The Coven- Interlude

Read from the beginning.

Miss Constance Taris was far less confident than she appeared.

      Ever since she’d ascended, she’d held her head high and repeated to herself, over and over, that she no longer had any reason to be afraid. She was an angel, now, and Wisdom was with her.

      In her heart, she knew that all of this was true, but she could not help but feel like one of the pretenders at court whom she had once viewed with contempt.

      Just now, for example, she was standing next to a row of bunks with no idea what she should do. In her new, angelic form, she did not require sleep, but soon the lights would be extinguished and she would have nothing to do but lie down and wait while the others slept.

      This had not been a problem during the first part of Miss Taris’s journey. She had been travelling like a proper lady then, in a carriage accompanied by two ladies, a maid, and a trusted friend who was as gentle a man as she’d ever known. When Wisdom had asked her to leave the party to lead the King and his men through the tunnels, Miss Taris had been eager to prove herself worthy to lead.

      Now she was alone below ground in the company of an entire platoon of strange men. Even the inquisitors, all followers of Wisdom, were strangers, and though she sensed no ill intentions from them at present, they had already betrayed one God. She had every magical advantage, but though her body was perfectly well, it still was not very strong.

      Miss Taris glanced over at the only other lady who was present. Even though Miss Taris had never liked her, Lady Frey had once seemed a sympathetic person, and would probably allow her to stay close while the others slept if Miss Taris swallowed her pride and asked.

Even so, Miss Taris hesitated to approach. Lady Frey looked so wild now, with her hand resting on the hilt of her sword and a hard look in her dark eyes, that she seemed almost as dangerous as all of the strange men. Even with Miss Taris’s increased powers, Lady Frey’s feelings were undetectable. She seemed cold, distant, and almost inhuman.

      Miss Taris shuddered and turned away, and in doing so almost collided with Sir Beaumont.

      “Oh- I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” he said with a courtly bow.

      “Please- the fault was mine,” Miss Taris stammered. Then she looked up into Sir Beaumont’s warm, brown eyes and she immediately relaxed.

      From the instant they’d met, Miss Taris had known that Sir Beaumont was trustworthy. Sincerity was infused in his every word- every gesture. When Sir Beaumont had sworn to help and protect Miss Taris, he had meant it with all of his heart. Here was a person whose heart was as open as Lady Frey’s was closed.

      And Miss Taris could not help but be moved by it.

      “I was just going to fetch myself a cup of tea,” Sir Beaumont said. “Would you like anything?”

      “Is it wise to drink tea so soon before bed?” Miss Taris remarked.

      “Well- I wasn’t going to sleep, actually,” he said, the tips of his ears going slightly red.

      Miss Taris felt a strange, warm sensation in her heart when she realized- Sir Beaumont had planned to stay up all night to ensure she was safe.

      She reached out and took Sir Beaumont’s hand, and she spoke in a rush before her awkwardness could halt her tongue. “I am restless; come walk with me. I know there is nowhere to go but- just up and down the tunnel outside should be fine.”

      “Are you sure? We have a long day’s travel ahead of us.”

      “I need to stretch my legs after sitting in the train for so long. Come.”

      Sir Beaumont looked around at the chatting dragoons and the silent inquisitors, and then at Lord and Lady Frey, who were speaking quietly in a corner. Then he turned back, nodded his acquiescence, and followed Miss Taris from the room.

      Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont walked a little way down the tunnel, arm in arm, with quiet footsteps. Then Miss Taris stopped, and a mischievous grin spread over her face.

      “These grey walls really are quite dreary,” she said. “Come- let’s go into the Cathedral.”

      “Would that be alright?” Sir Beaumont said, raising his brows. “Pride always said that the cathedrals were only to be used in service to the Gods.”

      “Wisdom would not mind, I’m sure, and these are his tunnels now,” Miss Taris said. “What harm could it do?”

      Sir Beaumont smiled and relented, and Miss Taris put her hand against the wall, revealing the opening to the second cathedral.

      The cathedral was empty as expected, the lights were on, and the walls and high ceiling were the same, dingy grey as the tunnels outside. Miss Taris put her hand to the floor, and the grey walls blurred out of view. Suddenly, they were standing in a moonlit garden with deep green grasses as high as their waists, and daffodils and fairy-roses that towered over their heads, as tall as trees.

      “Oh! I’m messed up the scale, somehow. I will try to fix it,” Miss Taris said.

      “No- wait,” Sir Beaumont looked around the grasses, which shimmered with dewdrops the size of marbles. Giant fireflies spun and danced in the air above, alighting on blossoms that were as large and soft as a velvet sofa.

      “This is what it must be like to be a fairy, hidden among the leaves. I think, if we listen hard enough, we will hear the Lily Queen’s song.”

      Miss Taris stood up, and the two held their breaths, listening in the silent night.

      “No- no song. Still, I am content here,” Sir Beaumont said.

      “Are you?” Miss Taris turned to look around, frowning. “Everything towers above me; nothing seems safe. I would rather be the giant.”

      Miss Taris knelt down and moved her hands along the ground once more, and everything began to shrink. The grasses receded until they were but a carpet under their feet, the flowers receded into the ground, and soon the whole garden was a small patch on a checkerboard of green. Small wisps of cloud drifted around their knees, where the grasses had once been, and stars twinkled, sharp and clear, all around them.

      “Here! Higher than the clouds, I can see everything. Nothing can touch me, up here.”

      Sir Beaumont stepped closer to Miss Taris. “Don’t you feel exposed, though?”

      “Why should that matter?” Miss Taris laughed. “No one can hurt a giant. I will suffer the slings and arrows of everyone beneath me without a scratch.”

      Sir Beaumont turned and looked at Miss Taris so intently that, despite all her newfound confidence, she blushed once more. Then he smiled and reached out tentatively, tucking a stray strand of gold-spun hair back behind Miss Taris’s ear.

      “It seems you and I cannot agree- a fairy of the garden and a giant of the air. Where can we meet?”

      Miss Taris turned away, knelt down, and moved her hands once more. The clouds climbed high above them, the small patches of ground expanded, the flowers grew until they were knee high, and the green carpet of grass remained underfoot.

      “I suppose we must meet here, in the middle, as our human selves,” Miss Taris said.

      “I am happy to meet you here, though you are not really human, are you?” Sir Beaumont said, his voice full of awe.

      “I- I was human, and I haven’t changed as much as I thought I would when I became an angel,” Miss Taris said. “I am healthy now, and Wisdom’s holy magic courses through me, but I am still myself.”

      Sir Beaumont nodded thoughtfully. “I know it won’t be the same, because I won’t be an angel, but I hope my change will be as easy when Wisdom grants it.”

      “I’m sure it will be,” Miss Taris said firmly, as though determination alone could make it so. “We will take the Cathedral Lux, and then Wisdom will bless you.”

      “Will it really happen so soon?” Sir Beaumont said. “The first battle I saw, at the edge of Rouge Forest, went so quickly and so bloodlessly that it hardly seemed necessary for me to be there at all. Sometimes I fear that this is all too good to be true, and that there is a sacrifice that I still must pay for the victory and liberation I seek.”

      “The only thing Wisdom requires of you is your faith,” Miss Taris said. “Or, if faith does not come easily for you, only wait and judge the results with your own senses.”

Miss Taris turned away from Sir Beaumont’s intense gaze and began to pace through the garden, stepping lightly on the cobblestone path that wound between beds of starflowers and roses. “The hero’s reward always seems more satisfying after seeing him pass through difficult trials, but reality is different from storybooks or plays. Sometimes people win power justly, and sometimes not. Sometimes the clever may dominate the strong. Sometimes things fall into place by sheer luck.

      “In my own case, I believe luck was on my side. My father was trying to force me into a marriage I did not want- a marriage to a monster who wore a courtier’s face. I was too weak to fight him. I was too weak, even, to accept the crumbs of help some of the court ladies flung my way. How I hated them for trying! Their advice amounted to telling a drowning man how to swim while his hands were bound. Only one person was willing or able to actually give me strength. He did not save me- he gave me the ability to save myself.

      “And yet-” Miss Taris paused and laughed. “Yet it was so easy to undo my chains once I had the key. All I had to do is reach out and accept it. Daily, I am surrounded by fools who are unwilling to do the same. They think that they haven’t earned their salvation, yet. They think that forgiveness or redemption is something that has to be earned. They think that some promises are too good to be true. They have dwelt in darkness so long, they fear the light.”

      Miss Taris turned back to Sir Beaumont, her eyes shining like twin stars. “You have true courage, Sir Beaumont.”

      “Please, call me by my given name- Mirth.”

      Miss Taris nodded. “I will, if you will call me Connie in return.” She laughed suddenly. “This will be the first intimacy I’ve entered into so willingly. This is another chain, which is falling away.”

      Sir Beaumont bowed deeply. “Then I am honored to be of service.”

      Miss Taris smiled even wider and stepped forward, taking Sir Beaumont’s hand. “You have true courage, Mirth, because you have accepted the key despite your worries. You will be rewarded in due time. I promise.”

      “I am glad that you’ve found the strength you needed. Still- I wish I had been there to defend you, my lady.”

      “Connie,” Miss Taris corrected him. “You aren’t like the others. I can tell that you are sincere. Thank you.”

      “I am here now,” Sir Beaumont continued. “I will protect you until we are at the Cathedral Lux.”

