Hope and I talked in whispers until his voice dropped, and from the rhythm of his breathing I could tell he had fallen asleep. I had been holding his hand as we spoke, and though every instinct I had screamed in protest of the act, I slipped my hand from his, taking care not to wake him.
He shifted a little, and then his breath fell back into its steady rhythm. I watched him sleep until tears came to my eyes and blurred my vision. Here it was- real evidence that I had in some way changed his fate. At least one spell had been broken.
I wiped my tears away and kissed his cheek. I turned away from him then, feeling as though I were being pulled in two directions at once. I knew I must stay with Hope, who was battle-scarred yet still facing his biggest fight yet, and yet I knew I must go to Prudence and Celeste, to make certain that Pius and Lux had not broken their oath.
Circumstance resolved my conflict, in the end. I managed to sneak past the guards who stood around the entrance to the infirmary, but when I reached the annex the guards were many, and an iron portcullis had been drawn down, barring the door. I could find no way inside, and was obliged to return to the infirmary. When I arrived, the inquisitor who guarded the entrance spotted me, and pushed me back inside with a curt order not to leave without permission again.
“Lady Frey, how good it is to meet you again!”
Miss Taris’s unnaturally bright voice interrupted my reverie as I scanned the courtroom, looking for Prudence.
I had been roused before the sun and taken from the infirmary so that the inquisitors could prepare their prisoners for the courtroom, and though I’d asked Brother Amicus to take me to the annex, he’s insisted that it would be much more convenient to bring me to the courtroom before the crowds gathered. People had already begun to gather, though the crowd was much thinner than it had been the night before, but there was no sign of Prudence.
“Lady Frey, are you well?”
I turned reluctantly away from the doors to see Miss Taris, standing before me in her snowy white gown and looking radiant. She had lost all of the pallor she’d shown at del Sol- her cheeks and lips bloomed with pink, and her blue eyes sparkled as though with dew.
“I am,” I said. “And you seem to have recovered since yesterday; I have never seen you look so well as you do now.”
“I am remarkably well,” she said, and she leaned down to grace both of my cheeks with a kiss as though we were old friends reunited.
As she straightened I could see that her reed-like figure had lost all of its awkwardness. She moved her formerly stiff limbs with an easy grace. She no longer wore her spectacles, but her sparkling eyes showed no sign of fatigue or strain.
“I come bearing good will from del Sol. Abbess Joy sends you her love, and the sisters all send their well-wishes.”
“I do miss them. Was everyone well when you left del Sol?”
“Oh yes- del Sol continues as peacefully as ever. I was grieved to leave, but I have decided against taking orders. I believe I may do more good for the world elsewhere.”
She turned and smiled significantly at Brother Amicus, who stood guard nearby, and then turned back to me.
“The sisters miss Celeste, and of course Sister Jubilee. Where is Sister Jubilee, by the way?”
“Sister Jubilee is with Celeste, now,” I said. “I came early because…”
Before I could formulate an excuse, I caught sight of my father, who was making his way up the aisle with Lady Fairfax. Miss Taris followed my gaze.
“Oh of course- you needed to speak with your father. Pray do not let me interrupt. I only wanted to give you this for luck.”
She pressed an embroidered handkerchief into my hand, and then leaned forward to whisper in my ear.
“All of Wisdom’s people stand behind your husband; he will be free.”
The she straightened again and turned, nodding briefly to my father before gliding past to her seat.
Father approached me. As I slipped the handkerchief into my pocket, I could feel something hard tucked inside of it.
“Well, Grace- I hope you are sufficiently prepared,” Father said gruffly. “What a circus this is! The crowds are backed up all the way to 2nd street, and all the events that occur are shouted from pressman to pressman in a chain until they take on the most outrageous character. Some have said that young Miss Taris died of fright when she saw the ‘witches,’ and still others say that Bishop Septimus has put all the prisoners to the rack before our very eyes, trying to extract a public confession.”
“The rumors will only agitate the crowds,” I said. “I wish you would both go to Willowbrook for your safety.”
“I wouldn’t miss the conclusion of this for the world. I must not rely on any witness but my own,” Father said. “But, Lady Fairfax, perhaps you should go. Smith can travel with you, you know- there is no one more trustworthy- and I will tell you everything that has happened when the trial is over.”
Lady Fairfax faltered, looking from my father to raised dais at the front of the courtroom and back again.
“If the trial as important as you say, then I hate to go,” she said.
“The importance of this trial is where the danger lies,” I said, lowering my voice. “The crowds will only grow more restless, and when the verdict is delivered, no matter which way it goes, conflict may erupt.”
“Then hadn’t I better go home to Winter Estates?”
My father shook his head. “Your estate lies too close to Sancti’s borders, and I think Sancti will join the conflict soon enough. Willowbrook is outside the lines of conflict, now that Bridon City is no longer the capital. Plus, if the need arises, you can take sanctuary in the Cathedral Lux, which is the most well-fortified place in the country.”
