

 

#

      After the burial, Mars, Victoria, and Neiro built a bonfire in the pit near Dare’s home. Dare’s closest friends, including Abbess Joy, and the old woman who had called me ‘Harmony’ at the temple, all sat around it and talked well into the afternoon.

The old woman, whose name was Charon, told us stories about Dare’s childhood that made us laugh in spite of ourselves. Then she told us other stories that made us cry all over again.

When the sun hung low in the sky once more, Abbess Joy took her leave of the others to return to the Abbey. She gave me a significant look as she stood, so I joined her, walking back along the beach to the abbey arm in arm.

We walked for a time without speaking as the sky faded from blue to soft purple, and the silence was punctuated from time to time by the mournful sound of the gulls.

“Dare was glad she got to see you again,” Abbess Joy said at length. “She and Harmony were like sisters, and I know that, when you were taken from the Abbey as a child, Dare felt the loss keenly. She said, ‘Joy, they promised that girl would be born free, and now they’ve imprisoned her with that awful man.’ When you returned to us, healthy and strong, it was a great comfort.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “I just wish I could have-”

Abbess Joy stopped me, placing a gentle hand on my arm. “What more could you have done? You fought by Dare’s side with all your strength. You helped to free the Ancients, and through the alliance with the oculists, gave them all a chance to escape. You surpassed Dare’s wildest hopes for you.”

“What if Wisdom takes all of that away?”

“I won’t let him,” Abbess Joy said.

I put my hand over Abbess Joy’s. “Thank you for protecting the Ancients,” I said. “Thank you for helping to save my people.”

“Don’t thank me, Grace. Her people- your people– are my people.”

We began to walk once more. The path wound back into the low cliffs, and I could see the abbey looming ahead. Abbess Joy slowed her walk a little, and lowered her voice.

“I advise you to sleep early, tonight. You’ve been invited to tomorrow’s negotiations, and we must set off before sunrise to arrive on time.”

“Me?” I said, taken aback. “But- why was I invited?”

“I insisted,” Abbess Joy said with a small smile. “I thought that a representative from each race, not just Divine, should be present at the negotiations. Reverence and Wisdom will be present to represent the Gods’ factions, Lord Frey will represent humans, and Raven will represent the Demons. I want you to represent the Ancient race.

“Shouldn’t we ask the other Ancients if that is alright? I don’t feel comfortable representing them without their input.”

“The Ancients have already agreed. There was a great deal of anxiety while you were returning from Verdant City, since the war had begun and the second airship were not yet complete or supplied. Among other possibilities, the Ancients discussed who would represent them in case they needed to negotiate with the humans or gods. The Ancients decided that you should be their representative, since you have lived as a human, and know their ways.”

“Ah, so then I was the one without a vote,” I said with a wry smile. “I’m not complaining, but…”

“I know you will do well,” Abbess Joy said.

We had arrived at the Abbey. Prudence was standing just outside of the dormitory, watching as I approached.

Abbess Joy looked from me to Prudence, and then smiled a knowing smile. “I will leave you to rest. Remember that I will call for you early tomorrow.”

She kissed my cheek and then left as I continued toward Prudence.

“I’ve put Celeste to bed,” Prudence said quietly as I approached.

“In that case, would you join me in my room for a game of ringo?”

“To hell with ringo,” Prudence said. “Tell me everything that has happened.”

 

 

#

      As I spoke, I watched Prudence’s expression for any sign of the judgement I knew I deserved. Prudence’s thoughtful expression didn’t waver, however. Her eyes hardly flickered when I described how Hope and I had discarded her warnings, and decided to follow Miss Taris into an obvious trap. She didn’t say anything when I described my clumsy, failed attempt to break the litany of Wisdom.

When I started to describe what had happened at the Cathedral Lux, my voice broke. Prudence reached out to take my hand, and she waited in silence while I took a few shaky breaths. I steeled myself, and then described how I’d lost control of my powers, and how, in my anger and fear, I’d willed a boy to die.

“When I finally understood what was happening, I ran away. Once I’d left, Lux was able to heal the boy. Even so, I was terrified; I knew my powers were becoming dangerous. As soon as I was alone with Wisdom at Rowan Heights-” I lowered my head, unable to look Prudence in the eye. “I knelt to Wisdom, and I begged him to take the Ancient power out of me- to grant me a soul. I promised to follow him if he would help me.”

I looked up, and I could see a change in Prudence’s expression. She stared away from me, her eyes hard and cold. I slipped my hand from hers, and she did not move to take it again.

“What did Wisdom say?” she asked.

“He agreed to help me, but he said that I must truly desire a soul- to will myself to have one. I found that I could not.”

I looked down again, and saw that Prudence was clutching her robes so tightly that her knuckles were white. A sudden, rueful laugh burst from my lips.

“How pathetic I was!” I said. “I knelt down to my enemy to beg for something I didn’t even want.”

Prudence’s hands twisted her robes a little, but she said nothing.

I continued to speak, telling Prudence about Wisdom’s attempts to get Hope to join him, and how successfully Hope had toyed with Wisdom in return. Then my voice dropped, and I revealed to Prudence the secret history of the Red Moon.

Prudence let go of her robes and stood to pace the small room, but she did not interrupt my strange tale. Then I told her about the discovery I’d made while performing the Ancient forms, and the revelation I’d had about the nature of power.

Prudence held up her hand.

“If what you say is true,” she said, “then the precautions the Oculist guild takes, of vetting the character of each member before giving them access to our secrets, is not enough to protect our technology from misuse.”

“It’s enough to protect against misuse, but when it comes to the expansion of our knowledge into the unknown, it is not enough.”

“That would require foresight we don’t have,” Prudence said, nodding. “Perhaps there should be a moratorium on the implementation of new technology, but that would prove a greater detriment in the case of truly beneficial technology.”

I paused, gathering my thoughts before I continued.

“My experience with my own powers suggests that it can be controlled as it grows, but learning how, in each individual case, will be a tricky process.”

“Thank you for telling me,” Prudence said, “but I think we should keep this as private as possible, for now. Mr. Filius must be told, and Sir Silas, but no one else- not until we’ve thoroughly explored the problem.”

“We must also consider the possibility that Wisdom was lying,” I said. “I don’t think he was- he was uncommonly sincere, that night- but he is still Wisdom. He has lied, and will lie again.”

“I agree. Still, the plausibility of the story is enough to give me pause. You are right, Grace. It is the nature of power.”

“I don’t think there’s any immediate cause for alarm,” I said. “I’d always assumed that Abbess Joy joined the guild to keep it safe from the inquisition. But Joy must have been present when Order rose- he made her his angel, after all. Abbess Joy knows what happened to the Red Moon.”

“Do you think Abbess Joy has been guiding the guild- protecting them from their own knowledge?”

I nodded. “But the guild isn’t just uncovering old secrets; we are making our own discoveries. One day, our knowledge will surpass Abbess Joy’s, and we must prepare for that day.”

Prudence nodded, and then sat beside me once more.

“Please, Continue,” Prudence said. “How did Lux bring you to the Abbey? Where is Hope?”

I sighed. “As far as I know, Hope is traveling from Rowan Heights to the pavilion for negotiations. I was going to bring Hope to del Sol, but when I told Wisdom I’d decided not to accept a soul, he drugged me and brought me back by force. Luckily, I woke up before we reached del Sol.

“Luckily, I found you.”

“My powers have been growing, too,” Prudence said with a small smile. “I could see Lux’s and Wisdom’s magic flickering on the horizon as you approached, and I knew it did not bode well. My worry was enough to draw me away from the battlefront to see what that bastard was doing.”

“You saved my life,” I said. “Thank you.”

Prudence waved my thanks aside. “What is the odd life-debt between friends?”

“Friends.” I sighed and looked down. “Are you still my friend, after everything I just told you?”

I looked up and saw Prudence blinking, as though in surprise.

“Why wouldn’t we be friends?” she asked.

“I almost killed a boy unnecessarily. I knelt down and swore to serve our enemy. Are those forgivable acts?”

“The boy wasn’t your fault,” Prudence said.

“I disagree; I may have lost control, but it was still my will,” I said. “And I chose to kneel down to Wisdom.”

“You willed yourself to run away, and they boy lived,” Prudence said. “And you didn’t really choose Wisdom. You may have knelt, but in your heart, you still chose your freedom. That’s why you turned him down, in the end.”

“Well… yes.”

Prudence turned and looked at me. We were so close that I could see myself reflected in her eyes.

“What did you see in Wisdom, when you brought him into del Sol? Why did you trust him? Do you think his corruption can be stopped?”

“I don’t know if corruption can be stopped. There were those who tried to stop Order’s corruption, and they failed. I do know that, as long as Wisdom cannot trust others, he cannot be trusted.”

Prudence bit her lip, and then she laughed.

“I thought you’d gone mad when you took his hand, right after he tried to kill you. I wish Wisdom would just leave, and never threaten you or anyone else I love again.”

My heart skipped a beat at Prudence’s words.

“I feel the same way,” I said. “I-”

Prudence cut me off, leaning over to brush her lips against mine. Then she drew back, her cheeks scarlet.

“I’m sorry. I mistook you meaning. I forgot myself.” Prudence stood. “I should go.”

I took her hand. “No- wait.”

Prudence stopped, and then sat down again.

“Yes?” she said softly.

“I’ve been invited to tomorrow’s negotiations,” I said.

Prudence turned sharply. “With Reverence and Wisdom?”

“And Hope, and Raven, and Abbess Joy,” I said gently.

“Still, you will be in Wisdom’s camp. Will it be safe?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I was invited to represent the Ancient race. There’s so much that hangs in the balance.”

“I know; you must go,” Prudence sighed.

“If things take a turn for the worse, take Celeste and flee,” I said. “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow- if we even have a future beyond this war. I thought knew at one point, but now…”

I stopped, and then I leaned closer to Prudence. “Let me show you how I feel, while I can.”

Prudence drew in a sharp breath, her eyes filled with sudden understanding. Then she reached out and took me in her arms. All of our embarrassment, doubt, and even regret fell away. For one night, we had each other.

 

 

#

      As the sky outside went from black to soft purple, the spell was broken, and regret returned. Soon there was a knock on the door, and the night was over. Prudence and I dried our eyes and shared one final kiss.

I dressed quickly and answered the door. Abbess Joy stood on the other side, wearing a smile so bright that one would think there was no trouble anywhere in the world.

“Are you ready, Grace? It is time to go.”

Part CXII

The Coven, Part CX

Read from the beginning.

“You’re being unreasonable. We can save the abbey.”

As Prudence, Raven, Sister Love, Lux and I drew nearer to the sounds of battle, I could see a sort of makeshift armory near the cathedral’s rear entrance, where a number of roughly carved quarterstaffs were propped up against the wall. Next to the wall, Honest, Trusty, and another young oculist I knew as Fervor stood with their arms full of shooters, facing off against Sister Happiness.

“You heard what Abbess Joy said,” Sister Happiness said firmly. “We will act in defense only. Take a quarterstaff and use the defensive maneuvers that Mercy showed us.”