      Miss Taris leaned a bit closer to Sir Beaumont, sighing in contentment. Then she stopped abruptly and looked up.

      “What do you plan to do after the Cathedral Lux- after you change? Will you stay with the party, or will you leave us?”

      “I had planned to take vows at del Sol, but,” he leaned forward and whispered “If I can, I will stay and protect you as long as you want me. You may not want me, anymore, after I’ve changed. I may lose my ability to fight. You may not find me as agreeable.”

      Miss Taris leaned her head onto Sir Beaumont’s shoulder and frowned. “Please don’t be offended, but…” she paused, and then said, “the way you are now, I cannot imagine you will be very different after Wisdom gives you his gift.”

      “It will be a greater change than you know. Right now, I don’t feel as though I fit, and the dragoons can tell that I don’t quite fit among them. I hope, after it is done, I will be complete- whole. I cannot explain it, other than there is something inside me that whispers that the Gods did not properly fit soul to body when I was born.”

      Miss Taris did not reply for some time. She remained where she was, still and quiet, her head resting against Sir Beaumont’s shoulder as though she had fallen asleep there. But her eyes were open and watchful.

      Finally, she stood straight and reached her arm out, pulling the ribbon from Sir Beaumont’s hair. It fell loose from its dragoon tail and draped in loose waves around his shoulders.

      “I have the power to see inside of people. I know you. I will know you, no matter what outward form you take.”

      The two stood face to face in the fairy-garden, until the illusory sun rose over the distant hills and blotted out the imaginary stars.  

 

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The Coven, Part C

Read from the beginning.  

      The sun was high in the sky, but the wind was cool as it blew over the verdant fields outside of Rogue Village.

      Hope and I walked between rows of barley, which grew straight and tall, without the slightest trace of blight. In front of us walked a group of dragoons, who swapped stories and laughter as though they were on a holiday.

      Behind us was a small group of inquisitors led by Miss Taris, who still wore her red robes. Hope kept his eyes fixed ahead of him as we went, his jaw clenched.

      “Stop- the entrance to the tunnel is just ahead,” Miss Taris called. She ran forward, and Hope squeezed his eyes shut for just a moment as she passed.

      “Are you alright?” I whispered to Hope.

      “The sight of those robes makes me feel a bit ill.” Hope took a deep breath, and then smiled. “But it is nothing; it will pass.”

      I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then we continued to the end of the field.

      We caught up to Miss Taris who stood at the edge of a grassy mound, next to a low fence that shielded a boarded storm-cellar door. Two dragoons came forward to pry away the boards and open the doors, and then Miss Taris turned to address the party.

      “With the help of Sir Beaumont, Wisdom has taken Reverence’s tunnels,” she said. “The lights, the mirrors- everything inside is under his control, now. Even the seals on the tunnels have been changed, so that no one will be able to follow us. There is a door inside here that leads to the next section of tunnel to del Sol, and I must go first to open the seal.”

      Miss Taris turned to Sir Beaumont and lowered her voice. “Keep watch as I descend.”

      Sir Beaumont returned a salute, and with a gesture, his dragoons were back in formation, weapons at the ready.

      “We’ve found the culprit behind the light issues,” I muttered. “Sir Beaumont must have undone the seals, and then the glitches began as Wisdom accessed the tunnel’s functions.”

      “Then your fight with Sir Beaumont was fair, after all,” Hope muttered in reply. “His defeat was all his own fault.”

      The dragoons remained in their stations while the inquisitors filed though the storm cellar and into the tunnel. Brother Fortune turned and gestured for Hope and I to follow.

      There was a small hatch-door on the cellar’s dirt floor, on the other side of which was a section of tunnel much like the one we’d already left. The walls were the same shade of unadorned gray, and the same electric lights hung with regularity overhead. However, the current section of tunnel was much wider than the first, and a long metal rod, embedded in the floor, ran through the center of the tunnel as far as the eye could see.

      When the rest of the inquisitors and the dragoons had climbed down into the tunnel, Miss Taris instructed everyone to stand against the walls. Once the center of the tunnel was clear, she pressed her hand against a bare section of wall, which lit up momentarily as though in response.

      “We must hurry to Cathedral Lux, and luckily, the pilgrim train was completed in this part of the tunnel. It was originally meant to carry pilgrims who were too ill or infirm to walk these tunnels unaided. Unfortunately, the track was never finished, but it will be able to bear us most of the way to Cathedral Lux.”

      There was a loud screeching sound, and the section of wall behind the tunnel entrance split down the middle and opened. A series of carts emerged from the opening and rolled along the metal track without a horse or mule to pull them. The sides of each cart opened, and small ramps extended to the ground, as though the carts were welcoming us to climb inside.

      “Get in- don’t be afraid,” Brother Fortune urged the others. “The carts are quite safe. Oh!” he stopped me abruptly and turned to Miss Taris. “The Ancient can’t disable the carts, can she?”

      “Apparently not,” Miss Taris said.

      Brother Fortune nodded as though to himself, and then gestured for me to enter the train.

      I stepped up the ramp and sat down on a wide, cushioned bench with Hope just beside me. When everyone was seated, the carts jerked forward, and then we were sailing through the tunnel, far faster than I’d ever traveled by horse.

      I heard gasps in the carts behind me, and in the cart just in front, Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont laughed with delight. I gripped the side of the cart, almost giddy enough to laugh myself, but Hope swallowed heavily, his face green in the pale electric light.

      “Are you alright?” I asked.

      Hope clenched his jaw, but he nodded in response.

      Though the train did not slow, the sensation of motion in my stomach, and the giddiness that had accompanied it, soon faded away. If not for the blur of the lights overhead, I might have thought I was sitting still. Hope, however, leaned forward slightly, clutching his stomach.

      I turned to face forward and saw that Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont were just as animated with delight as they had been when we started off. I could not hear what they said over the sound of the carts on the tracks, but I could tell from their smiles that the conversation was pleasing. They laughed a great deal, and they would stop periodically to point at something outside the tracks as though they were admiring the scenery on a summer’s ride through the country, instead of traveling through a bleak, grey tunnel.

      The first portion of our ride was not long. There was a loud squeak as the carts ground to a halt, and then we found ourselves near a section of wall painted with the black letters C2.

      The doors opened, the ramps extended, and we climbed down from the train on wobbly legs. Hope stood for a moment on firm ground, and then he took a deep breath.

      “That is almost as bad as being on board ship,” he muttered.

      “Brother Virgil, please lead the party to the nearby barracks,” Brother Fortune said to one of his fellow inquisitors. “Miss Taris and I must visit the Cathedral before we join you.”

      “Will you need a guard?” Sir Beaumont asked Miss Taris.

      “Oh, I will be fine- I will have an Ancient warrior with me, after all,” Miss Taris said. She turned to Hope, “and you too, Lord Frey. There is someone who wishes to speak with you.”

      Hope stood a little straighter, his expression lightening, and he bowed his acquiescence.

      “I will await you just outside the door,” Sir Beaumont insisted. Miss Taris did not contradict him, but blushed and curtsied in thanks.

     

 

#

 

 

      Miss Taris, Brother Fortune, Hope, and I walked slowly through the empty Cathedral. Then Miss Taris stepped away from the small party, her heels clicking with quick importance, and she knelt down to touch the slick, black floor with one hand.

      For a few moments nothing happened, and then there was a flash of light on the grey wall on the far side of the room, followed by three flashes above like lightning. Then random squares of colored light flashed and faded on the floor beneath us, the walls around us, the ceiling above us, more and more until the room was filled with squares of light that flashed and faded away again. The lights coalesced, focused, and we were in a sunlit field of wildflowers. A heatless sun hung far above our heads, and small, white clouds drifted through a windless sky.

      I turned slowly, and behind us, I saw a white-robed figure approaching.

      “Brother,” Hope breathed.

      Brother Lux stopped and stood before us, face to face with his brother. The two men were as different now as night and day. Hope’s shorn hair had begun to grow back in brown sprigs that covered his head like a cap- shorter than even a soldier’s hair. His features were angular and hard, and his black-rimmed eyes were so wide they seemed almost all-seeing.

      On the other hand, Brother Lux’s features were only prominent enough to add elegance to softness. His hair was long and thick and luxuriant, and his dark eyes seemed to contain depths untold. The two men who stared at each other, one with hate and the other with concern and pity, seemed no longer to be brothers at all, let alone twins.

      Hope moved first, clenching his hand into a fist and striking out at his brother. His fist, however, merely passed through Lux’s visage as though he were a ghost.

      “You may strike me later, though I doubt it will give you much satisfaction,” Lux said. He moved his hands, gesturing at his own body. “I am not present, now. This is only an illusion.”  

      Hope dropped his fist, but did not reply. Brother Lux sighed and turned toward Miss Taris.

      “Sir Beaumont’s false reports have proved to be most helpful. I’ve received word that Sancti has moved its main forces away from the northern passage, and instead are focusing their troops on the western straights, where we are already well-fortified. The longer we can keep Sancti away from the eastern shores, the better.”

      “Would they really go to the eastern shore- so near a sanctuary like del Sol?” I asked aloud.

      Brother Lux shook his head sadly. “There is no real sanctuary in war, Lady Frey. Churches, hospitals, schools… none of these things are sacred in a game where the stakes are survival- especially in the eyes of a hardened general.”