Lady Fairfax’s eyes went wide. “Do you really believe it will become so dangerous?”
My father only shrugged. “I don’t know. If I’m estimating the scale of powers properly, the conflict should be brief but intense.”
Lady Fairfax shuddered.
“I would not recommend going back out today,” Father continued. “Stay to witness the trial today, and set out early tomorrow from Bridon place, traveling along the avenue to the south. Take Smith and Greene- the footman- with you, and travel post-“
“Post!” Lady Fairfax said, as though shocked.
“Your carriage will draw too much attention,” Father said. “My servants will be ready to receive you at Willowbrook, Lady Fairfax, so do not fear. Wait there until I return for you.”
Lady Fairfax nodded, her face white with fear. I stepped forward and took her hand, speaking gently.
“I do agree with my father that you should go, but don’t let his rough way of speaking frighten you. Things may not be as bad as he states; this is really a precaution more than anything else.”
Lady Fairfax nodded. “Thank you for everything you’ve done, dear Grace, and may the Gods protect you and your husband. When I think of everything you’ve done for your father, I am quite ashamed of how I behaved at court.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean all the scheming I went through to repair your relationship with your father, of course. I was so dismayed when I saw the coldness- even hostility- between you. I knew, of course, that your father was eager for a grandchild, so I thought that if you were to give him one, everything would be well between you.”
I sighed. “Lady Fairfax, did you start the rumors at court?”
Lady Fairfax’s cheeks colored a little under her powder. “Your husband seemed so much in love, and you were so lately married, that I didn’t see any reason why the rumor wouldn’t soon be made true, if it wasn’t already. What was the harm in reaping the benefits of the happy event as soon as possible? What was the harm in trying to help things along?”
“You were the one who placed the drugged incense outside our rooms, weren’t you?”
“The incense was perfectly harmless, I assure you. It is a recipe my grandmother concocted- like the witchbane potion. Please forgive me. I only had the good of the family in mind.”
Lady Fairfax hung her head, looking so uncharacteristically humble that my anger melted entirely.
“I know your intentions were good. I forgive you. In the future, come and speak to father and I about our problems, instead of using deceit to solve them.”
“I will,” she said. Then she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, and sat beside Father.
The crowd was growing thicker, and I was soon joined by Mr. St. Roch and Mr. Sutton, the latter of whom happily relayed that he’d completed his commissions from the day before. He had found Chastity’s sister as well as reported, and he had taken the opportunity of being amongst the crowds to gauge where public support lay. I listened to his report, still scanning the crowds but seeing no sign of Prudence.
The Bishops assembled, Bishop Benedict led the opening prayer once more, and then the prisoners were led into the courtroom.
The prisoners appeared quite different from the previous day, though it was due much more to their new, white robes than the effect of a single decent meal and sleep in an infirmary cot. The robes were loose enough to hide their emaciated frames, and the sleeves were long enough to hide Captain Goode’s handless arms. Even Lord Willoughby had been dressed in the plain white robes, though bells still hung around his neck and clanked against his heavy chains. Hope’s eyes had been wrapped in fresh bandages, and Lady Willoughby wore a white cap, as though a woman’s shorn head had been deemed just as unseemly.
Captain Goode looked sharply at me and then leaned in to whisper something to Hope, turning his gaze to the opposite side of the room. I followed Captain Goode’s gaze and saw Prudence seated at the far end of the noblesse section flanked by two inquisitors. She gave me a short wave, which I returned before the court was called back to order.
“Sister Happiness, please stand before the court,” Father Pius said.
Sister Happiness came forward, and Brother Lux bade her stand under the Dais, facing the assembled Bishops. As she repeated her oath from the previous day, I took out a pencil and two sheets of paper, dedicating the top sheet to notes on the proceedings and the second to a letter for Prudence.
I finished the note to Prudence in short order and folded it into a tight square. Then I turned my attention back to Sister Happiness. The Sister looked very small under the dias. She wrung her hands together, and her eyes darted here and there among the crowd.
“State your name for the bishops,” Brother Lux said.
“I am Happiness, Sister of the Abbey de Lune,” she said in clear, steady voice.
“What is your relationship to the accused?” Brother Lux continued.
“I was Lady Willoughby’s teacher when she was a young girl. At the time she still went by the name Miss Patience Fairchild.”
“How long did you tutor young Miss Fairchild?”
“Lord Fairchild brought her to be raised at the abbey when she was five years old- shortly after her mother died. She stayed with us until she was fifteen.”
Bishop Septimus waved his hand, as though he were trying to brush Brother Lux aside, and then he spoke. “How would you characterize Miss Fairchild, Sister? Was she a good pupil?”
“She was an indolent and defiant child. I was obliged to use the strap on her almost daily, and she still would not attend her studies. The only subject she excelled in was music, though she was often saucy toward her music instructress. As Miss Fairchild grew older, she exhibited a voluptuous nature, so I wrote to her father to advise he get her a husband as soon as possible.”