“Go with Celeste to the Pilgrim’s quarters. Keep her safe,” Prudence whispered aside to Raven.

I looked at Prudence in surprise, wondering what had happened to inspire such trust in a girl she’d previously despised. Raven nodded in understanding and broke off from the party, returning to the abbey.

“I just need a weapon. I will join you soon,” I said to Prudence, Sister Love, and Lux. I watched until they were out of sight by the front of the Cathedral. Then I turned back to the argument by the wall.

“These won’t be enough; the enemy is already using cannons,” Honest was saying. “And consider the size of the army! Even with the trained sisters, the Ancients, and us, it still won’t be enough.”

“We need every advantage we can get,” Fervor added.

“Those are machines of death,” Sister Happiness said, “and this is still del Sol.”

“Hold on,” I said, stepping forward to take a staff. I hefted it in my hand, testing its weight. “Reinforcements are on the way. Do you think you can wait another half-hour before resorting to the shooters?”

“Lady Frey!” the four turned to regard me, as though they had only just noticed my presence.

“We have my counter-magic, Sister Jubilee’s whistle, Lux’s healing magic, and Mercy to lead those fighting on the ground,” I said. “Will this be enough to hold for another half-hour?”

Trusty and Honest looked at each other.

“You are sure reinforcements are on the way?” Honest finally said.

“Yes,” I urged.

“Ok, fine.” Trusty dropped the shooters on the ground and picked up a staff. “We will give them a half-hour before we resort to other means.”

Sister Happiness gave me a grateful smile, and then I left to join the others at the front.

 

 

#

      Abbess Joy stood at the end of the road that led to the Cathedral door, flanked by Mercy and Dare. There was a long line of staff-bearing sisters next to Mercy, and another line of Ancients and Oculists beside Dare.

Abbess Joy’s arms were raised, and her face twisted in concentration as she hummed a litany.

An army stood, facing Abbess Joy, on the other side of the border.

I could not see the barrier that Abbess Joy was maintaining, but I could see its effects. Soldiers were lashing out with swords and glaives, their weapons seeming to glance against thin air. Cannon shot flew through the air, and then suddenly stopped and fell to the ground.

Pride stood at the front of his troops, his eyes glowing bright white. His hair was blowing back, though there was no wind. He chanted some strange words, and Abbess Joy winced.

Two soldiers broke through the barrier and ran toward Abbess Joy.

Mercy and Dare stepped forward and quickly dispatched the two men. Then Lux ran forward and pulled the two fallen men away; their bodies already glowed with healing light.

Joy sang a little louder, and the breach seemed to heal itself. More men rushed the spot where the breach had occurred, but were unable to come through.

At that moment, there was an odd crackling noise, and I saw Pride step through, slowly, his hair standing on end.

Prudence stepped forward and blew three blasts on her whistle, and Pride fell back. I sighed in relief, but then immediately saw the drawback to using such a weapon, for all of the sisters and oculists had also fallen. Abbess Joy, however, did not, though she did wince. I looked closer, and saw small bits of cotton were stuffed in both of her ears. The cotton, I realized, could not block the effects of the magic, but it could allow her to concentrate much better than otherwise.

Mercy turned to help the sisters next to her, and then locked eyes with me as I approached.

“Good to see you, Lady Frey,” Mercy said. She nodded to my staff. “You know how to use that thing?”

“Yes- you strike the opponent with it. Aim for the stomach, head, or legs.”

Mercy laughed. “Good. Get to the end of the Ancient line, soldier.”

I saluted, and then ran to join the Ancient line.

“Dare- Wisdom’s forces are on the way,” I warned as I ran.

“I will not abandon Joy,” Dare said. “The others may flee, if they wish.”

Not a single Ancient, however, broke ranks.

Pride’s men continued to strike against the barrier, but it held. Prudence stepped forward, took Abbess Joy’s hand in her right, and the nearest sister’s hand in her left, and began to sing the litany of peace.

Abbess Joy, though her ears were blocked, seemed to know what was happening. She smiled encouragingly at Prudence, and stood a little taller, raising her own voice as she sang. The sisters all joined in the song, and some of the oculists began to sing, as well.

Dare caught my eye, and I nodded in understanding. “Step back,” Dare and I called to the Ancients, and we all stepped back out of the magic’s way.

The enemy soldiers all fell back, as well, as though the barrier had swelled in size.

For a long time, the barrier seemed indestructible. The sisters’ voices rang out, strong and true, and the soldiers of Order and Reverence paced in front of the barrier like caged animals. Pride stood before all of them, eyes glowing, staring at Abbess Joy.

“They say that is really Reverence,” Dare whispered to me, pointing at Pride. “He looks strange, but that must be Pride. I would know him anywhere.”

“I have seen Wisdom possess the body of his Angel,” I whispered back. “Perhaps Reverence has learned to do the same thing.”

Dare shuddered.

“It is grotesque,” Mars said. “And they call us unnatural.”

The enemy soldiers started to strike at the barrier again. At first, they only lashed out in frustration, but over time, their strikes took on a strange rhythm. The rhythm grew stronger and stronger, and soon I could hear the soldiers’ voices joined together in time with the strikes, chanting the litany of Reverence.

Pride’s eyes glowed brighter. He lifted his arms and rose into the air.

Abbess Joy cried out, as though in pain. Then the soldiers broke through the barrier, and the battle began.

 

 

#

      “Down!” Prudence called.

The oculists and sisters all knelt down, bracing themselves against their staffs, and Prudence rushed forward, blowing blast after blast on her whistle. The first wave of soldiers fell, but more came through the barrier to take their place.

“Fall in!” Dare called, and then she ran forward to guard Abbess Joy with Mercy once more.

The sisters stood again, forming a barrier with their staves held horizontally, forming a chain, and the Ancients and oculists rushed forward to join the barrier. We pushed back against the fresh wave of soldiers, forcing them back toward the border.

We were only able to deflect the soldier’s blows, but the soldiers were out for blood. They raised their weapons and struck at us until the chain had broken. Their numbers were overwhelming; I found myself facing three soldiers alone, each of them larger and stronger than me. Fortunately, I knew the soldiers, had seen them practice, and was familiar with their rigid, inflexible forms. I dodged their swords, swung my staff in a chaotic pattern, and then wove between them, causing them to clash with each other.

I fell back to assist the others. I could hear some of the sisters crying out as they were struck, and then saw patches of white light appear on their skin as Lux healed them. Beside me, Sister Peace fell. I beat back her attacker, and then reached out to help her to her feet once more.

“I will help the sisters,” Lux called out to me. “Help Joy.”

I turned and saw that Clarity St. Anise had crossed the barrier, and he strode toward Abbess Joy, hand raised as though to cast a spell. I breathed in a quick counter-rhythm, and then lashed out, aiming all of my fear and anger toward him.

“You will not touch her!” I screamed.

Clarity dropped his hand and turned to me, but before he could make another move Mercy struck him hard, knocking him back across the boundary.

At that moment, Abbess Joy collapsed to the ground.

Pride swept past the boundary, into del Sol.

The Sisters, oculists, and Ancients all fell back, surrounding Abbess Joy as the troops closed in. At that moment I heard a trumpet-call, and the enemy paused in their advance. Behind them, a multitude of black-clad soldiers descended, as thick as a murder of crows.

“Do not yield to the fear,” Pride called out in a strange, booming voice to his soldiers. “It is an illusion, cast by a heretic witch who calls herself an angel.”

“I can heal the wounded,” a scarlet-clad man called, running toward Lux from the direction of the pilgrim’s quarters. “The Pilgrims are safe, Lux. Summon him. Fight Reverence.”

Lux nodded to Brother Amicus. Then his eyes glowed bright white, and he rose into the air to meet Reverence.

I could not follow the Gods’ movements, nor could I attempt to break Reverence’s spells, for fear of interfering with Wisdom’s, as well. Instead, I turned my Ancient powers against the few mages who fought on the ground, all the while deflecting physical attacks with my staff.

The sound of cannon fire rang out again, but it seemed to be aimed not at del Sol, but into the ranks of Wisdom’s troops. Soon, however, the sound stopped once more as Wisdom’s men broke through Reverence’s ranks, and the two sides of the conflict blurred together.

The fight was easier, now. There were few soldiers inside del Sol’s barrier, now that they were distracted. I fell back to guard Prudence, who held her whistle tightly as she watched the battle unfold.

“I would help,” she said weakly, “but it can’t discriminate friend from foe.”

“I know,” I said. “Listen- move toward Abbess Joy. I need you to check if she’s alright, and Mercy and Dare have their hands full protecting her. I can help if we’re all together.”

Prudence nodded, and we fell back toward the road. When we reached Abbess Joy, however, Mercy let loose a sudden scream of fury and broke away from formation, running toward an enemy dragoon.

The dragoon was a haughty-looking man, who bore the symbol of order embroidered in silver thread on his cloak. He sneered at Mercy as she charged, and deflected the first of her blows with his glaive.

“Sweet little Mercy, is this how you greet your master?” he asked, aiming the glaive at her throat.

Mercy dodged the attack, and aimed blows at his groin, his knee, and his stomach in rapid succession. The blow to his stomach was the only one to connect, but it was enough to make him fall back.

“How dare you show your face here, you scum,” Mercy shouted.

“Joy can’t protect you,” the dragoon countered, stumbling back to his feet. He swung his glaive and hit Mercy’s shoulder, drawing scarlet blood. “I will drag you out of del Sol in chains, back where you belong.”

Mercy let loose a guttural cry, and her staff spun so rapidly I could not follow its movements. I heard a crack of breaking bones, and the dragoon fell to his knees, holding his chest.

Mercy swung her staff again, hitting the dragoon in the back, and he collapsed to the ground as Brother Amicus ran forward.

“Mercy, please stop,” Brother Amicus said.

“I haven’t finished. I won’t stop until I’ve destroyed him.”

Mercy swung her staff up for a finishing blow, but Brother Amicus stepped between them, shielding the dragoon with his body.

“Remember where you are,” Brother Amicus said gently. “Remember the law of del Sol.”

Mercy twitched as though she meant to strike Brother Amicus, but then she took a deep, shuddering breath and lowered her staff.

“Take the garbage away,” Mercy said to him. “Never let me see this filth again.”

Brother Amicus bowed, and then reached out to heal the dragoon. After a few moments the dragoon was on his feet again, being led away by Brother Amicus.

While Mercy was fighting, Prudence had reached Abbess Joy, and was now cradling her in her arms, speaking gently to her. Abbess Joy, however, remained limp and unresponsive. Two more dragoons came through and ran straight for the unconscious angel.

The dragoons, unlike the soldiers, were well trained, their movements were fluid and adaptive, and they were armed with far more effective weapons than we were. Dare and I, however, countered all of their blows, fighting side by side not as a single unit, but in syncopation- alternating offence and defense like a dance. We beat back both dragoons. The first one fell, and then the other.