      “If Sancti is really allied with the cult of Reverence, I’m sure they will try to take del Sol eventually,” Miss Taris added.

      I remembered all of the tricks Mercy had played on me when we trained, and how she laughed at me for complaining. I felt foolish for not realizing the same rules would apply on a larger game board.

      “There is still danger at the Cathedral Lux, but not nearly so much as there might have been otherwise. We have, thankfully, enough healers at Rouge Village to assist if that battle gets out of hand, but your healing ability will be needed at Cathedral lux, Brother Fortune. Please hurry; I will meet you there.”

      Brother Fortune bowed. “With Wisdom’s help, may the war be bloodless. May peace reign,” he said.

      “Do you know where Pride is, now?” Miss Taris asked. “Did he hurt you before you got rid of him?”

      Lux laughed. “Oh no- he did not hurt me. When it became apparent that he could not harm me, he vanished. I expect he is gathering the scattered remains of his troops in Rouge Forest.”

      Lux turned back to Hope. “You have been uncharacteristically silent, brother. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them honestly.”

      “You will ‘do your best’ to be honest?” Hope said, quirking an eyebrow. “This is an interesting turn of phrase, considering how honest you’ve been in the recent past.”

      Lux hesitated, and then quietly said, “you would not have listened to the truth if I had shared it with you. You did not understand what was at stake.”

      “I knew very well that all of Aeterna- the lives and souls of all her inhabitants- was at stake. If you had but asked, I would have willingly endured the pain, the humiliation, and the torture, just for the chance to build a better world. Instead, you denied me that choice and forced your will on me. You kept me in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, and left me in a place without any hope for the future.”

      “Would you really have done it for Aeterna’s sake?” Brother Lux said. “I was watching you at court. I watched as you fell in love with an Ancient girl and forgot the woman you’d sworn to love forever. I watched, again and again, as you attended to the feelings of a soulless creature before you attended to the simple plan we’d crafted to get the Prince on our side. I watched you lose sight of everything that is important because you cannot see beyond the people closest to you.”

      “And you, apparently, cannot see suffering when it’s under your very nose,” Hope shot back.

      Brother Lux clenched his fists as though in frustration and turned away from his brother to pace. As he walked, the grasses rustled against his calves, as though only the incorporeal could affect the incorporeal in this place.

      “I know suffering, brother. My mind is filled with the voices of the suffering every day, echoing endlessly. I have joined my mind to that of a God, and as a result I hear the desperate prayers of thousands. Each voice belongs to a person as unique, as loved, as real as the cherished few you would die for.”

      “I know that-” Hope began.

      “You know that there is suffering in the world,” Brother Lux interrupted. “You have felt the pinnacle of suffering, yourself. But you can’t understand the scale of the problem. Your mind possesses enough empathy to feel the suffering of a few; if you felt the suffering of thousands of your own beloved, it would kill you.”

      Hope’s eyes narrowed and he watched his brother pace. “How dare you claim to understand suffering, when I watched you turn a blind eye to the suffering of the prisoners under the hands of your inquisitors.”

      “If I had tried to liberate the prisoners too soon, they would have all been hanged without trial. You and the rest of the prisoners are free because I arranged the dungeon’s liberation- or did Lady Frey forget to mention that fact?”

      Hope scoffed. “A cryptic gesture in a disordered courtroom is hardly an ironclad plan. We happened to escape, and you are happy to take credit.”

      “An army of my men stormed the dungeons to liberate them. The men did this because I told them to be ready for the event. I also, through my cryptic gesture on top of weeks of preparation, made sure that Lady Frey could be with you.”

      “How kind of you, after you stole Prudence away!”

      “I am keeping Prudence safe, in fulfillment of my oath,” Brother Lux stopped pacing and spun to face his brother once more.

      “And why I should trust that you are keeping her safe, after everything she suffered because of your plots? Damn you- when I think of what I suffered in the dungeons, and know that she suffered the same…” Hope’s voice cracked, and he seemed lost for words.

      “That was a mistake,” Brother Lux said in a lower voice. “I got her out as soon as I could- healed her wounds…”

      “There are some wounds you cannot heal,” Hope said.

      The two men had been staring at each other in anger, their breaths coming in short gasps as the Miss Taris, Brother Fortune and I watched the argument in stunned silence. Now Brother Lux seemed to relent, took a step back, and lowered his head a little as though in penitence.

      “Fine- I will grant you this. I cannot heal the worst wound- cannot undo the most atrocious of my sins. The question now is- what you will do? Will you attempt to undo my wicked deeds, and build a better world? Will you try to understand what is at stake, and bring peace to Aeterna as her king?”

      “You mean as your puppet?”

      “No- as my sovereign,” Lux said.

      Hope stepped forward, closing the gap Lux had made when he’d stepped back.

      “Tell me the truth, for once. What is your goal?”

      “My goal hasn’t changed. I seek peace, freedom for people to love as they choose, the liberation of the slaves-“

“Not all of the slaves,” I whispered.

 Brother Lux continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “I seek the end of sickness and poverty. I wish to undo the damage that Order has done to this world.”

      Hope and Lux stood together, as still as two statues. Then Hope turned away.

      “I will see you at the Cathedral Lux,” he said.

Interlude

The Coven, Part XCIX

Read from the beginning.

Miss Taris reached into her robes and drew forth a white envelope, sealed in red wax and bearing on its seal the symbol of del Sol.

      “I traveled with Miss Goode until we reached the third checkpoint,” Miss Taris said. “There, I left her in the care of Brother Amicus, but before I departed, she gave me this letter.”

      Hope reached out to take the letter, but Miss Taris held it out of his reach.

      “Before you take the letter and run away, listen to my offer. You see, I no longer need to use letters to communicate with those I love. I pray to Wisdom, he hears me, and he speaks to his other Angels on my behalf- including Brother Amicus, who has recently ascended. With my help, you could speak to Miss Goode or Miss Celeste through Brother Amicus any time you wish.”

      “How would I know that you’re really speaking to her?” Hope said.

      Miss Taris arched her elegant brow. “The easiest way would be for you to pray to Wisdom, and to allow him to communicate the truth of my words straight to your heart. But if you are still not ready to accept Wisdom as your God, you may ask questions only Miss Goode would know, and I will answer until you are satisfied that I really am communicating with her.”

      “That way, you get to hear our secrets,” I said.

      “It’s a small price to pay for the assurance that Miss Goode and Celeste are safe. If you stay with me, you will be able to monitor their safety until they arrive at del Sol.” Miss Taris stepped past Hope and handed me the letter. “Consider this an act of good faith.”

      She bit her lip as though to suppress a smile as I accepted the letter. Then she turned to Hope.

      “You are free to stay or go. Let me know when you’ve decided.”

      Miss Taris brushed past us, and walked toward the festivities in the square.

     

 

#

 

 

      The alley did not reconnect to a main street on its far side, but rather, it ended in a small alcove containing a small, algae-encrusted fountain. Hope and I sat together on a dirty bench by the fountain, leaned our heads together, and read as the sounds of festivities echoed off of the stone walls.

     

      My Dearest Hope and Grace,

      Miss Taris has offered to convey this message to you, and though I long to communicate with you, I also wish that you would remain out of her grasp, and therefore never read it. If you do receive this note, know that Miss Taris plans to use me as bait to catch you. Do not listen to her offers and flee her grasp as soon as you can. Celeste and I are well-protected, and we are on our way to the safest place on Terra. You, however, are in constant danger from Wisdom’s manipulations.

      I fear that, despite all the efforts of Prince Hadrian, the Aeternan church, and even Sancti’s army, Wisdom’s conquest will be easy. Wisdom’s powers grow by the day, and everywhere I go I hear the unconquered already singing his litany. Wisdom has given the downtrodden something that Order has denied for centuries; hope for a better life. Many of Wisdom’s followers may try to get you to sing his litanies, and I would not recommend that you not do so, even to pacify them (though, I must admit, I have a great curiosity to hear the litany sung in Grace’s unique voice.)

      I don’t have much time to write, but I have several more messages to convey. First, Mercy has asked me to tell you that we have not encountered any danger so far in our journey, and that she has all the strength she needs to protect us if we do. Celeste has asked me to tell you that she loves you both, and hopes that she will see you soon. I find I can convey her feelings better than my own; for now, know that my greatest wish is that you both to remain free from Wisdom’s grasp.

      Remain safe. All my love,

            Jubilee

 

      Hope and I looked up from the letter at the same time, and I handed it to him, reflecting on its contents as he carefully folded it.

      “I would recognize her hand anywhere- this couldn’t have been forged,” Hope said.

      “She seems just as strong as she did when I left her,” I said. “But…”

      “I know. She could be wearing a brave face,” Hope finished my thought.

     

      “She has given us a puzzle in this letter,” I remarked. “When she wrote of Wisdom’s litany, I got the impression that she knows some secret about it.”

      “The power of Wisdom’s litany was apparent when I heard it on the road,” Hope said. “Her advice not to sing it was sound.”

      “Yes, but her statement that she would like to hear it sung in my ‘unique voice’ was puzzling. There is nothing special about my voice.”

      “I happen to like your voice,” Hope said. “It is very nice.”

      “It’s not unique,” I said, waving aside his gallantry. “I have a voice that was trained by easily frustrated governesses, and nothing more. I am unique in other ways.”

      Hope knitted his brow as though he began to see the puzzle. He took my hand and kissed it, and then he gently pushed back my sleeve, revealing the scar that remained there, pale white against my skin.

      “There is a puzzle in this sigil,” Hope whispered. “Wisdom’s symbol, and the mark he’s placed over it, is imbued with magical meaning. This is indeed a mark of death.”

      “Remember that magic can’t bind us,” I said, pulling my sleeve down to cover the mark once more. “He can try to bind my people with contracts, or sigils, or any other magic he chooses, but there is always the hope we may escape. In that respect, at least, we are free.”

      Hope nodded, but the concern in his dark eyes deepened.

      “Wisdom possesses military power, so there is still real danger to your people- and not only your people, but the world,” he said. “I don’t believe Wisdom will stop his conquest at Aeterna’s borders. Ultimately, there may be nowhere to run.”

      Hope stood and dipped his hand in the fountain, allowing the water to drip off his fingers into the wide stone basin. He watched the water flow in silent contemplation, and then he turned back to me, his eyes filled with resolution.

      “Wisdom is using my own child and the woman I’d lost to entrap me, but this time, at least, I will enter the trap with my eyes open. If he plans to glean my secrets, perhaps I can glean his in turn. Perhaps by keeping my enemy close, I will discover the means to fight him.”

      I hesitated, torn between keeping Hope safe and keeping Prudence and Celeste close. Finally, I spoke. “I wish to fight him too, but is knowingly entering a trap the wisest course of action?”

      “I was never afraid to fight Order. Why should I be run away now, when Wisdom’s rise is so much more my responsibility?”

      “I don’t believe you are responsible,” I said. “But that won’t sway you, will it?”

      “I won’t abandon Celeste and Prudence to an evil God when I might still save them.” Hope dried his hand and held it out to me. “Will you stay with me, Grace? I will not press you, if your conscience leads you elsewhere.”

      This time, there was no hesitation. I stood and took Hope’s hand. “I will follow you, and I will fight.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Miss Taris was standing near the alley entrance as we emerged, hand-in-hand. She smiled knowingly and gestured for us to follow.

      She led us into the alley and back to the alcove, where she sat on the bench as tall and elegant as a queen.

      She closed her eyes and hummed a little prayer to herself. When she opened her eyes, they glowed soft white.

      “I am ready,” she said. “Ask any question you wish.”

      Hope stepped forward and cleared his throat. “I stole something when I was thirteen years old. Prudence caught me, but she swore she would keep it a secret. I release her from her oath. What did I steal, and what did I give her in return for her silence?”

      Miss Taris closed her eyes again and sat in serene silence for a time. Then she opened her eyes and laughed.

      “I- I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you, but-” she suppressed her smile. “When you were thirteen there was a farmer near Hill Country Village, Mr. Alder, who grew a rare variety of golden apples. One day you climbed his orchard fence and stole a basketful of the apples, even though Mr. Alder had already whipped three other boys for committing the same act. You hid in the cottage on bluebell hill to eat them, but Prudence- who had run to the cottage to cry after a fight with her mother- found you.”

      Hope’s expression was stony, but his eyes grew red as he listened.

      “Prudence was still angry from the fight, so she scolded you for stealing the apples, and threatened to tell. You offered her an apple in exchange for her silence, but Prudence claimed another prize- your first kiss. You gave Prudence the kiss, and afterward you shared your apples with her, anyway.”

      Hope turned his face away from us. His voice was hoarse when he said, “it is really Prudence.”

      “Prudence would also like to add that Celeste heard everything when she told the story to Brother Amicus, and now Celeste won’t stop giggling. She asks that from now on, you ensure your questions are appropriate to be answered within the hearing of a young lady.”

      “Of course,” Hope replied. “Grace, is there- is there anything you would like to ask?”

      I felt something familiar when I heard the emotion in Hope’s voice- something I could not discern as either joy or pain. It was the same feeling I’d experienced the day I sang by Hope’s and Prudence’s side.

      I reached out to caress Hope’s shoulder for just a moment, and then turned back to Miss Taris.

      “I trust my husband’s judgement- I believe it is Prudence. Are she and Celeste well? Are they safe?”

      Miss Taris smirked. “Prudence says that she has been guarded more closely than the crown jewels, and that you are a pair of fools for staying with me instead of fleeing.”

      “Tell Prudence that I’m sure that she is right- that we are fools- but I’m still grateful that she can tell me so.”

      “Prudence reluctantly admits that she’s grateful to be in contact with you, as well.”

      Miss Taris leaned back and sighed deeply. “This is fatiguing; is there anything you would like to add before I break the connection?”

      “Please convey my love to Prudence and Celeste- and my gratitude to Mercy for guarding them,” I said

      Miss Taris turned to Hope. “And you, Lord Frey?”

      Hope smoothed his robes and turned around once more. His eyes were red, but dry.

      “My love and gratitude as well, if you please. Oh, and tell Prudence-” He paused, and then smiled a little. “Tell Prudence that it was good to remember.”

 

 

 

#

 

 

      The crowds in the square had grown while we’d hidden in the alleyway. As soon as we emerged, we were surrounded by revelers, who crowned us in flower garlands and swept us into a circle of dancers.

      It was easy to dance with Hope, now- easier than it would have seemed before we’d communicated with Prudence. Though Hope and I found ourselves caught in another trap, Prudence and Celeste were alive, and that was reason enough to celebrate.

      Hope wore a wistful expression in his dark eyes as we danced, and knowing the expression’s origin inspired that strange feeling to swell in my heart. I puzzled over the feeling just a little; if the emotion was jealousy, then it was nothing like the jealousy that was described in books.

      A tiny voice in the back of my mind spoke, telling me that if I would just look a little closer at the feeling, I would see something I’d overlooked, and everything would be clear. Therefore, I ignored the little voice and the feeling, and simply danced.

      I had not danced with Hope since the ill-fated revelry at St. Blanc. The present dance was just as intoxicating, just as ill-advised, and just as wonderful as the last one.

      While the people danced and sang around the square, the men in the center continued to work. Soon, a voice cried out “the monument is complete- look!”

      Music grew silent, feet grew still, and everyone looked up to the monument, which now bore the small alterations that changed the symbol of Order to the symbol of Wisdom.

      “This symbol will endure,” the tallest workman called out to the crowd, placing his hand on top of his handiwork. “This symbol will remain here, untouched, because this is a new era of peace.”

      “Hear hear!” the crowd responded with a cheer.

      “I still recall how afraid I was yesterday,” the man continued. “What a fool I was! We were struggling then- hungry and unsure of the future because our crops had all been struck by the red blight. Even so, I stood by my brother and my father, bearing arms I didn’t know how to use, ready to lay down my life for a sleeping God.

“When I saw the red robes of the inquisitors, and the legions of men who marched behind them, I was certain that this was my last day on this earth. How surprised I was when I advanced on soldiers who did not attack in kind! How puzzled I was when they deflected all of my blows and did not attempt to land a single blow on me. And then, when Wisdom appeared-”

      The man stopped speaking, seeming too overcome by emotion to continue. The workman behind him, a reedy youth, stepped forward and put a hand on the man’s shoulder.

      “We were all renewed- filled with miraculous strength. My bad eye,” he gestured to his bright, perfect left eye, “which had been fused shut since I was born, opened, and I saw the most beautiful sight I’d ever beheld. Wisdom was radiant- it almost burned like sunlight to look at him- but everything the light touched healed. My father’s rheumatic joints were made well. The scars on my brother’s arms disappeared. Then the rain began, and it washed away the red blight. The fields were filled with grain, and the trees with fruit.

      “I can’t remember the last time Order answered even my most faithful prayers. But yesterday, Wisdom gave his miracles to the sinners who stood against him- I have never known such mercy. I dropped my arms, knelt, and pledged my faith to my sworn enemy on the battlefield.”

      “We have all pledged our faith,” the third workman said in a low, gruff voice. “What else can we give him in return?”

      I heard shouts of joy and praise, and in the crowd around me people began to speak, each telling the tale of the miracles they had experienced. The celebration continued through the night and after the sun rose again.

The Coven, Part C

     

The Coven, Part XCVIII

Read from the beginning.

 

Traitor!” Pride said in tone so thunderous that the dragoons, and even some of Wisdom’s men, fell back a step.

Then Pride’s men drew their arms and charged, and I heard the clash of holy arms against holy shields. Above the clatter, a soft tune drifted in the air.

It was the Grand Litany.

I drew my sword and motioned for Hope to move behind me. We fell back, toward the whistle’s origin, as Pride’s soldiers advanced on their foe.

Wisdom’s men looked around, their expressions panicked. Pride’s men fought with more ferocity.

“Reinforcements must be near,” one of Pride’s young corporals called.

“This way,” Hope whispered to me, urging me toward the road.

I turned and saw Raven, who had paused near road’s entrance. She gestured toward a little knoll, which sloped down the road into a brook that ran through a tangle of brush. Then Raven winked and climbed down into the bank.

I fell back further, deflecting stray blows as I went, until Hope and I were able to break away and run toward the knoll.

We had almost reached our destination when Hope froze in his tracks and uttered a single word.

“Brother.”

I stopped and followed Hope’s gaze. On the road, just where it sloped downward, was a sea of scarlet capes quickly approaching. Brother Lux was at the fore, leading the inquisitors toward us.

“Hope- let’s go,” I urged.

Hope grunted, straining as though he were being held against his will. I reached out and shattered the spell that bound him.