As the second dragoon fell, however, his glaive whipped out, and Dare let out a startled sound as it sank into her flesh.

“Dare?” I said.

Dare did not answer. She smiled at me, and then sank to her knees.

“Dare!”

“It was like fighting by your mother’s side,” she said. She reached out to touch my face, and then she coughed, blood pouring from her lips.

She fell over, her eyes open but unseeing, and said no more.

 

 

#

      Over the sounds of battle, I could hear an unexpected voice calling her name.

“Dare!”

The clash of swords, the clatter of quarterstaffs, and even the sound of cannon fire seemed to subside in response. I tore my eyes away from Dare’s face and looked up to the source of the sound.

Pride’s eyes no longer glowed with divine light. His hair no longer blew back from his face. He dropped out of the sky, his proud features twisted in grief.

Pride raced toward Dare, and his men dropped back in confusion. I stood up, ready to defend my fallen friend.

“No- let him through,” I heard Abbess Joy say in a weak voice behind me.

I stepped aside, and Pride passed, falling to his hands and knees at Dare’s side.

“I’m in control, again,” Pride said, kneeling beside Abbess Joy. “I’m sorry- I’m so sorry, sister. I didn’t know what Reverence would do. I didn’t think he would attack del Sol. He said that we were coming here to protect you. By the time I let him possess me, it was too late.”

But Abbess Joy didn’t seem to hear Pride’s apology. She reached out and cradled Dare’s lifeless body in her arms, closed her eyes, and kissed her forehead tenderly.

“I wouldn’t have allowed this. Dare- she was a friend.” Pride said in a weaker voice.

I did not feel as though I wept, but still, tears dripped off of my hot cheeks.

“Dare,” I whispered.

“What is wrong?” Brother Amicus rushed toward Brother Lux, who had descended to earth, and now stared at the scene with a stony expression.

“What is wrong?” Brother Amicus repeated. He took Lux’s shoulders and shook them. “Why don’t you heal her?”

“I can’t” Brother Lux said weakly.

“But you can do anything- you are one with Wisdom.”

Brother Fortune stepped forward from the crowd and took Brother Amicus’s arm. “Hush- no one can help her. The woman has Ancient blood.”

But Brother Amicus pulled away from Brother Fortune and knelt down. He reached his hands out, and chanted, “heal- heal… come on. No one was supposed to die.”

Abbess Joy bowed her head over Dare’s, her long hair falling over both of them like a golden cloak, and a low wail escaped from her throat.

Victoria and Neiro swept past Brother Amicus and knelt beside Dare.

“She died a warrior’s death,” Victoria said firmly. “She died with honor, defending her friends.”

“Who- who will bury her,” Neiro asked through her tears.

“We will- all of the Ancients together,” Victoria said. “We will care for her, as she’s cared for us.”

All of the Ancients fell in behind Victoria and Neiro, bowing to their fellow warrior. I leaned forward and pressed a final kiss on Dare’s cheek, and then held Abbess Joy as she wept.

“Why, Dare- why did you have to die,” Pride whispered. “Why didn’t you take the soul that was offered you?”

Abbess Joy looked up through her tears. “You- you offered her a soul?”

“Order allowed me to offer one- to Dare and Harmony both,” Pride said. “I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to raise your hopes in case… But Dare said no.”

“And Harmony- she said no, too?” Abbess Joy said.

Pride shook his head. “I’m so sorry, sister. Harmony’s death was my fault.

The armies of Wisdom and Reverence, together, began to gather around, staring at the woman whose fall had caused Reverence to flee and Pride to weep.

“When Harmony was at Willowbrook, I visited her. I- I offered her a soul then, and she said yes. She said that even if she couldn’t be with you in this life, she might be with you in the next.”

“What happened?” Abbess Joy asked.

“I don’t know. I thought her will was pure, but when I began the process, something went wrong. Her body seemed to reject the divine cells. She became ill, and I tried to help her but-” Pride wiped away some tears, and then continued. “That was when she came back to del Sol, to see you one last time.”

“But- I still can’t figure out why it didn’t work. She wanted a soul- she really did. And now I’ve caused another death- another eternal death. I – I can’t…”

“Shhh, brother,” Abbess Joy said gently.

Lux knelt down next to us, and waited for the storm of weeping to subside before he spoke.

“Pride, are you still in contact with Reverence?” Lux asked.

“Y- yes,” Pride replied.

“Tell him there has been enough violence today. We will give the Ancients and Joy time to bury the dead, and to grieve, and then we will parlay. Come to the pavilion in the midlands at sunrise next.”

I looked up, and saw that as he spoke, today’s sunrise already shone off the top of the Cathedral spire.

“Wisdom will come here in person and bring Uriel with him. Abbess Joy, I believe, should also be present. Does Reverence accept?”

Pride closed his eyes for a time, and then he nodded.

“Good. Until then.”

Then Lux rose and gestured to his men, and they dispersed into the west. Meanwhile, Joy and I rose, lifting Dare’s body between us to carry her to the southern shrine.

Part CXI

 

The Coven, Part CIX

Read from the beginning. 

   Four letters lay on the desk before me, all of them signed, folded, sealed, and addressed.

      I had gone straight to the study after dinner, leaving the others as they wandered to the drawing room for music and conversation. The inquisitors had haphazardly shoved all my loose paper back into my desk, but I managed to find a few pages that were clean and unwrinkled, along with a sealed bottle of ink and an old quill, which had only wanted a little trimming.

      Far in the back of the drawer, I’d found a lump of sealing wax and a stub of candle. I’d affixed the latter to a little crockery cup before I began to write.

      The candle was just large enough to allow me time to write each letter. I wrote quickly; the words flowed easily from my heart and through my pen. I blotted the ink carefully, leaving no smudge behind, and then folded and sealed the letters.

      Once the seals had dried, I took the ribbon from my hair and tied the letters into a neat bundle, which I tucked into the inside pocket of my great-coat.

      At that moment, the candle went out.

      I sat in the darkness for a few moments, collecting my courage, but before I could move there was a knock on the door.

      “Come in,” I called.

      The door opened, allowing in a shaft of light from the hallway. A tea cart rolled in, bearing a mismatched tea service, and stopped in front of my desk. A few moments later, Wisdom strolled into the room, his hands tucked inside of the voluminous sleeves of his robes.

      “I wouldn’t have thought a God needed to show off,” I remarked.

      Wisdom grinned. “Well, I could have used a light spell to impress you, but you wouldn’t have seen it, would you?”

      Wisdom produced a lantern and a bottle of oil from his robes. He lit the lamp, and soon the room was filled with golden lamplight and the scent of fresh tea.

       Wisdom sat and poured a cup for me. We sat for a moment, drinking our tea in silence, before Wisdom spoke.

      “I couldn’t help but notice, Lady Frey, that you have prepared for something.”

      “Oh?” I asked, taking another sip of the strong, bitter tea.

      “You arrived to dinner late, dressed in your-” he gestured at my great-coat and breeches- “your traveling clothes, shall I say? What are you planning?”

      “I was going to come see you, actually,” I said, putting my teacup down with a clank. My thoughts were fuzzy- scattered, so I took a deep breath before I continued.

      “I was going to ask you to allow Hope and I to return to del Sol tonight. I don’t think that Hope will be able to decide his future until until he sees Celeste and Prudence. Please- dispense with games, and let him choose freely for himself what to do next.”

      Wisdom nodded thoughtfully. “Very well.”

      I sighed in relief, and as the tension released itself, I felt a wave of fatigue rush in its place. I took a drink of tea to rouse myself.

      Wisdom continued, “I came here to ask; have you made your decision, yet?”

      “I have,” I said. “I-”

      “No,” Wisdom interrupted, closing his eyes wearily. “No, Lady Frey. You have made the wrong decision.”

      “I haven’t told you my decision yet,” I said.

      “You don’t have to tell me. I can see your decision in that apologetic smile. Lady Frey, please- you cannot be so reckless, both with your friends’ safety, and with your own fate.”

      “Since we last spoke, I have discovered something- a reason to hope,” I said. “I cannot tell you everything, but I can say that I’ve found a way to control my powers.”

      “Stop.” Wisdom held up a hand. “Lady Frey, just this once, think of yourself. Even if you could control your powers, you would still be resigning yourself to a fate worse than death. Your thoughts, dreams, loves, fears, memories- all of it will be lost forever with your consciousness. You won’t even be able to mourn the loss of these things, because there will be no you to mourn it. I can save you from this fate, Grace.”

      Wisdom leaned forward, taking my hands in his. “This is your last chance- your last opportunity to gain everything. Don’t throw it away.

      “You have worked for a thousand years,” I said, “but you’ve only been able to see one side of the problem. The Ancients- we might have found another way. If there is a possibility that I can create an independent soul, I have to try. Otherwise, I will lose myself.”

      The room grew warmer as I spoke- an oppressive heat that threatened to overwhelm me. I ignored the sensation and sat taller in my chair.

      “You stubborn girl.” Wisdom pulled his hands away and leaned back in his seat. “Is there anything I can say to convince you?” 

      “If I knew any such words, they would already have convinced me,” I whispered. “This is not a matter of polite refusal, or of needing a friendly nudge. My heart must desire a soul, and I cannot change my heart.”

      “No- I suppose not.” Wisdom put his cup aside carefully. “You and I must be enemies, now.”

      “We were already enemies,” I murmured. I tried to reach out for my teacup, but I found my arms were too heavy to move.

      “I’ve come to regret our enmity,” Wisdom said conversationally. He stood and walked around the desk, coming closer to me. “Now that I know you, I wish that circumstances had been different. Maybe we could have been friends.”

Wisdom knelt beside me, speaking into my ear. “But circumstances were not under my control, and I don’t regret my actions. I was able to save thousands upon thousands of souls from eternal torture by building a new kingdom for Order’s rejects. To do so, I was forced to torture a few of my friends for a few months. What would you have done in my place, Lady Frey?”

      I tried to answer, but as soon as my mouth opened, a wave of dizziness came over me.

      “If you could keep countless generations from eternal death, what would you sacrifice?” he continued.

      My eyelids grew heavy. I could feel Wisdom’s hands catch me as I fell.

      “If you had made the right choice, you would have awakened in your own bed in the morning, feeling refreshed.” Wisdom’s voice sounded like it came from underwater. “Now…”

      Then my world went black.

 

 

 #

 

 

      I awoke to a familiar, swaying sensation. I opened my eyes, and everything was still dark.

      It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the scene before me. Soon, I could see pink moonlight shining on a winding road, and then the outline of two white horses, attached to shining reins. I followed the reins  and saw the person who held them- Brother Lux.

      “How-” I croaked.

      “Go back to sleep, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said softly. “We will be there soon.”

      “How did you-” I tried again.

      “Wisdom must stay hidden, so he sent me to help you,” Brother Lux said.

      “Help me?” I sat up a little, and then my strength failed, and I slumped back again.

      “I’m returning you to del Sol, just as Wisdom promised,” Brother Lux said.

      This statement set off alarm bells in my mind, but I was too numb to understand why.