Hope, now free, rushed at his Brother, fists raised to strike.

Brother Lux was unarmed, but he easily sidestepped Hope’s attack. While Hope stumbled past, Brother Lux raised his hand, seeming to focus his attention on the battlefield beyond.

All at once, the fighting ceased. Pride’s soldiers, the dragoons, and even Wisdom’s soldiers were held, suspended in mid action. Swords froze against shields, men held weapons over their heads, poised to strike, and one soldier hovered just over the ground in mid-fall. Hope, too, froze where he had stumbled.

Only the inquisitors continued to move. They followed Brother Lux, all unarmed and with their hands folded in prayer as Lux approached Pride.

“Do not interfere with my spell, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said.

“I won’t allow you to slaughter everyone while they are helpless,” I said.

Brother Lux paused to stare at me, his eyebrows raised as though in surprise.

“I intend to do nothing of the sort,” Brother Lux said. “I am here to prevent bloodshed.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated all of my hatred and mistrust on the spell that bound the men against their will. My feelings flooded the field, just as they had the night that I broke Wisdom’s spell. I could feel the spell shatter under my will.

Everyone remained frozen.

Lux smirked, and then turned to face Pride once more.

“I don’t harbor any ill-will toward you,” Lux said gently as he approached. “Pray, do not escalate this violence unnecessarily. Your men-”

“My men are ready to fight and die for their God,” Pride spat.

At that moment the spell broke, and once again arms clashed, men advanced and fell back; chaos erupted.

Brother Lux grappled Pride, even as Hope roused himself and ran for his brother. When Hope reached the place where Brother Lux and Pride had stood, they were gone, leaving nothing but a patch of trampled grass in their wake. Hope looked around in confusion, and then closed his eyes as though listening.

Pride’s men fell back, some of them staring at where Pride had stood, and others turning as though to flee.

“Has he abandoned us?”

“No- he would never-” Clarity began, but his voice was soon drowned out by the sounds of panic.

“We are defeated- their numbers are too great.”

“We cannot fight them without our angel.
Pride’s men stumbled back, some pushing each other, and others dropping their weapons in their rush to escape. Wisdom’s soldiers sheathed their weapons and clutched their talismans, and the dragoons clutched their weapons tighter as they watched Pride’s soldiers go back through the field, around the church, and out of sight.

I moved toward Hope, hoping we could make our escape in the chaos, but the dragoons surrounded me, blocking my path. A pair of dragoons stepped forward to flank Hope, as well. Hope, ignoring his new captors, opened his eyes.

“Miss Taris, did you cause that panic?” he said.

One of the inquisitors stepped forward, lowering their cowl to reveal long, golden hair.

“Lux isn’t the only one with power.” she said, winking at me. Then she turned toward the battlefield.

“Fear not,” Miss Taris said, a beatific smile on her face. “Wisdom is with us.”

The soldiers dropped their talismans, and the dragoons dropped their defensive stances. A collective sigh of relief seemed to settle over the battlefield.

Sir Beaumont stepped forward and knelt, taking Miss Taris’s pale hand gently in his own.

“My Lady, I am your humble servant,” he said. “Give your command, and I will obey.”

A very pretty blush painted Miss Taris’s cheeks. She lowered her eyes as though in embarrassment, but when she spoke her voice was strong.

“We have taken the tunnels, but we need a guide,” she said. “Please take us through, and be ready to fight. Once we are safely past the Cathedral Lux, you will have your promised reward.”

She raised her head and spoke to the other dragoons. “You have done well this day; you will all have your promised reward.”

The dragoons stood at attention and saluted Miss Taris.

An inquisitor stepped forward to stand beside Miss Taris and lowered his hood. He had long dark hair, and he wore a concerned expression in his black eyes.

“Are there any injured among you?” he called out to the battlefield.

A few men stepped forward, and then cried out in joy as their wounds glowed with a golden light and vanished.

Then the inquisitor spun to face me.

“You are the Ancient girl, are you not?”

“I am,” I said, sheathing my sword. I cast my gaze around, but could not see any avenue of escape.

“My apologies, Lady,” the inquisitor said with a low bow. “I cannot heal you as I have the others, but I will tend to your wounds if you will allow.”

“I am uninjured, but thank you,” I said.

“That is a great relief, my Lady,” he said. “I am Fortune, at your service.”

Hope stepped forward again, his guards moving with him in lockstep. “Where is my brother?”

“Lux isn’t far. He is distracting Pride,” Miss Taris said. “We can’t allow Pride to disrupt the peace we’ve so recently won, here.”

“The peace?” I said incredulously.

Miss Taris nodded. “Come and see.”

 

 

#

 

 

The inquisitors, Wisdom’s soldiers, and the dragoons all walked together up the road to Rogue Village. They went in no particular order, except that Hope and I were surrounded by a tightly-knot group of dragoons at all times.

As we walked, the winds swept the clouds aside, revealing patches of sky filled with twinkling stars. The quarter moon, high in the sky, peered out from between clouds before covering its face again, like a child playing a peeking game.

The inquisitors began to sing an unfamiliar, but cheerful song in the unmistakable cadence of a litany. After a verse, wisdom’s soldiers joined in with so much enthusiasm that even the dragoons began to sing tentatively, as though the words were unfamiliar.

One of Wisdom’s soldiers smiled at the dragoons, seeming to understand. He raised his voice, singing in diction clear and crisp enough to make the words clear. The soldiers all followed suit, and the song swelled loud enough to fill road and field.

 

Peace on Earth,

And Heaven’s song,

Echo winter- summer long.

 

Angel, God,

And human child,

Join in spring and autumn mild.

 

Peace on earth,

Eternal, sing!

Pray to Wisdom,

Let joy ring!

 

The soldier’s feet, though weighed down with armor, moved as though in a dance down the sloping road. Even the inquisitors, robed and dignified, walked with a spring in their steps.

Ahead of us, I could see the lights of the village, which seemed to twinkle in time with the music. The town was surrounded by a low wall, but the gates were flung wide open, despite the late hour. The guards gave us friendly nods and waves, and we walked into town unimpeded.

Pride’s prediction that the town would be shuttered proved to be incorrect. All of the shops had open doors and open windows that blazed with lamplight. The people walked from shop to shop, some singing, others bearing trays of fruit, nuts, and sweets, and still others handing garlands of spring flowers over the windows and doors.

Hope shot me a bewildered look, but I could only shrug in reply.

When we reached the square, we were met with a strange sight. In the center of the square stood a monument- a large wooden statue of the symbol of Order atop a platform. Men with tools and lumber stood around the statue, some measuring the monument and others taking notes as though they planned to alter it.

A carnival-like atmosphere filled the square around the monument. There were people all around with food, flower garlands, and musical instruments talking, singing, and dancing.

Wisdom’s inquisitors and dragoons dispersed into the crowd, seemingly unable to resist such delights. Hope took my hand, and we edged our way through the crowd toward a dark alleyway just off the square.

“This is a conquered people in the aftermath of a battle?” I whispered. “What happened to Order’s supporters?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t intend to stay long enough to find out,” Hope whispered back. “Come- now’s our chance.”

We both ducked into the narrow alley, but we did not get far before we found someone blocking our path.

Miss Taris, standing tall with folded arms, smiled serenely as we approached.

“Step aside,” I said, putting a hand to the hilt of my sword. “I don’t wish to hurt you.”

Miss Taris ignored me, turning instead toward Hope.

“If the chance to rule all of Aeterna isn’t enough to make you stay,” she said, “perhaps I have something else that will.”

She reached into her robes and drew forth a white envelope, sealed in red wax and bearing on its seal the symbol of del Sol.

Part XCIX

The Coven, Part XCVII

Read from the beginning.

My breath was short, my heart raced, and beads of sweat dripped from my face. Still, I held my stance steady, refusing to show weakness.

I had run the gauntlet of dragoons, from the most experienced ones whom I’d beaten easily, to the highest-ranked, who had floored me. Now I faced the dragoon’s leader, Sir Beaumont, who had not been at all formidable until I saw him in combat.

Sir Beaumont was the most skilled fighter I’d ever faced, and possibly the most skilled I’d ever seen- except for Mercy. He did not dance and dodge about when he fought; his fighting was efficient. He stood, watched, anticipated, and then struck like lightning.

I refused to give up. I changed my approach, hoping that if I made a bold enough advance, my feint would be convincing. Sir Beaumont easily dodged the first strike, his delicate eyebrows raised in amusement.

Then the lights went out.

I could not react in time to stop my follow-up strike, and I felt it connect with its target.

When the lights returned, I saw Sir Beaumont holding his stomach where I’d hit. He wore a look of naked shock, and then he straightened and laughed.

“Even after fighting every dragoon, you managed to land a hit.”

I doubled over, bracing my hands against my knees as I gulped in the air. Then I stood to face my opponent once more.

“I got lucky,” I said, “or perhaps someone helped me cheat. Who turned out the lights?”

Several eyes turned toward Hope, who had been watching practice with a stony expression. He held up his hands as though to demonstrate his innocence, though his expression did not change.

“I don’t know how to operate the lights,” he said.

“I’m sure it was only an accident,” Sir Beaumont said quickly. “The lights sometimes flicker when there are disturbances in the power source. Our Archangel will fix the problem, if there is one.”