      “But… Hope-” I murmured.

      “We thought it best to bring you separately. Don’t worry. Hope-” Brother Lux’s voice seemed to catch, and then he said, “my brother will be here soon.”

      Something is wrong. The alarms in my mind went off louder- or was that the ringing in my ears? A high-pitched sound rang, stopped, and rang again.

      “The tea,” I ventured.

      “Wisdom gave you a mild sleeping potion, since you’ve been so stressed. Don’t worry; it is quite harmless.”

      I could not move, and could hardly think. All I could do was breathe.

      I breathed in time to the rhythm of the ancient form, and my mind cleared. I was able to move a little. I sat up and straightened my great-coat. Underneath, something was missing. My hand grasped, but could not feel the hilt of my sword.

      I could see the path ahead more clearly, now. The road wound, true to Lux’s word, through the marsh-road that led to del Sol. In the distance, I heard the sound of thunder, but I felt no drop of rain.

      “Cannons,” I whispered.

      “Reverence is desperate,” Lux said. “Sancti is in retreat, and Reverence has no other allies. He has gathered the remains of Order’s troops, joined them with his own, and has brought them here to claim his bride. He will try to force Joy to help him awaken Order.”

      “She won’t help him. She made an oath,” I said. The alarms in my mind went off again as I spoke.

      The oath! the alarms cried. Danger!

      “He must be stopped,” I said.

      “Relax,” Lux said softly. “Joy has expelled Reverence from del Sol before. Look- we are almost there.”

      I looked up and saw the cathedral spire, shining in the moonlight.

      Almost home, I thought.

      And then realization struck me like a bullet as I remembered the words from Wisdom’s blood oath.

      “…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.”

      Would he attack as soon as we passed into del Sol? I could see a fencepost that marked del Sol’s border drawing closer and closer. Before I could react, we passed the fencepost, but Lux did not move.

“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…”

      Then Lux jerked the reins to turn the cart around, back toward the north, and we were headed back to the fencepost once more.

“Why are we going back?” I asked.

“If we take this road, the enemy might see us. I know a shortcut to the abbey proper.”

Lux had taken me back to del Sol, fulfilling his oath. Now he was taking me back out of del Sol’s protection.

I began to breathe rapidly, in the counter-rhythm to the Ancient form, until I could feel its dissonance in my veins. My limbs tingled painfully, the sensation burning away any remaining numbness from the drug.

We passed the fencepost again.

Lux stopped the cart and reached into his robes.

I rolled out of the cart and hit the ground just as the shot rang out.

“Damn,” I heard Lux curse. I heard the familiar swish of a sword being drawn from its sheath, and then I heard his footsteps on the dirt road as he approached me.

I rolled under the cart, away from Lux’s footsteps.

“It isn’t too late; I don’t want to hurt you,” Lux called as I rolled, as quietly as possible, out from under the other side of the carriage.

I grabbed the nearest object in reach, a fallen tree branch, just in time to deflect the sword’s blow. Lux had somehow moved from the opposite side of the carriage to strike. Then he disappeared again, and I recalled what had happened at the battle of Rouge Village, when he’d vanished with Pride.

I reached out with my feelings, my nerves burning with fury, and pushed through, shattering the God’s spell.

I stood up, my tree branch at the ready, and heard Lux cursing behind me. I turned and saw Lux lunge toward me, sword raised. I sidestepped his attack and then turned and ran back toward the fencepost.

I could hear Lux’s footsteps pounding the earth behind me. The fencepost grew nearer and nearer. I could almost touch it…

Then something from behind swept my leg, and I went sprawling onto the ground. I rolled over and saw Lux’s sword, inches from my face.

Lux grimaced and raised the sword to deliver the final blow. Then he stopped, frozen in place, as the air was pierced by a loud, shrill sound.

My ears were not ringing. The high-pitched sound repeated in a series of blasts, which seemed to buffet Lux back. Then he fell, and a voice rang out.

“Grace! Grace, are you alright?”

I got up and ran past the fencepost and into Prudence’s arms.

 

 

#

      “Don’t move,” Prudence called to Lux, moving to stand in front of me. “Don’t come any closer. We’re both under del Sol’s protection, now. If you attack us, you face a fate worse than death.”

Prudence’s face was unshrouded, and her expression fierce. Her eyes still bore the confident light she had worn when I’d last seen her.

“Lady Frey is dangerous,” Lux said, struggling to his feet. “She is a danger to you, your friends- even your child. She has become the destroyer-”

Prudence lifted a whistle to her lips, and a shrill sound pierced the air once more. Lux fell back to the ground.

I took several deep, meditative breaths, allowing my nerves to calm, before I spoke.

“What in the world did you do?” I asked.

Prudence smirked. “I found the right frequency to amplify my magic. It isn’t as elegant as a proper spell- it’s a barely controlled burst, really- but it’s powerful enough to affect a God.”

“She’s out of control, Prudence; please listen to reason,” Lux said, scrambling to his feet once more.

“If you were paying attention, you would have noticed that Grace already regained control,” Prudence said.

Lux paused and locked eyes with me. Then he sighed and brushed the road dust away from his crimson robes.

“She’s regained control for now, but how long will It be before she loses control again?”

“It’s getting easier with practice,” I said. “I’ve yet to damage anyone’s soul, but controlling my power is becoming second nature.”

“Have you tried the Litany, yet?” Prudence asked me.

“Yes, but I couldn’t do anything with it, since I don’t know the litany’s purpose.”

Prudence smiled and turned back to Lux, who stood on the other side of the fencepost.

“That’s easy; each person who sings the litany grants Wisdom a part of their own soul, and in turn, he gains more power.”

Prudence nodded to me, and I took a deep breath, readying my song.

“Stop!” Lux said. “If you break my power, you damn each and every soul who has pledged themselves to me.”

I closed my mouth.

“Don’t listen to him, Grace. He would do anything to stop you,” Prudence scoffed.

“No- he is right,” I said. “A soul cannot exist without its realm.”

Prudence turned toward me, eyebrows raised. “How do you know, Grace.”

“I don’t know for sure. I plan to research the question more thoroughly. I do know that others have tried and failed to create a realm-less soul.”

“I have 40,000 souls under my dominion, and that number is growing,” Lux said. “All of them have rejected Order to follow me, or else were rejected by Order before they began to follow me. Without me, they face hell- curses that grow worse and worse without end. This is the best-case scenario, if you destroy me.”

“What do you mean, ‘the best-case scenario?’” I asked.

“No one has ever destroyed a God’s realm, before. You might destroy the souls who have joined me, instead of sending them to hell. They would suffer a fate worse than death.”

“Oblivion,” I whispered.

At that moment, I heard voices behind me, calling “Sister Jubilee! Sister Jubilee!”

      I turned to see Sister Love and, to my surprise, Raven, running toward us on the road from the abbey.

“We need you on the front, Sister Jubilee,” Sister Love said, panting. “And Oh- Lady Frey, it is good to see you. We will need your help, as well. Abbess Joy is holding the barrier, but she can’t keep both Reverence and the troops at bay for much longer.”

“Reinforcements are on the way,” Lux said to them. “Can Abbess Joy manage for another half-hour?”

“There has been one breach already, and some of our fighters have been injured,” Sister Love said. “Abbess Joy can’t heal them while she maintains the barrier; I don’t know what will happen in another half-hour.”

“Say no more; I will heal them. Show me the way,” Lux said. Then he turned to me.

“I swear Lady Frey- if you interfere with my healing magic, I will-”

“You can’t do anything to her,” Prudence spat. “But if you cast any spell other than healing, we will hurt you.”

Prudence stepped closer to Lux, and the two stared fiercely at each other across del Sol’s border. Prudence’s eyes were filled with hurt and malice, and Lux’s eyes were filled with…

“I understand,” I said suddenly. I stepped between Prudence and Lux. “I can see what you missed.”

“What I missed?” Lux said.

“It’s the thing that will corrupt you,” I replied. “It’s the source of your cruelty, and it’s growing inside of you, more and more, just as my power grew inside of me.”

Lux blinked at me, wearing an expression of bewilderment identical to the one Wisdom had worn when I’d knelt to him at Rowan Heights. I reached my hand out to him and smiled.

“Take my hand,” I said. “Swear to trust me, at least to the end of the battle, and we will know that we can trust you.”

Lux took a step back. “I can’t.”

“Wisdom,” I said. “You are in control now, aren’t you? Give Lux control, again. He can help you.”

Lux- Wisdom- closed his eyes, shaking his head.

I lifted my hand more, reaching across the border. “You said that you don’t want to be my enemy; you don’t have to. Trust me. Don’t be afraid.”

Then Lux lifted his hand, reached out, and I clasped his hand in mine.

He opened his eyes, stepped forward, and we crossed the border to del Sol together.

Part CX

The Coven, Part CVIII

Read from the beginning.

I did not return to the manor until dawn’s rays shone over the hills. I fell fast asleep as soon as I reached my room, and did not awake until well past 1:00. Even so, when I went out again, most of the household still slept.

      I had dressed myself in neither breeches nor a gown, but in my white pilgrim’s robes, which brushed the grasses under my feet as I wandered through the hedges on the southern slope, near the manor.

      I walked until I could no longer see the house, and I was certain that no one from the house could see me. Then I sat on the ground, closed my eyes, and considered the problems I’d been presented.

 

      In my present state, I endangered all of my loved ones who possessed a soul.

      If I accepted a soul, I would not longer endanger my friends, and I would live forever, able to explore the universe’s most tantalizing mysteries.

      Exploring the universe’s most tantalizing mysteries was a power as dangerous as my soulless power.

 

      Surely, I thought, there was also much good to be done with the power of science. Order had created the soul network and defeated death with the power of science, after all.

      But Order had become corrupt, just as my power had corrupted me.

      The problem with power, I realized, was not its potential misuse. The problem with power was that it was in its nature to grow until checked by an outside force. How could I, in my present state of ignorance, be sure that any power I sought would be checked before it became destructive, or that the force that checked it would not be a thousand times worse?

      I was descending into another spiral, so I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind.

      I ran through all of the exercises that Prudence had taught me when teaching me to meditate. I spent some time simply breathing. I concentrated upon a mantra. When this failed, I sat quietly and let thoughts come, trying to let them pass without judgement. The thoughts, however, overwhelmed, sinking me back into the same vicious circle.

      “Why is this always so difficult for me?” I asked aloud to no-one.

      I closed my eyes again and sifted through my memories, repeating to myself all of the sound advice I’d ever received from Hope, from Prudence, and from Abbess Joy on how to clear my mind whenever life was difficult, and my thoughts inevitably tangled themselves. As I wound backward through all of the wise words I had been given, one memory that I hadn’t thought of in some time came back to me. It was a memory of Dare performing that slow, peaceful form under the endless stars.

      “This form is part of your heritage, Grace. It’s been passed down from ancient to ancient for centuries. The Church gives us martial forms that teach us to kill, but this form grants us the strength to live.”

      I hesitated to stand, at first. It seemed reasonable that if I could move a little, my mind might be less restless. At the same time, while it was a slow, meditative form, it was still a martial form, and I had promised myself I would not practice until my powers were under control.

      In the end, I could see few other options. I stood, brushed the grass from my robes, and slowly, tentatively, made my way through the first poses of the Ancient form.

      I had not done the form in some time, and my memory of the pattern was faint. I missed a pose halfway through the pattern, and only realized it when I reached the end, and realized I was in the wrong place- on the wrong foot. I groaned in frustration, and went back to the beginning.

      I took a deep breath, and then released it as I slid into the first pose once more.

      My mind cleared, and I recalled the missing pose.

      I made my way through the poses, and my fear, doubts, and frustration melted away. For the first time since I’d been at the Cathedral Lux, I felt calm- my heart felt light. The constant dread that had settled in the pit of my stomach the whole time I’d been at Rowan Heights vanished.

      I stopped, sat down again, and thought.

      The form was performed in a specific pattern of up-and-down motions, smooth and rolling, like ocean waves. My breath seemed to match the pattern naturally, in on the upward motions, and out on the downward. The pattern of breathing, in time to the the changes of speed created by long and short steps, added to the meditative quality of the form.

      What would happen, I wondered, if I changed the pattern of breath?

      I stood again, and changed my breathing to counter the movements- in on the down movements, and out on the up movements. This time, the form felt less natural- more plodding and deliberate, but otherwise I felt no effect.

      The pattern of steps changed time in a 2-7-2-5 pattern of breaths. What would happen if I reversed that pattern?

      This proved to be a far more difficult task. The movements and breath were dissonant, and forcing the movement felt wrong. The frustrations I felt as I tried to force the breath was so strong, it was almost painful. My nerves tingled, and then burned with the sensation.

      I fell back into the proper pattern, and my nerves settled- my feelings calmed.

      I sat down again and breathed in contentment so still and so long that a sparrow landed on the ground nearby. Making a wide berth for the giant creature that sat unwelcome in its clearing, it hopped in a circle, pecking the ground beneath it.

      Having no one else with whom to share my discovery, I leaned forward and whispered. “My ancestors knew what they were doing, after all. They didn’t just send a soulless race out into the darkness. They gave us the tools we needed to control our power- a way for our higher will to assert itself.”

      The sparrow looked up at me with its bright, dark eyes, cocking its head curiously to one side.

      “If I examine Dare’s stories, what else will I find? What other secrets lie within the Ancient lore?”

      The sparrow hopped closer to me once, twice, thrice. Then it seemed to lose its courage, and it fluttered up, away, into the sky.

      I watched the sparrow until it disappeared over the crest of a nearby hill. Then I closed my eyes and began to work in earnest.

      As the sun began to descend in the sky, I learned that I could manipulate my feelings just by breathing in time to Ancient pattern, letting my body ride and fall with the rhythm. After a little more time, even the breath was unnecessary- by concentrating I could feel the resonance within my mind, and my body reacted.

      I had found the key to controlling my growing power, and with that key, the ability to choose my path forward freely.

 

 

#

 

 

      “Grace- thank goodness.” Hope greeted me when I returned to the manor. “No one has seen you since last night. I was worried sick.”

      “I’m sorry to worry you,” I said, falling into Hope’s embrace. “And thank you for being concerned with my well-being, but I’m fine. I promise I’m fine.”

      Hope drew back and looked into my eyes.

      “Yes- you are.” Hope took my hands. “Come to my rooms- we can talk privately, there.”

      I followed him up the stairs and into the master suite, where I had held his hands and allowed him to sleep, free of nightmares, for the first time.

      Hope and I sat on the edge of the bed, facing the window that looked out onto the ocean of hills. I turned to Hope, who was staring at me hungrily. He reached out tentatively, as though suddenly shy, and brushed the back of my hand with his.

      “I am not sure how much longer I can stand this,” Hope said. “It seems like every time I turn around, Wisdom has stolen you away.”

      “He took me to bluebell hill, last night,” I said. “I believe he wants me to convince you to accept the throne; he tried to overcome any objections I had to the plan. He was-” I paused, searching for words. “He was very persuasive.”

      “Do you wish me to be king?” Hope asked.

      “I would like to see you out of Wisdom’s grasp,” I said. “But the decision must be yours. You’ve had enough people whispering in your ears.”

      Hope smiled the cocky, lopsided grin that was now so rare.

“Whispers will not sway me.”

      “Then- you do have a plan,” I said. “You’ve been so confident that I was sure you had a plan. May I ask- what is it?”

      Hope laughed so hard that he fell back onto the bed, clutching his stomach.

      “This morning I talked to Wisdom. He thinks I plan to be King, but that I am holding out to bargain for a greater share of power from the church,” he gasped, wiping his eyes. “Chastity thinks I plan to refuse, but am afraid to say so openly while under Wisdom’s power. Lord Willoughby thinks I am prolonging my time with Wisdom so I can study him for a weakness, and then move against him. What is your theory, Grace?”

      “I am completely at a loss,” I said.

      “Then I will tell you. I have no plan, but I have been trying very hard to act as though I do.”

      Stunned, I lay back on the bed next to Hope. “What- no plan at all?”

      “No. All of the theories I’ve heard are equally terrible. I could accept the position of King and protect the people of Aeterna in some small way from the demon who has them in his grasp, all the while being trapped in his game forever. I could flee Aeterna, and never see my homeland again. I could try to fight Wisdom- a literal God- and die in the attempt. Or- I could do what I’m doing now: stay in my house, dance, make merry, and watch my greatest enemy squirm as he tries to figure out where I’m at. The last option, at least, is amusing, but I suppose I cannot continue it forever.”

      I turned, propping myself up on my elbow to regard Hope.

      “If Wisdom is desperate enough to come to me for help persuading you, you must have him in check. You are to be congratulated.”

      Hope propped himself up on his elbow as well. “Wisdom has manipulated us for far too long; let him feel what it’s like. What did he tell you last night that was so persuasive?”

      “He told me why he is afraid,” I said.

      Hope lifted his eyebrows. “Wisdom- afraid?”

      “Yes, and just imagine the scale of catastrophe that a God would fear. There are reasons behind his desperate acts- our world is the product of a dark and troubled past. I am certain that, if you did accept the crown, Wisdom would keep you on a tight leash. He may grant some indulgences, but he won’t allow freedom of thought in his church.”

      Hope stared at me, searchingly.

      “You don’t believe that Wisdom is right, do you?”

      “No. He may have reasons to be afraid, but I’ve discovered reasons to be courageous.”

      Hope smiled. “I can see the light of discovery in your eyes. Oh, Grace, how I’ve missed it!”

      Hope drew me close to him and kissed me deeply. I could feel his heart beating in his chest. I could feel his desire, hot and feverish, as he held me tight.

      Can I be blamed if I gave into his desire?

      Can I be blamed if I gave into my own?

 

 

#

 

 

      Afterward we lay together on the bedsheets in the sunset’s purple light. I traced his form with my eyes, committing every detail of his person to my memory.

      I was not in turmoil, as I would have imagined. My heart was quiet, and my mind at peace. I realized that my heart had decided my way forward long ago.

      I traced my eyes up Hope’s chest, neck, and finally to his face, and then I could not stop myself from using my fingers to trace his jawbone, his cheeks, and his forehead. Then I ran my hands through his short, dark hair.

      “Are you alright?” Hope asked.

      “More than I have been in a long time,” I said. “I’m sure everything is going to be fine.”

      “No, I mean-”

      I placed my finger against Hope’s lips. “Yes- I know. I’m alright. I promise I am.”

      Hope caught my hand and kissed my fingers, my knuckles, my palm.

      “You don’t have to tell me what to do next, but what is your opinion,” he asked.

      I thought for a few moments, and then said. “If you don’t like the options you have before you, then my opinion is that you should search for alternatives.”

      Hope nodded, but said nothing.

      At that moment the bell rang, announcing dinner.

      “The others will be expecting us,” Hope groaned, “and I have another act to perform.”     

      I sighed and reached for my robes. “We should hurry to wash and dress, then, or we will be late.”

      Then I hesitated, flung the robe aside, and kissed Hope once more.

      “I love you,” I said. “Come what may, never doubt that I love you.”

Part CIX

The Coven, Part CVII

Read from the beginning.

One, two, one, two. The bellows squeezed and the bench rumbled as my fingers fumbled along the keys. I squinted my eyes, trying to ignore the glittering lanterns all around me as I watched the musical notes dance before my eyes. I disregarded the sound of laughter and conversation, and concentrated on counting the music’s time.

      I had never attempted to play the handsome spin-organ that stood to one side of Rowan Height’s grand ballroom, but there had been no time to hire musicians, send invitations, or order dinner for this ball. The entire enterprise had begun when Lady Frey declared that the small figure dance in the sitting room was not diverting enough. Soon, the ballroom doors were flung open, and the lamps lighted. The whole household assembled; the young maids flung their caps aside and put flowers in their hair, and the footmen and gardeners and grooms ran to secure partners from their number. Now everyone was dancing- servants and gentry, nobles and the living god- together.

      Lady Willoughby had been too keen to dance to play the organ, and Miss Taris, blushing, had said that she’d already promised the first two dances to Mirth. Hope had made a polite attempt to persuade me to dance, but his tone of voice suggested that he knew the attempt was pointless.

      So, being the only available musician, I bit my lip and counted my way through the first set of dances. Afterward, two very pretty young girls had laughingly handed me a book of country dances, which I also played. My unpracticed fingers fumbled over the unfamiliar keys toward the final cadence, where I held the final chord for an exact count of eight before I released the keys and let the sound fade away into the night.

      The ballroom burst into applause as though my clumsy, mechanical playing had been the most delightful sound on earth.

      I massaged my tired fingers while the dancers drifted away from the floor, their conversation and laughter growing loud enough to fill the room.  

      Then a voice spoke- one that could break through any cacophony. “Excellent playing, Lady Frey, but why do you not dance? Surely, you remember that I can charm the instrument to play alone.”

      “I would rather play,” I said, turning on the bench to look at Wisdom. “Let those who are happy dance.”

      “Lady Willoughby is not happy,” Wisdom said, sitting beside me on the bench. “Yet, she is determined to be gay.”

      “She is herself, and nothing will change that,” I said. I closed the music book and laid it aside, while Wisdom took up another and opened it, studying the notes.

      “Your husband is determined to be gay, as well,” Wisdom said. “He has spent the day in determined silence. I have asked him several times to accept the crown, but he will not answer. Now look at him- he is eager to talk about nothing to anyone who will listen.”

      He gestured with his chin to the crowd beyond, where Hope was speaking animatedly to Chastity, who gazed at him with a dazzled smile.

      “What game is he playing, Lady Frey?”

      “I don’t know, but he seems to be playing it very well,” I said.

      I looked back to Wisdom, who was flipping through page after page of music, frowning as though in concentration.

      “What are you-” I began, but Wisdom held up a finger to silence me.