Sir Beaumont turned to me. “Well done; you have earned your rank among the company, Lady Frey. From now on, you will train with Lieutenants Wiltshire and Ingram.”

The two men he indicated stepped forward and bowed slightly. I turned and bowed to the men in turn, recognizing them as the two I’d seemed most evenly-matched with when we’d fought.

“Corporal Eddie,” Sir Beaumont said, turning to another soldier. “I would like for you to train Lord Frey. Begin with balance and light endurance- I need for him to be stronger before we encounter danger.”

Corporal Eddings stepped forward and saluted his commander, and then turned and tentatively approached Hope.

Hope gave the corporal a look so withering that the corporal stopped and took a step backward.

“Please do not eat my corporal alive,” Sir Beaumont laughed. Then he turned back to the company. “This is enough for one morning. You are dismissed.”

The men all saluted, and then the company broke up, some of them going to the baths, and others to the mess. Corporal Eddings made a hasty retreat, wearing a look of relief.

“You shouldn’t intimidate him so,” I scolded Hope in a low voice.

“He aimed for your injured shoulder while you were sparring- repeatedly,” Hope grumbled. “It’s a dishonorable way to fight.”

“There’s hardly a mark on my shoulder, anymore,” I said. “Besides, there is no such thing as dishonorable fighting. Mercy has done worse- when she wasn’t mesmerized. She taught me many hard lessons on a daily basis.”

“That is different,” Hope said through gritted teeth.

“Why- because she is a woman?” I said with a laugh as I sat next to Hope.

“Of course not; I am well acquainted with Mercy’s strength. It is simply that I know Mercy, and I trust her.”

Lieutenant Wiltshire, who had been speaking to Sir Beaumont nearby, smirked and stepped a little closer to us, speaking in a raised voice. “Sir Beaumont, you are one step closer to your goal, today.”

“His goal?” Hope said.

“To form an all-female company. He’s had the mad idea for some time. Pride has always said no, of course.”

“A woman’s light figure is superior for riding, and an enemy would not expect a woman soldier, giving the company an advantage,” Sir Beamont said. “I stand by my original assessment.”

“Perhaps some women could act as helpers to the company, but in general, the difference in size and strength between men and women gives men an unfair advantage in a fight,” Lieutenant Wiltshire said.

I was surprised that Lieutenant Wiltshire contradicted his superior so boldly. Sir Beaumont did not chide him, however, but merely smiled in reply.

“In general, woman’s strength is different than a man’s,” Sir Beaumont said. “But that strength, I believe, can be molded to use in a martial setting. You must admit that Lady Frey got the best of you, this morning.”

“She is an Ancient, which makes a great difference. Besides, I was tired from marching. It will not happen again.”

“I have been marching, the same as you,” I said.

Lieutenant Wiltshire looked ready to argue, but at that moment a commander of the foot soldiers walked past, and Lieutenant Wiltshire’s face went red. He bowed deeply to Sir Beaumont before making a hasty retreat. Sir Beaumont, also, bowed before making his way to the mess area.

I leaned closer to Hope as the others dispersed.

“You really don’t need to worry about me,” I said earnestly. “I am strong- stronger than when you were taken from me.”

“I know, but I had little else to do but worry about your wellbeing while I was in prison. Now that you are with me, I feel as though I must grip you tighter, or you might slip through my fingers like Prudence and Celeste.”

“We will get them back,” I whispered. “Trust Mercy to protect them, and trust me to protect you while we search for them.”

Hope closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, his face was relaxed and serene.

“You are right; I should trust you.” He leaned to whisper in my ear. “Keep a hand on your sword’s hilt, but be slow to draw it. Stay close to me, and keep watch.”

“Ahem.” I heard an exaggerated cough, and I turned to see Raven standing behind me. She stood with her hands on her hips, wearing an annoyed expression.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” she said. “We will have to go, soon. Are you ready?”

Raven stared into Hope’s eyes, and he gazed steadily back. It was a silent communication I could not join.

“We will be ready,” he said.

“Make sure you are,” she said, casting a significant glance in my direction.

The lights flickered again. Then, when the lights glowed steady and bright once more, Clarity called out.

“There’s no time to dawdle. Everyone, take a pack and fall in.”

Without question, the troops obeyed, taking up their rucksacks and satchels and filing out into the hall. Clarity called to the troops as they went, telling them to “look alive.”

Before I could think about what had passed between Raven and Hope, we were in the hallway, marching in double-time.

 

 

#

 

 

The party paused once at mid-morning. Pride held up his hand for attention, and then turned to Sir Beaumont.

“There is a utility room here,” he said, gesturing to a section of blank wall to his left. “Contact our allies at Rouge Village. I will test the power here.”

Sir Beaumont bowed and then went to the blank section of wall, which opened to admit him. Meanwhile, Pride gestured to another soldier, who stepped forward, bearing a folding box which he unfolded and placed on the ground.

Pride stepped onto the box and reached up to a section of cord that was attached to the ceiling near the lights. He made the sign of order with his free hand and then closed his eyes as though to pray, but instead of reciting a prayer or litany, he hummed a deep, guttural “ohm…”

A few moments later the lights flickered again, and Pride opened his eyes, though he continued to hum. Then he stopped humming, stepped down from the stool, and spoke to Clarity.

Hope leaned forward and narrowed his eyes as though he were struggling to hear what Pride said, but I could hear the entire conversation clearly.

Before I could say anything to Hope, the wall opened once more, and Sir Beaumont stepped out.

“We are victorious, just as you predicted, my Priest,” Sir Beaumont said with a deep bow toward Clarity. “Wisdom’s forces are in retreat, and are now behind the forest line.”

“Excellent,” Pride said. “I shall inform Reverence in my prayers.”

Clarity stepped forward and barked his orders. “Sir Beaumont, fall in. Troops- move out!.”

 

 

#

 

 

Energy lines are unbroken, I wrote on Hope’s palm later that night. Problem is with the portal.

Suspicious, Hope replied.

I agreed, and the reasons for my suspicions seemed too numerous to write on Hope’s palm. Why would the energy portal to this place experience disturbances if Reverence were awake, and in his full power? Is that why Pride had used a spell of silence to screen his conference with Clarity? Didn’t he know I would hear him, anyway?

Unable to articulate all of my worries in such a limited language, I simply wrote, what next?

Hope paused, and the silence seemed to stretch out around us, as boundless as the darkness. Then he wrote on my palm again.

Be ready. Raven will signal.

      What signal?

      The Grand Litany. Raven will whistle.

      This was so surprising I could not formulate another question, so I just signaled my understanding to Hope. I stayed up very late, however, thinking about the signal Raven had chosen.

The Grand Litany was the first litany every child learned to sing, the litany chosen to close most church services, and one sung at happy events, such as weddings. It was a litany which represented Order’s triumph, when he had finally overcome the demonic rebellion and cast the demons into the abyss. Why, I wondered, would a demon use that litany to signal our chance to escape Reverence’s angel?

As the night grew old and fatigue cast her heavy blanket over my anxiety, I realized that I was overthinking the signal’s meaning. It was a common and recognizable tune, so Hope and I would not easily mistake it. Raven could use her simple whistle to communicate meaning even if Hope could not look into Raven’s eyes to see her thoughts, and I would be able to easily follow.

Still, I thought the others would find it strange for Raven to whistle such a tune. She may have formed an alliance with Pride, but it was a tentative one born from convenience.

My mind formed such a strange loop over the puzzle that I could not discern the place where my thoughts morphed into dreams, and I drifted seamlessly into sleep.

 

 

#

 

 

Pride’s company set out even earlier than the day before. There was no time for drills and little time for breakfast. We assembled and marched, and as we did so the ground seemed to tilt under my feet. Soon, I found we were climbing up. Then the tunnel turned sharply to one side, and at the end I could see a ladder, which led to a hatch-door like the one Hope and I had descended through.

Sir Beaumont signaled for silence and stepped forward on quiet feet. He ascended the latter, opened the hatch, and then passed through to the outside.

Pride and Clarity waited with bored expressions, but the soldiers hardly seemed to breathe in anticipation of Sir Beaumont’s return. Finally, Sir Beaumont did return, wearing a smile of triumph.

“All is clear. We may emerge.”

The process of ascending was slow. Because the ladder was narrow, we were only able to emerge one at a time. The order of our emergence was reversed- instead of Pride and Clarity leading the way, the men parted, forming an aisle down the middle of the corridor for the lowest privates to pass. The lowest-ranking men climbed the ladder first, followed by their commanders, the low-ranking dragoons, and then the high-ranking dragoons. Finally, Clarity turned and gestured to Hope, Raven, and I.

“We will be just behind you,” he said.

The ground outside was wet, and a deliciously moist breeze blew across the open field by the forest line. Overhead, dark clouds shifted and sunlight broke through, indicating that a storm had just passed.

I stepped out of a pine box- a fake coffin much like the one I’d entered. This grave, however, was not a criminal or pauper’s tomb, but rather one neatly tended grave among others in a country churchyard.

The churchyard was not large, and it was now overcrowded with soldiers and dragoons, who pressed against the low picket fence and stepped over tidy beds of narcissus and cup-flowers. Climbing roses covered the church wall behind us, obscuring any windows.

Clarity and Pride emerged from the grave, and then Clarity folded back the coffin lid and covered it with a length of fake sod, which blended neatly with the mowed grass beside it.