      “This book will give us… maybe two hours? By that time everyone will be too tired to realize we are missing.”

      He opened the book and set it upon the stand, and then played the first line of music. Then he took his hands away, and the keys moved on their own.

      Wisdom took both of my hands and, making certain I did not brush against the instrument, helped me to stand.

      “Come this way; I wish to speak with you alone.”

      Wisdom led me away from the crowd and out a side door that led not to the verandah, but to the small path that wound to the lawn where Hope and I had shared our first kiss. He did not lead me down the path to the lawn, for which I was grateful, but rather toward the front of the manor.

      “I’m afraid I haven’t made my decision, yet,” I said. “There’s been no time for me to consider my feelings, or the full implications of-”

“I wished to speak to you about something else,” Wisdom said, waving this aside. “Tell me, do you have any personal reservations about your husband accepting the crown?”

      “Me?” I said, taken aback. “Only the obvious ones- that you will make him your puppet, and that he does not want it.”

      “Lord Frey has not said that he doesn’t want the crown,” Wisdom pointed out. As he spoke, he did not turn toward the manor’s front door, but instead down the gravel path that lead to bluebell hill. His strides were so long that I was obliged to lift my skirts and trot behind him to keep up.

      “No, he hasn’t. But his goal is to reach Celeste and Prudence at del Sol, and then…”

      Wisdom stopped and turned to me. “Yes? And then what?”

      “I don’t know,” I admitted.

      He spun, his dark hair swinging behind him, and began to walk again.

      “Pretend, for the moment, that Lord Frey has decided to accept the crown. Pretend I have given him all of the autonomy and authority that any sovereign can possess. What concerns remain?”

      I took a deep breath and imagined the scenario.

      I saw Hope in my mind’s eye, issuing decrees to address the most troubling aspects of our country. He would free the slaves first- at least, the non-Ancient slaves that were not under the church’s dominion. He would give women rights of inheritance equal to sons. He would certainly ban the practice of beating wives and children.

I saw him carefully constructing his new government. Would he set up a parliament to give the people a voice, instead of a court consisting of noble advisors? Would he turn control of the land away from the nobles and to the peasants? How much freedom could he give the people while maintaining a monarchy?

      When I turned my imagination toward intellectual freedoms, I hit another sticking point. The church of Order had been the guardian of the hearts and minds of Aeterna, as administered through its abbeys, the schools connected to the abbeys, and the inquisition. I did not have reason to doubt that Wisdom would make the reforms he had promised, to allow people to love and marry who they chose. Still, I did not think that Wisdom would be quick to relinquish control of the schools and prisons. I remembered how Miss Taris had looked into the hearts of those present at the Cathedral Lux, and had imprisoned those who were revealed as false converts. Those men would have joined the other heretics in chains.

      “Hope could do a lot of good for the people,” I said. “But the sovereign does not have much authority compared to the church. I know Hope will never be satisfied, as long as the inquisition still operates.”

      “The inquisition must continue for a time,” Wisdom said, “but the prisoners will be treated humanely; there will be no more torture or starvation. I must do this for the King’s own safety- the followers of Order will try to have him killed, as you well know.”

      The path began to wind uphill once more, through the sweet-smelling fields of bluebells that shimmered in the moonlight.

      “Why have a sovereign at all?” I asked, my satin slippers sliding on the gravel as we trudged uphill. “A king is a single focus for your opponents’ anger, and potentially a critical weakness. If freedom and equality are your ultimate goals, then wouldn’t a democratically elected government- governors and a representative parliament- be the best solution?”

      Wisdom reached out to help me ascend to the crest of the hill. We stood in silence for a time, behind the cottage, facing the clearing where I’d first seen the coven chanting their spells to the demons.

      “You must have been reading forbidden books, to know words like ‘representative democracy.’” Wisdom said.

      “Oh? I didn’t know they were forbidden. I read books describing different forms of government in my father’s library.”

      “Of course you did- that serpent,” Wisdom sighed. “Lady Frey, a representative democracy would be a disaster. Aeterna must have a King who is imbued with sovereign authority by the Gods.”

      “Why?”

      Wisdom did not answer. He stepped forward, looking up to the waning gibbous above, the pink light reflecting in his eyes. Then he turned to me and spoke.

      “I understand that you own a rather handsome telescope. Am I correct in guessing that you’ve hidden it in the tunnels below?”

      “Yes. Hope hid the instrument there before we left for St. Blanc.”

      “Stay here. I will fetch the instrument. There is something you need to see.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Before I could object, Wisdom had retrieved my telescope and its mount, and had set it up in the clearing. Despite the low light, his movements were deft and sure, and soon he turned the instrument toward the red moon.

      “The seeing is good, tonight,” he said as he focused the instrument. “There is no bothersome haze or halo. I am delighted with the instrument, as well.”

      “Once your church is established,” I ventured, “do you plan to release any of the forbidden books, or ease restrictions against forbidden technologies?”

      Wisdom stood and looked at me.

      “Controlling information is the main purpose of the church. There is potentially dangerous knowledge in the forbidden books, and the use of forbidden technologies- even something as innocent as a telescope- can lead to the discovery of dangerous knowledge. Should I give my people the means to create napalm, atom bombs, nuclear missiles?”

Wisdom paused, and then laughed at my confused expression “I forgot that you don’t know what these things are, but believe me, it is a blessing that you don’t. Given free reign, people will create weapons capable of destroying all of humanity.”

      “But surely, we wouldn’t destroy ourselves. That would be madness.”

      “Humanity won’t be able to help itself. The technologies will begin as something benign, but they will grow out of control, like a cancer. You should know, better than anyone, how a power can grow dangerous if unchecked.”

      Wisdom leaned over to the eyepiece again, adjusted, and stepped back. “If you require more evidence, here it is- the red moon.”

      I stepped forward and looked into the eyepiece.

      I had seen the red moon through a telescope before, but I hadn’t understood what I saw. The moon was gibbous, now; the surface looked barren, rocky, and pock-marked, with huge white streaks running north to south- Chastity’s tears. It had seemed unlikely that a civilization could exist on such a place, but I’d reasoned that powerful beings, Angels and Demons who did not possess the same bodily needs as humans, might manage.

      “It is both a blessing and a curse to be able to look into the sky, and see your homeland shining back at you,” Wisdom said quietly. “If you look along the terminator, toward the south pole, you will see a dark, flat ravine. Between that ravine and the large crater lies the ruins of the city where I was born.”

      “The ruins?” I whispered.

      I turned away from the telescope to look at Wisdom, who stared up at the red moon with shimmering eyes.

      “The red moon did not always look the way it does, now. If you had stood in this spot and looked up into the sky just a few thousand years ago, you would have seen a lovely green and white marble. It was a paradise with rolling blue rivers, fields of green grasses, forests, and great, underground oceans. There was a white polar cap, filled with a reserve of fresh water, from which “chastity’s tears” emanated each spring- the source of our rivers.

      “That lovely world was mankind’s original home. It was my home.”

      “What happened?” I asked. “Was it one of those weapons you spoke of, earlier? Was the red moon destroyed by war?”

      “Oh no.” Wisdom said with a bitter laugh. “The end of my world was not so dramatic. You see, we had built a civilization filled with wonders, and we were all dependent on the technologies you know as forbidden. We had cities whose buildings reached the sky, roads full of vehicles that could move without horse or ox to pull them, flying machines that could bear you from one side of the moon to the other at incredible speeds, and eventually, ships that could bring us here, to settlements that we’d built on Terra.

      “But all of these wonders came at a price. We consumed our small world’s resources at an unsustainable rate in order to build these wonders. The byproducts of our growth filled the air and water with pollution- substances that were not only poisonous to humans, but poisonous to the moon itself. The air filled with smoke that trapped the sunlight, making the world so hot the ice cap melted, which flooded the basins. The excess water was contaminated by waste, which killed the plants and trees that checked the winds. We were forced by the heat and the rampant storms to flee into underground cities. We pumped the air and water through filters into our caverns, and leaving nothing on the surface but rocks and rivers of salt.

      “The barren world you see now is the gift our technology granted us.”

      “And all of your great scientists- they didn’t see what was happening?” I said.

      Wisdom clenched his fist at his side, as though in anger.

      “Our scientists knew precisely what was happening, within ample time to stop the catastrophe. For decades- for over a century– they warned the masses – the people, the politicians, and the factory owners- exactly what would happen if we continued to pollute the air and water, and they told us what we needed to do to stop it.”

      Wisdom looked down at me. “You are right to look bewildered, Lady Frey. Even knowing the history- even having seen the end of it- I still wonder at what fools we were. The first scientist who deduced the problem was laughed at by the public, and her career was destroyed. The people, comfortable and happy with their lifestyles, dismissed the next scientists who reached the same conclusions as alarmists.

      “Soon, however, the evidence became impossible to ignore or dismiss. Even so, in that free society, where scientific knowledge was available to all, everyone refused responsibility. The public pointed their fingers at the industrialists, whose factories were spewing the poisons into the air and water. The industrialists pointed their fingers back to the public, who consumed the factories’ goods, and they claimed they could not compete with other industrialists if they spent the money required to curb their pollution.

      “Everyone looked to the politicians for guidance, and the politicians wrung their hands, promised to invest in cleaner technologies and infrastructure, and then cut the necessary taxes to appease their constituents. The moon, locked in this unwinnable game, spiraled into oblivion. This was how representative democracy operated in the face of certain destruction.”

      I looked back into the telescope and re-centered the image, staring at the world that hovered still, stark, and silent- it’s story only hinted at in the visible rocks and craters.

      “At that time there was a group of scientists, headed and funded by a wealthy inventor, who were working on the problem in secret.” Wisdom continued. “It was too late, the inventor realized, to save the red moon, but Terra was large, young, and relatively untouched. Terra, he knew, could be saved.

      “He began by evacuating as many people as he could to the surface of Terra. He gave those who remained behind special bodies that could survive the harsh environment of the red moon while they continued to work in secret. At the same time, the inventor created the soul network- a way to not only thwart physical death, but also bind all of humanity to a single purpose- that they might preserve the health and beauty of the planet Terra. The inventor- Order- vowed to control access to dangerous technologies, so that nothing like the destruction of the red moon would ever happen again.

“Of course, in the early days, there were still many who had the scientific knowledge to work against Order. The ancestors of the Ancients could not accept Order’s rule. They rebelled, introducing the phage into their blood that would resist the network of souls. Even so- the rest of humanity was saved.”

      I looked away from the telescope to regard Wisdom again, but he stepped around me and went to the telescope, leaning over the eyepiece and re-centering the image.

      “Souls: patterns of consciousness that dwell in the network created by all living minds. Angels: beings made perfect and immortal, who are able to answer the prayers of the suffering. Gods: those who bind all of humanity together, who hear and are heard. This should have been the perfect system, and would have been, if Order had not become corrupt. But Order’s commandments became unreasonable, and his punishments cruel. During the Ancient war, my father saw that Order had become corrupt, and he devised a plan to correct the problem. Order, however, discovered my father’s plan- my father could not keep his thoughts secret from the God of origin. Order devised a way to segregate my father and his followers into a separate realm- I have no idea how- and infected our realm with the curse known as hell.”