“Oh!” Raven paused, her eyes wide as though in surprise. “That scent- is there a confectioner nearby?”

Clarity gave Raven a withering glance. “Of course not, stupid girl. All of the shops in the village will be shuttered now, anyway.”

“But- then what is that scent? It’s delicious.”

I took a deep breath, but all I could smell was the moist air and the rain-washed flowers.

“It’s just the cup flowers,” I said. “Haven’t you smelled them, before?”

“I traveled to the city underground, and the city wasn’t like this at all.” Raven paused and turned, taking everything in. Then she turned to me and muttered.

“You don’t know what you have, do you?”

Before I could respond to this strange comment, Clarity barked another order for the soldiers to fall in, and then we marched through the churchyard gate and into the field beyond.

The field was surrounded on two sides by forest, with the churchyard behind us and an open area to the west. Pride led the party west, toward a muddy road that wound out of sight. Before we reached the road, however, he stopped, putting his hand up for silence, and then looked around.

For a moment, I heard only silence. Then, there was a rustling sound in the trees around us. Sir Beaumont gestured toward the Dragoons, who moved to the outside of our group, their arms bared to the trees beyond.

“Show yourselves,” Sir Beaumont called to the trees.

That was when the enemy appeared, slipping from the shadows and from among the trees as though by magic. Their movements were so smooth they didn’t rustle a single leaf.

And there were scores of them.

The enemy soldiers were armed with swords and bows that shone as though they were brand new. Their uniforms were clean and tidy, and the symbol of Wisdom shone in silver on each strong, upright chest.

Sir Beaumont’s eyes narrowed. He drew himself to his full height, seeming to gather his courage.

“Dragoons, move now!” he called.

The Dragoons moved as one without hesitation, turning their backs toward Wisdom’s soldiers to point their arms at Pride and his men.

Part XCVIII

The Coven, Part XCVI

Read from the beginning.

 

I dried myself as quickly as I could, threw on the pilgrim’s robes, and bundled Hope’s clothes into my valise. Then I followed Raven, plaiting my damp hair as I went.

All of the men were gathered in the mess area, and Hope was with them. He sat a little bit apart from the men, wearing an expression of peaceful contemplation that, combined with his pilgrim’s robes and shorn head, gave him the look of an aesthetic.

Hope looked up at me and smiled a little, gesturing toward the seat beside him. I joined him, and trays very much like the ones we had eaten from the day before were passed down the row. Hope and I each took one, and inside were rubbery eggs, porridge, and grilled vegetables.

Hope took a few bites, and then he sighed. “I dreamed of such food while I was in prison, but now I don’t have much stomach.”

“Are you unwell?”

“No- I’ve just grown unaccustomed to rich food. You may well laugh,” he said, gesturing with his fork to the unflavored vegetables and unsweetened porridge, “but this is a feast compared to what I’ve eaten these last few months. I will adjust in time.

“It will be far more difficult for me to adjust to seeing you spar,” he added with a serious expression, though his eyes glittered playfully. “It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to rescue you from that young brute and his wooden sword.”

I pushed my own eggs around my tray, and then swallowed a mouthful. “I hope that my easy victory reassured you that I don’t need rescue.”

“Oh no,” Hope laughed. “I am far too impulsive to allow for such rational reflection upon the evidence of my own senses. I’m all anxiety for you. Still, I must admit that I am impressed by how far you’ve come in the span of a couple of months- if I really was in prison for only a couple of months.”

I leaned forward and whispered. “I must make a confession. I began learning to fight while I was still at St. Blanc. Mercy taught me each morning in secret.”

“So that is why you went missing each morning and came back covered in mysterious bruises. There is one source of my anxiety put to rest. I trust that, from now on, there will be no more secrets between us.”

Hope’s tone was still light- teasing- yet I felt a stab of guilt all the same. I could not discern the source of the guilt. The only secret I could think of that remained between us were the measures I’d taken to ensure my people’s freedom- the battle at the Ancient temple, and the promise I’d made to Wisdom never to bear children. I had not intentionally concealed these facts from Hope. Absolute secrecy was required to keep the Ancients safe, and I had only remained silent due to circumstance.

I resolved to tell Hope as soon as the opportunity presented itself, but guilt still lingered in that dark place in the back of my mind where I dared not look.

 

 

#

 

 

After breakfast the lower-ranked men cleaned the barracks, and then everyone filed outside. Brother St. Anise sealed the room behind us, and then we fell into rank and resumed our march through the tunnel.

The march was just as monotonous as it had been the day before, made worse because it continued the whole day. Any cheer or conversation among the ranks of soldiers was gone; there was little else but the rhythmic sound of footsteps that echoed through the endless grey tunnel.

Hope broke the silence from time to time, trying both flattery and humility in turn to coax information from Clarity St. Anise. For all of Hope’s efforts, Clarity responded best to frustration, saying very little unless Hope uttered a statement that he found to be particularly ignorant.

“This tunnel is a most remarkable feat of construction; it seems endless. Will it take many weeks for us to reach the first exit?”

“Weeks? Don’t be ridiculous,” Clarity snapped. “It is a mere three days until we reach Rouge Village. You would know this if you’d paid any attention to the map in the cathedral.”

“Rouge Village is one of the western villages,” Hope said slowly. “Won’t it be dangerous for us to disembark while Wisdom’s troops approach?”

“Wisdom’s army will not be a problem. We have soldiers and dragoons that can lend their strength to Order’s troops, but I’m sure it won’t be necessary. By the time we arrive, Wisdom will have been defeated.”

Without thinking, I put my hand to the hilt of my sword, which was tucked into the girdle of my pilgrim’s robes. I was not at all reassured by Clarity’s confidence.

“So soon?” Hope said. “Then Wisdom’s army must be very close to the villages already.”

“Of course they are close. Wisdom’s army had a head start, and they can march straight through the forest pass, while our tunnel must go around because of the poor soil. Now please- cease these ridiculous questions. I have much more important things to worry about than putting your ignorant mind at ease.”

We continued to march until I felt I could not go another step, and then we stumbled into another barracks. Though this barracks was designated “B2,” the room looked so exactly like the one we’d left that I thought we must have walked in a circle and returned to the same place.

There was a short and quiet repast in the mess hall, and then we fell into our cots and the lights were extinguished.

Without the glow of electric light, the room was so dark that I could not tell when my eyes were open or shut. Underground, with no window to let in moonlight or starlight, I could not even discern shadows.

I started when I heard a scraping sound beside me, but relaxed when I realized that Hope was moving his cot closer. Then I felt his hand in mine, and I felt complete- like something I’d lost was found.

We lay side by side in silence for a time. Then his hand moved, and he traced his finger across my palm, just as I had when I’d first seen him in prison.

He traced the letters E-S-C-A-P-E, and he traced them a second time, followed by a question mark.

He held his palm flat, and I put my finger against it to trace. Yes. When?

      I held my palm flat again and he answered. Rouge Village. Raven’s Plan.

      Trust her?  I replied.

Yes.

What plan?

Chaos. Wait for signal. He paused a moment, and then traced some more letters. Find Prudence and Celeste- then what?

      Ships at Del Sol.

      Going where?

      The wildlands.

      Hope paused, and then wrote. Whose ships?

      Friends.  I paused then, unsure of how to convey what had happened in such a disjointed and easily misinterpreted language. Ancients using ships to escape.

      Ancients?

      Yes. Wisdom marked for death.

      I took Hope’s hand and placed it against my chest, lightly tracing his fingers over the scar that lay underneath. Hope drew in a sharp breath, his hand trembled as he traced the shape once, twice, and three times.

Then I took his palm again and wrote. I made the scar. Disguise. Fought for freedom at Ancient temple.

      How?

      Help from friends. Ancients hide until escape. Secret.

      Hope took my hand, but did not trace any more letters. Instead he brought my palm to his lips and kissed it. Then he drew me to him in a fierce embrace, kissing my brow, my cheeks, my lips.

I allowed myself to bask in his tender kisses, but after a time, I heard the voice of guilt call from the back of my mind.

I was giving Hope my secrets, and yet the guilt remained.

I dismissed the feeling, but I suddenly became very aware of where we were, and that though the room was dark, there was still no privacy. The soldiers around us could hear everything.

I did not break the kiss, but I did slow it. I did not pull away from him, nor did I advance. My actions were sensible- proper- but they still separated us a little.

Though Hope did not complain, I was certain he could sense that something new stood between us.

Part XCVII

The Coven, Part XCV

Read from the beginning.

 

The room designated “B1,” was a military-style barracks, filling one large, open room that was divided into thirds. The section nearest the door was filled with rows of cots, the furthest section was a mess area filled with tables and benches, and the section between was a wide, flat area with prayer rugs lined up before the symbols of Order, Chastity, and Reverence, which were painted in scarlet and gold on the grey walls.

There was as little privacy in the barracks as there had been in the Cathedral St. Blanc’s infirmary, but in the barracks, at least, there were cots available for everyone. For the duration of Hope’s trial, I had either curled up beside Hope on the edge of his cot, or else had forgone sleep altogether. Here, I was able to stretch out on my own cot, and this luxury was enough to overcome the effects of the strong tea I’d had moments before.

The lights in the barrack were extinguished, and I soon fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

#

 

 

The electric light of morning burst suddenly in the barracks. I sat up, trying to blink away the dreams danced at the edge of my brain like the  spots that danced in my eyes.