      “I suppose,” I said slowly, “that this is the danger of having a single person to rule over all. He may, over time, become a tyrant.”

      “I’ve studied my father’s work carefully,” Wisdom said. “I am certain I know where Order went wrong, and I’m trying to correct his mistake. I have been cruel, I know, but my ultimate purpose remains untouched. I’ve inoculated myself against the corruption.”

      Wisdom stood and looked at me. “I still need good people to join me- people like your husband. Each good person who joins me keeps to true to my purpose.”

      I looked into Wisdom’s eyes for a long time, searching for any glimmer of deception. Finally, I spoke.

      “Thank you, Wisdom, for showing me your home world. Thank you for telling me your story.”

      I turned back to the telescope and took one last, long look at the red moon- the craters, the dark, flat basins, and the remnants of the great rivers known as Chastity’s tears.

      Then I turned the telescope away from the red moon and into the starry fields beyond. I explored a little, hopping from familiar star to familiar star. Between the familiar, named stars, unfamiliar lights stretched out endlessly. As I gazed at them, I felt the first stirrings of desire within me. If I had a soul, my mind would continue forever, and I would be able to uncover mysteries without end.

      Then my heart sank. What was the point, if the mysteries were forbidden to me? Wisdom had just demonstrated why my curious mind could be just as dangerous as my soulless power.

      “Oh!” I said, suddenly distracted. “Here, in the Cat’s whiskers, is the double star I discovered on my wedding night. The two stars are just as tightly-knit as they were the night I found them, over a year ago. I wonder what keeps them from drifting apart.”

      “I understand, Lady Frey, that a curious mind may suffer greatly under the Gods’ restrictions. If you accept my offer and follow me, I promise to allow you some indulgence to seek and guard scientific secrets, but only under the auspices of an agent of the church. I trust my story has demonstrated to you why such questions must be asked quietly among the wise. The wise will remind you it is hubris to reach so far.”

      “In that case, I wonder why you chose my husband as your sovereign. He firmly believes that hubris is a virtue.”

      I centered the double star once more and then stepped back, looking up with my naked eye at the faint glimmer of light at the end of the Cat’s whisker.

      Wisdom stepped forward and looked into the eyepiece. “We once called this double star Julia A and B. I wonder if I should tell you what binds them together- would that secret satisfy your curiosity, or simply whet your appetite for knowledge?”

      He stepped back, and looked at me. “I hope-” his voice seemed to catch, and then he began again. “I hope you accept my offer, Grace. It would be a blessing to me if you would stay with King Uriel, and advise him.”

      “Really? But you and I always see things so differently. I would only cause you trouble, you know.”

      “That is why I want you. Your way of thinking is quite alien to mine. You challenge me.”

      “Perhaps my thoughts are only strange because I am an Ancient,” I said. “If I accept your offer, you and I may think more alike.”

      Wisdom chuckled. “I doubt it.”

      I returned to the telescope and brought the double-star back to center. “You have given me much to think about, and I am fatigued. I will consider your offer as thoroughly as possible in the morning. For now, I just want to look at the stars, and clear my mind.”

      “I understand,” Wisdom said. Then he stepped forward. “Here- allow me to show you one of the beauties of the night sky. We call it the pixie nebula.”

Part CVIII

The Coven, Part CVI

Read from the beginning.

I sat by my bedroom window, staring into the morning light.

      The sunlight was piercingly bright, and the more I stared, the worse my temples throbbed with pain. The night before, Wisdom had escorted me to my room and had pressed a cup of brandy into my hands, watching as I’d downed one, and then another, and then another. Sufficiently numbed, I had managed to fall asleep, but I had not slept long until the morning light made sleep impossible.

      Even though I could no longer escape through sleep, at least my headache cast a pleasant veil over the memory of my interview with Wisdom.

      Not far from my window, in the rose garden, Chastity and Mirth were sparring. At first glance, I would have assumed Chastity had every advantage. She was a skilled fighter, was stronger than Mirth, and was nearly a head taller. Mirth, however, still possessed the same speed and the same keen eye that had made her such a formidable opponent the last time we’d fought.  

      This morning, Mirth was overextending herself, but it was clear she had not lost her ability to fight. All she needed was to regain an intuitive sense of her body and its abilities, and she would no doubt overcome Chastity completely.

      A knock sounded on the door as I watched. I called, “come in,’ and the door creaked open. I didn’t have to look up to know that Hope had entered. I continued to watch as Hope dragged a chair next to the window and sat beside me.

      “I haven’t seen you wear that dress since last summer,” he remarked.

      I looked down at the muslin dress I’d put on that morning. Surprisingly, my trousseau had remained untouched by the inquisitors when they had ransacked Rowan Heights. I had taken my flashiest clothes to St. Blanc, and I did not own any jewels, so it seemed likely that the inquisitors simply hadn’t realized how valuable my wardrobe was. Or, perhaps, they had no use for women’s gowns, and knew it would look odd if they tried to sell them.

      I had awakened feeling hot and feverish, so I’d stumbled into my dressing room, washed, and put on the rustling muslin gown, laying aside my breeches and sword.

      “You do not wish to spar with Chastity and Mirth?” Hope said, gesturing to the rose garden.

      “No. I’m not ready to make the attempt,” I said.

      Hope scooted his chair closer to mine and took my hand.

      “I have so much to tell you. I spoke to Prudence last night through Miss Taris, just as Miss Taris had promised. I confirmed that I spoke to Prudence; she and Celeste and Mercy were all safe together at del Sol. Abbess Joy sent you a message to confirm that she was present. She said you would know what this meant- ‘The maelstrom and tempest are with us now, but soon they will leave this place in peace.’ Do you know what it means? Is it about the war?”

      This unexpected note of grace pierced through the veil of pain that had wrapped itself around my mind, and I sat up, a startled laugh bubbling from my lips.

      “Oh no- it isn’t about the war at all. The maelstrom is an airship. I gave Mr. Filius funds to complete the sister ship, and I suppose it will soon be complete.”

      “An airship?” Hope said, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Is this some new kind of sea vessel?”

      “Oh no, it is just what it sounds like- a ship that floats on air.”

      Hope laughed. “Surely, that can’t be literally true.”

      “I’ve seen the prototype work. I rode in it my-”

      The words caught in my throat as I remembered the destination of my balloon ride. I remembered the battle to liberate the Ancient temple, the lives I’d taken, and the bodies I’d buried- Ancient warriors who lacked any souls to continue in the afterlife.

      How can I speak of this so calmly now, I thought. I, who have bent my knee to my people’s enemy.

      Memories of my actions the night before burst through, clear and fresh through the veil of pain. I had begged Wisdom to grant me a soul, and had offered my life and service in exchange. I had betrayed Hope and Prudence, whom Wisdom had tortured and maimed. I had betrayed my people, who faced death without fear.

      Still, I could not deny that a dark force, one I had invited, was growing within me. Surely, if it was possible that I would one day harm Prudence or Hope’s magic, which they relied on to survive, I was obligated to use any means to stop it from happening. If it was possible for me to become powerful enough to damage their souls…

      I shuddered, unable to contemplate the possibility for long.

      “Grace?” Hope whispered.

      “Hope, may I ask you a question?”

      “Yes, anything.”

      “Can you control your desires?”

      Outside, Chastity launched a final series of blows that overwhelmed Mirth, who fell into the flower beds in a shower of rose petals.

      “Control my- what do you mean?” Hope said, a look of astonishment on his face.

      “My power to counteract magic is a force of will” I said. “I have learned to assert my will- to force my feelings to move through and shatter any magic that opposes it. But my will is a manifestation of my desires, which are just… intrinsic. Can you, with your human soul, control your desires?”

      Hope bit his lip and looked outside, where Chastity was helping Mirth back to her feet. The two bowed in mutual respect, and then began to flow through a series of slow, meditative forms.

      “I don’t believe that anyone can control their desires,” Hope said. “You can repress them, perhaps, but that always causes pain, in the end. That is why I rebelled against the Gods- so we could build a world where people didn’t have to repress their desires.”

      “It is good to allow people to marry those whom they love, to allow people to pursue knowledge freely, and try to build a life for themselves outside of their station. But what about dark desires- anger, envy, the lust for vengeance?”

      “If it were easy for people with souls to repress their dark desires, then there would be very little suffering in the world,” Hope said. “I do think we can control how we behave. It isn’t easy, but when the desires in our hearts are in conflict, we can learn to choose the higher will within us. When we are overwhelmed by darkness, we can channel our darker impulses toward justice.”

      I sighed. “When I first began to train with Mercy, every move I made had to be slow- deliberate. I had to tell my hand and foot exactly where to move, and how. Then, once I learned the forms by heart, my hand and foot would react at speed, before I even thought of it. My power is much the same- at first, I had to concentrate and force my feelings to move. Now they know how to move, and react at speed. I don’t know if I can reign them in, again.”

      “You can. The most powerful martial artists I’ve seen are the ones who have the greatest control.” Hope gestured out of the window toward Chastity, who held a difficult pose like a statue, without the slightest sway or waver in her posture.

      “Grace,” Hope continued quietly. “What did Wisdom say to you, last night? Did he hurt you, in any way?”

      I almost told Hope the entire story- about how I’d pleaded with Wisdom to give me a soul, and how he had offered to help me. As broken as I was, however, a piece of my mind was still playing the game, and it calculated that Wisdom had offered me a soul in order to gain Hope’s goodwill.

      “He didn’t hurt me. He only told me that I must learn to control myself- control my powers.”

“He would do anything he could to crush your powers, now. You are a threat to him.”

      “Yes- he admitted that I was a threat,” I said. “Still, until I learn control, I am as much a threat to my friends as my foes.”

      “I will help you in any way I can,” Hope said. “I believe in you.”

      “Thank you,” I whispered, though I could not feel the same confidence.

      I stood. “I have been sitting here too long. I need to stretch my legs. I think I will take a short walk.”

      Hope nodded, and stood as well. “Don’t go too far- I will join you soon. Lord Willoughby requested that I speak with him after breakfast.”

      “It’s alright. I will see you soon,” I said.

      Hope pressed my hand and left the room.

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

      I wandered the halls of Rowan Heights, surveying the damage that the inquisition had done. Some rooms were stripped of all of their ornaments, and some seemed to be untouched. I did not see any damage to the building itself until I reached the hallway near the library.

      The paper on the walls, which had once been blue and white, was streaked with black scorch marks. Several of the portraits had been utterly destroyed, and the rest were rendered unrecognizable by water and smoke. The heavy library door was mostly gone, but for two heavy beams that hung askew on the frame. I looked through the doorway and saw that inside, only a heap of rubble and ash remained.

      As I approached to get a closer look, I heard a tentative voice behind me.

“Lady Frey?”

      I turned and saw Lady Willoughby, dressed in silk and feathers and wearing a sheepish expression.