When my vision cleared, I saw that groups of soldiers were assembling in the center of the barracks. They had rolled up all of the prayer rugs, and were using the open space for drills.

I turned to the cot beside me. Despite the sudden burst of light, Hope lay still- his breath even and unperturbed. I moved quietly, though none of my movements could be as loud as the soldier’s chatter, and gently touched Hope’s forehead. He was not feverish, and his breathing was even. He sighed and buried his head in his arm to block the light- exhausted.

I felt under my cot, where I’d stowed my belongings the night before, and retrieved my sword. Then I stood and joined the ranks of soldiers in the center of the room.

I imagined that I understood how Miss Taris felt the day she joined Mercy’s lessons at del sol. I knew that I was not welcome, but I was determined to learn to use my new weapon, so I stood behind the back ranks of swordsmen and followed the exercise, ready to be admonished for my intrusion at any time. The commander, however, ignored me as he led the exercise, and I was able to follow along in peace.

My left shoulder twinged in protest at the exercise, even though I hefted the sword with my right arm. As my muscles grew warmer, however, my shoulder felt looser, and soon I found I had regained the full range of motion. I had hoped for an opportunity to examine my injured shoulder, but there had been no privacy for me to remove my shirt, or even to loosen it for fear of exposing my scars. When I touched my shoulder, however, it seemed less tender and less swollen, so I contented myself with this knowledge and kept my attention on my sword arm as much as I could.

After the preliminary exercises were done, the commander arranged his men into sparring groups of two. I stepped away from the group to rejoin Hope, who had awakened and was watching the drills. The commander, however, stopped me.

“Private Harrison, try your strength against the girl,” he barked.

Many of the men laughed as a bulky, awkward youth stepped forward. He blushed slightly, but he obeyed his commander.

The commander handed me a wooden practice sword, and gestured for me to move to the center of the room.

“I expect you to go all-out, private,” the commander snapped. “Don’t let her sex fool you; she is a trained Ancient warrior.”

The young man nodded, but he slid into his fighting stance slowly- reluctantly. When the commander called for us to begin, he made a halfhearted swing, which I easily parried before delivering a slap with the broadside of the sword to his side.

The men roared with laughter. “Go on, Harrison. You swing like a girl!”

Private Harrison’s face grew even redder, but he set his jaw determinedly. I found myself growing hot, as well.

We began to fight in earnest, even as laughter and jeers echoed around us. Private Harrison managed one stinging hit to my arm before I noticed his fighting pattern. It was not difficult to see- it was the exact pattern we had moved in during floor exercises. I easily countered his next few moves, and then delivered two quick blows.

“Hey- that’s not how you’re supposed to do it,” he complained.

I ignored his complaints and continued, trying to ignore the taunts from the other soldiers as we fought. This was nothing like sparring before the Sisters at del Sol- I was beating the private easily, but I got no cheers of encouragement from the crowd. Each point I scored was not my triumph, but my opponent’s failure, to be mocked and derided.

Finally, I’d had enough. I swept my opponents legs and, when he fell, held the fake sword to his throat.

“You aren’t supposed to sweep the leg,” Private Harrison groaned.

“There aren’t any rules on the battlefield,” I said, repeating Mercy’s lessons. “There’s just alive and dead.”

Then I held out my hand to help him stand. He waved it away in disgust and stood on his own, turning his back to me.

“That’s not quite how things work in the infantry,” the commander said. “The soldiers here are not warriors. They are rigid, like swords the command wields against the enemy. They are taught simple forms their captains can predict, adapt, and direct against the enemy when they move.”

“I see,” I said. I handed the wooden sword back to the commander.

“Still- that was well done.” The commander put the sword aside and shook my hand earnestly. “I suggest you train with the dragoons. They use many different weapons, they fight from horseback or on foot, and are therefore more adaptable. You will get a greater challenge from them.”

“Thank you for your advice,” I said.

There was no time to approach the dragoons, however. The morning drills were over, and the men were dispersing through a door in the side of the room, their postures relaxed, chatting as they went. Even in the relaxed atmosphere, however, remnants of the rigid hierarchy remained. No one spoke to anyone outside their own rank, and men of lower rank stood aside for their superiors to pass through the doors first.

I returned to Hope, who was watching me with a strange, calculating expression. Before I could speak to him, however, Raven approached- her red hair still rumpled from sleep. She was carrying two white robes, which she shoved toward us.

“They are pilgrim’s robes. There are cupboards full of them here, and I thought you would want to change,” she gestured vaguely toward Hope’s thin, fraying prisoner’s clothes.

“Thank you,” Hope said. He looked around. “Where…”

“The baths are through there,” Raven said, pointing to the door where the soldiers were filing out. “You can freshen up and change there.”

Hope nodded and stood as Raven took my hand, pulling me to the opposite side of the room.

“Come on- the women’s bath is over here, and we will have it all to ourselves.”

I opened my mouth to object, but I could summon no reasonable excuse to refuse. It had been ages since I’d had a proper bath. I’d both slept and exercised in Hope’s shirt and breeches, and the broadcloth clung to my sweaty skin.

I allowed Raven to haul me into the women’s bath, hoping I would find some way to secure privacy once we’d arrived. My hopes, however, were dashed as soon as I saw the room. Three was no screen to change behind, no curtains to separate bathers, or any other luxury of that sort. There was a section of latrines with a series of stalls to afford privacy, but the bath itself was a wide, open pool of water. Pleasantly scented steam rose from the bathwater, though not enough to conceal anything in the bright electric light.

“Here- you’re supposed to wash before getting into the bath,” Raven said, indicating a series of stools nearby, each of which was supplied a wash-bucket and fresh bar of soap. Then she began to undress, unselfconsciously shedding her layers of skirts and crinolines and hanging them on a hook on the wall.

Then she paused and looked at me.

“You’ve never used a public bath, before?”

“The bath was shared at del Sol,” I said, “but there were curtains for privacy.”

“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” Raven said cheerfully. “It’s just the two of us, and we’re both women.”

“There aren’t any- I believe you called them cameras?” I said, thinking of the ‘eyes’ Raven had been so careful of before.

“Oh no- I made sure of that the first time I used the bath. Don’t worry- we are perfectly alone.”

I sighed in resignation. “Raven, there are some scars on my body that- that may appear strange. Please do not ask about them, and please don’t tell anyone else.”

“I wouldn’t say anything about your scars. I promise.”

I nodded and slipped off Hope’s shirt.

Raven did not watch me as I undressed. I hung up my clothes, quickly removed the bandages from my shoulder, and we washed and rinsed in silence. As we slipped into the bath, however, Raven caught sight of the scar on my chest, and her eyes went wide.

“That isn’t-” she stopped and slapped her hand over her mouth.

“I really cannot talk about it,” I said. “Please-“

“I’m sorry. I promised not to ask, so I won’t. Am I allowed to ask about the bruise on your shoulder?”

“It’s not important,” I said.

Raven shrugged, and then cupped her hands, pouring the warm water over her neck and back. “So then- I’ll just change the subject, I guess. What do you think about Pride’s plan?”

“If you are referring to Pride’s battle plans, I have no idea. I haven’t learned anything about tactics, yet. If you are referring to his plan to ally with Sancti…”

I hesitated, unable to put my misgivings into words. Even so, Raven nodded as though in understanding.

“A lot of people in Aeterna think that Sancti is a beacon of enlightenment and liberality, but things in Sancti are really just as bad as they are in Aeterna,” Raven said quietly. “The slaves are free in name only. No support has been offered to them to help them start new lives, and no one wants to hire former slaves. Because of this, most former slaves have to work for their former masters for next to nothing, and their mistreatment continues just as before. Taxes in Sancti are generally low, and the higher classes hold to the old notion of noblesse oblige– giving pittances to she serfs and servants from time to time. But anyone who questions authority or steps outside of their rank are heavily punished.”

“How do you know all of this?” I asked. “Have you been to Sancti?”

“No but…” Raven bit her lip. “How do I explain this? You’ve seen the magic mirrors- how they allow you to see anything on the other side- right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, the mirrors can send all kind of information- not just images and sound. They can send books, for example, or pamphlets. You can send charts full of information, or scientific papers. On the moon, almost everyone has a magic mirror, and they use them to form a huge network of information.”

“Is information from Earth shared on this network?”

“Not on the near side of the moon- the side where demons live,” Raven said. “The church owns the magic mirrors on Earth, and they only send information to the angels. Luckily, we manage to break into the angelic network from time to time to see their information.

“There’s another way to get information from earth, but it’s less reliable. Magic can connect practitioners in an intimate way, creating a sort of network of minds. People who contract with demons, or sometimes even sing our chants, can share insights with us directly. Of course, the people who contact us are already unhappy, so the information we get from them may be biased, but even accounting for that, the picture of Sancti isn’t good.”

I opened my mouth to ask more questions about the networks, but Raven put her hand to her head.

“The steam is getting to me. I should get out.” Raven sighed deeply and poured a handful of water onto her face. “One thing before I go; I heard a commander suggest that you practice with the dragoons. When you do, keep an eye on Sir Beaumont. Don’t let him see your scars.”

Raven turned away and climbed out of the bath before I could ask any more questions. She swayed a little as she did so, as though she were dizzy from the steam, but she quickly steadied herself. I moved to follow her, and noticed that while my skin had grown red from the heat, hers was still like porcelain.

Part XCVI