      “Lady Willoughby,” I went to her and, dropping any attempt at formality, embraced her. “I am sorry I could not greet you properly, last night. How glad I am to see you looking so well!”

      “You are?” Lady Willoughby said. She pulled back with a puzzled expression. “I thought you would be cross with me, now that I follow Wisdom. I’d heard that Lord Frey was the last one of us who still resisted Wisdom- well, he and Captain Goode, but no one knows what has become of Captain Goode.”

      “I didn’t know that you follow Wisdom,” I said. “I’d worried he was keeping you here against your will.”

      “I-” Lady Willoughby started, and then cast a glance at the ruined library. “Can we go to the sitting room, or to your study- anywhere else but here. I need some semblance of normal, now.”

      “Of course, Lady Willoughby,” I said. I took her arm, and together we walked back to my study.

      My study had not escaped the inquisitor’s hands. My desk set was missing, including a very handsome mother-of-pearl paper knife, which I’d brought from Willowbrook. The lanterns, vases, and the ornate torsion clock, which I suspected had originally belonged to Prudence, were all gone, as well. The bookshelves were almost empty- The handsome tomes that Hope had gifted to me upon our marriage were all missing, and only a few paper-bound books and pamphlets remained.

      I opened the side doors to the garden to fill the empty room with the scent of roses and starflowers. Then I gestured for Lady Willougby to have a seat, and seated myself at my desk across from her.

      “It is obvious that Hope still despises Wisdom,” Lady Willoughby said as she sat. “But Captain Goode believed that you were secretly working for Wisdom the whole time. That isn’t true, is it?”

      “Not intentionally, no,” I said. “But his manipulation was so perfect that every move I made ended up working in his favor. I’ve been his pawn.”

      “I understand,” Lady Willoughby said. “Whether we fight him or join him, it all ends up being the same in the end.

      “Still,” she looked up at me, her eyes wide with awe. “I wonder if you may not succeed where the rest of us have failed. You broke our curses, after all, and then you freed us from our chains. I was half-drugged at the time, but I will never forget the moment I saw you, dressed like a man, charging at the guards with your sword raised. You looked like the old paintings of the Goddess Chastity- her hair unbound and her bow raised in the hunt.”

      “How did you get away, after we were separated?” I asked. “Hope and I saw you and the others from one of the barred windows, but I couldn’t tell where you were headed. How did you end up here, with Wisdom?”

      Lady Willoughby twirled one of the curls from her powdered wig around an elegant finger. “You will think I have gone mad. Even after all of the wonders we’ve seen, some of the story is so fantastic that I can hardly describe it.”

      “Try- I doubt anything can surprise me, now.”

      Lady Willoughby laughed a little, and then folded her hands. “Let me start from the beginning, then. After we escaped the Cathedral, the men in black led us into an empty field nearby, and Wisdom was waiting there. When I saw him, I thought that I had been caught again- that I would soon die.

      “I suppose Captain Goode thought the same thing, because he overcame the nearest man and fled. The rest of us were too weak and frightened to do anything, but looking back, I believe Wisdom would have let us go if we’d tried to run. No one tried to stop Captain Goode.

      “We all stood in the field, trembling and waiting for the end, but the end didn’t come. Instead, Wisdom raised his hand in the air, and it looked like part of the sky was torn away like a veil, revealing a large, white object- like a giant bird with four, spinning wings. It landed on the grassy field, an opening appeared in the side of the object, and Wisdom led us all inside.

      “The inside of the object looked like a comfortable little sitting room, and Mrs. Auber was already there waiting for us, drinking tea. I sat next to the window, and then the whole object lifted us up- up- up into the sky. The cathedral, and then the whole city and its lights, looked smaller and smaller below us. I thought to myself that we were being borne up into heaven, and I felt sad to go. I whispered to myself, ‘goodbye, Willoughby Lodge. Goodbye, St. Blanc. Goodbye balls, and parties, and nights at the theatre.’ I wondered if there would be music in heaven, but even if there was, wouldn’t I still miss my poor little lute?”

      She sighed. “Isn’t it strange that, after everything I’d suffered, I still wished to stay on earth?”

      “I’ve never known anyone with as much spirit and life within them,” I said. “I am not surprised.”

      Lady Willoughby leaned forward to squeeze my hand before she continued.

      “Wisdom spoke, then. He said that he didn’t wish to begin his reign in debt to us, and he asked if there was any purpose for which we’d joined the Coven that remained unfulfilled. For a time, none of us were able to speak, and then Chastity said, ‘I joined the Coven because I never wish to die, and I have yet to gain immortality.’ At that moment, I realized that I wanted the same thing.

      “Wisdom looked very grave, then. He said he could only grant us immortality as his angels, and that we could only become his angels if we would worship him.”

      Lady Willoughby stood and began to pace around the study. “You can only imagine how I felt then, Lady Frey. It was enough to overcome all of my fear, and I told him how much I hated him. I actually shouted at him for everything he’d done- how he’d betrayed us, tortured us, and paraded our pain and humiliation before all of Aeterna for his own political gain.”

      She paused in her pacing and turned back to me. “I must admit that I quite lost my head. I lunged at him and beat him with my fists, though I’m sure he didn’t feel a thing. He didn’t punish me- he didn’t even try to stop me. He only stood and took the brunt of my anger until I’d worn myself out.

      “By this time, we’d arrived at Willoughby Lodge. The inquisition had torn the place apart looking for evidence, but even so- it was home. Wisdom left us there to rest while he went off, doing heaven knows what. He left Mrs. Auber to look after us while we regained our strength. At the first opportunity, I asked Mrs. Auber why she had gone along with Wisdom- why she had betrayed us. She told me that she had seen into the future, and had foreseen Wisdom’s victory.”

      “You mean- she foresaw that he would ascend to godhood, or that he would rule Aeterna?”

      Lady Willoughby sighed and sat down hard, her skirts billowing and settling all around her. “All of it. She saw that he would ascend to Godhood, set up rule in Aeterna, and one day, he would rule world in Order’s stead. Of course, she never gives a 100% certainty for anything she sees, but she said this time, it was as close to 100% as anything ever has been- that the alternative was not even worth mentioning.”

“But surely,” I thought, “if she is never completely certain…”

“My husband was a little skeptical of her abilities when this all started, so one night he tested them during a game of silent lots. After hundreds of hands at the game, he realized that her predictions failed precisely as often as the odds of her predictions suggested. She has been wrong before, but her confidence in her predictions has never been wrong.”

“I see,” I said.  

 Lady Willoughby looked down at her hands. “I’m not an avid gamer, but I know when to fold. I’m too tired to fight the Gods any longer, Lady Frey. At least Wisdom’s church will allow people to choose whom to marry, and he will end the practice of beating children in schools. This is why, when Wisdom returned to Willoughby Lodge, I told him I would follow him. Wisdom’s sovereign, if he chooses to accept his throne, will be in a position to end slavery and inequality. It would be better if Lord Frey accepted the power he’s being offered. He might be able to make something out of this mess.”

Lady Frey looked up, and a smirk graced the corners of her lips. “There- I’ve done it. I’ve made my attempt to persuade you, just as Wisdom ordered. At this moment, my husband is attempting to persuade your husband to join Wisdom.”

      “How can you be certain that Wisdom will keep his promises, after everything he’s done?” I said.

      “I can’t, but I am at his mercy.”

Lady Willoughby took a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. Then she sniffed and sat up straight, her eyes clear and makeup undisturbed. “I can lie pretty well now, thanks to you- you needn’t believe a word I say. Talk to Mrs. Auber- talk to anyone else, so you may give Lord Frey all the information he needs to help him decide. We need him.”

      “Now-” Lady Willoughby said, standing. “Let’s dress for dinner. I can’t stand any more listless evenings, so we must have music and dancing tonight. I’ve had enough of pain and death; I am still alive.”

 

 

#

 

 

      I spent the entire afternoon in my dressing room with Lady Willoughby, Chastity, Mercy and Miss Taris. Mrs. Auber was also present, though she sat quietly in the corner like a shadow.

      Lady Willoughby had made the business of dressing for dinner a party in itself, and had ordered tea to be served in the dressing room as she went through the remnants of my wardrobe.

      “All of your best gowns were left at St. Blanc, I suppose,” Lady Willoughby said. “But there is plenty here. You still have the blue satin, which was always my favorite, and the pink rose-brocade is a bit girlish, but it is still very pretty. I think, too, that the white organdy can be dressed up for dinner.”

      She turned suddenly and fixed her eyes on Mirth. “You, Miss Beaumont, must wear the white organdy. No one else here has the complexion to wear white so well.”

      Mirth blinked up at Lady Willoughby, as though she were surprised at being so addressed. “Please call me Mirth,” she said. “I don’t believe my father will allow me to carry the family name any longer, and to be honest, I don’t want it.”

      “Mirth- what a pretty name!” Lady Willoughby said. “Never mind about your father, Mirth; they can be such tyrants. He will regret his loss in time, I am sure.”

      Lady Willoughby held the dress out toward Mirth.

      “I’ve never worn anything half so fine,” Mirth said. She turned to me. “Are you sure it is alright, Lady Frey?”

      “Yes, of course. I can only wear one gown at a time,” I said. “Lady Willoughby will make me wear the blue satin; I can read her mind.”

      Lady Willoughby laughed. “There- you see? Come now, if you are embarrassed, you can change behind the screen.”

      Lady Willoughby, accepting no further argument, led Mirth behind the screen. As they fussed with stays and laces, I broke away from the group and went to the corner, where Mrs. Auber sat. She had been sitting, quite composed, wearing a look of equanimity that dissolved as I approached.

      “Mrs. Auber-”

      “Please- not so near me, Lady Frey,” she said. “You cloud my eye far worse than you ever have before.”

      “I will be brief,” I promised. “I only wish to ask a couple of questions.”

      Mrs. Auber reached up, fiddling with the silver chain around her neck. “Very well, but do be quick about it.”

      I nodded. “Mrs. Auber, if you knew that Wisdom would succeed at his endeavor, why did you warn my husband at St. Blanc?”

      “I don’t know what you mean,” she huffed. “I’ve never been to St. Blanc in my life.”

      I leaned closer, lowering my voice. “You gave Lady Willoughby a card- the card of death- and asked her to pass it along to him.”

      Mrs. Auber dropped her necklace. “No, dear- not death. Change. It is a common misinterpretation, because people fear real change. But the card represents trials, sacrifice, and ultimate rebirth.”

      “Why did you send it to him?” I persisted. “Did you foresee that my husband would do anything different as a result of your action?”

      “No. I knew your husband would act the same, regardless. No matter what I did, your husband would be arrested, tortured, and then freed by the new God. I sent him the card so that it would not be such a shock when it happened.”

      “I see,” I said quietly. “You did it to assuage your conscience.”

      Mrs. Auber looked down at her hands. “Believe what you like, child, but I had no guilt to assuage. Wisdom could not be stopped. What will be, will be.”

The Coven, Part CVII