“When you say ‘voluptuous nature,’ what precisely do you mean?” the old Bishop wheezed from the end of the bench.
“Miss Fairchild was only interested in earthly pleasures- music, dance, food, and wine. She did not attend her prayers, and was more apt to read novels than books of an instructive nature. Her healthy appetite assisted her precocious growth, and she grew so strong that she quite disregarded the sting of the strap, or even the cane. When I wrote to Lord Fairchild, I advised him that she would need a husband with a strong hand manage her.”
Sister Happiness seemed to have lost all of her nervousness as she spoke. Her voice took on a hard, authoritarian tone, and she turned a grim eye toward the prisoner’s box more than once.
“Did you ever meet Lord Willoughby?” Bishop Benedict asked.
“I met Lord Willoughby twice. The first time I met him was when he brought his petition to marry Miss Fairchild to the bishop of the Cathedral Lune- the now late Bishop Julian. Lord Fairchild forbade the match, so the petition was denied. Then, a year later, Lord and Lady Willoughby were married at the Cathedral de Lune, and I attended.”
“Within that year, I take it, Lord Fairchild had relented?” Bishop Benedict continued.
“He had,” Sister Happiness said, “though I believe he was not in his right mind when he did so. He was ailing, and he seemed somewhat addled. His daughter, under the auspices of caring for him, dictated everything to Lord Fairchild. I am convinced that Lady Willoughby took advantage of her father’s poor health to trick him into signing the marriage contract.”
“What lead you to believe that Lady Willougby had tricked her father?” Bishop Benedict asked.
“How could I believe otherwise?” Sister Happiness snapped back. “How could anyone who had seen Lord Fairchild the year before believe otherwise? Lord Fairchild’s contempt for Lord Willoughby’s weak and decadent nature would have been enough reason in itself to forbid the match, but there was a long-standing enmity between the Fairchild and Willoughby families that allowed for no possibility he would ever lend his consent to the marriage.”
Sister Happiness’s voice rose almost to a shout, but then her pale cheeks colored slightly, and she lowered her voice again.
“Not that- not that enmity is something to be encouraged. But in this case…”
A low murmur rose in the gallery. Bishop Septimus rose from the bench and cleared his throat, as though to silence the crowd.
“Do you have any idea what sort of ‘trick’ Lady Willoughby used to manipulate her father?” he asked.
“It must have been something dark and unnatural,” Sister Happiness said, her voice dropping dramatically. “Lord Fairchild’s health was good and his will was like iron when he forbade the match. I believe nothing short of a demonic influence could have overcome him.”
The murmurs grew louder, and people eventually began to shout over each other, some calling out “lies! Lies!” while still others called “hang the witch!”
“Silence, please.” Father Pius hardly seemed to raise his voice, and yet it carried over the noise. “Justice will be served. The trial has only just begun.”
When the crowd quieted he turned to Sister Happiness. “Many strong men have been felled by illness, poison, or vice. Why so you think that demonic influence was so necessary to overcome Lord Fairchild?”
“Lord Fairchild showed no signs of illness when he forbade his daughter’s marriage. He was a pious man, and in full command of his household- all except her.” Sister Happiness turned from Father Pius to Lady Willoughby, an ugly sneer twisting her lips.
“Defiant, slatternly, and voluptuous- sin is in that girl’s very nature.” Sister Happiness took a step toward Lady Willoughby, whose face grew red. “I’ve heard rumors of her dealings at St. Blanc- how she has descended into decadence and degeneracy, behaving like a whore. Everyone knows what kind of woman she is. Everyone feels sorry for her milk-sop of a husband. Her association with this coven only confirms what I’ve always suspected. She belongs to the demons, and the demons may have her.
“Lady Willoughby is a witch.”
Sister Happiness thrust her finger at Lady Willoughby as the last notes from her rant echoed through the courtroom.
The crowd was silent, many of them staring at the scene with hungry eyes. Lady Willoughby’s composure had broken. Tears were visible on her red cheeks before she turned her face away from the crowd.
Then, through the rapt silence there came the tinkling of bells.
Lord Willoughby lifted his head to look at Sister Happiness, not with an expression of fear or bewilderment, but with unmistakable anger. He leaned forward, reaching around Chastity who was chained next to him, to take Lady Willoughby’s hand.
Lady Willoughby turned back, looking at her husband with wide eyes as she clutched his hand.
“My dear Patience,” Lord Willoughby said in a low, clear voice, “pay no attention to this bitter old woman.”
“Sir Nighthawk’s testimony was a bit underwhelming, wasn’t it?” Hope whispered later that evening.
I was sitting beside him in the infirmary, strangely exhausted after the day’s events, even though I had only sat and watched the proceedings. In my hands I held a tightly folded piece of paper- a note that Prudence had passed back to me shortly before the court recessed and the inquisitors had led her back to the annex.
I clutched the note like a talisman, as though its presence could ensure me of its author’s safety. Thus warded, I was able to keep my tone optimistic- even cheerful- when I spoke to Hope.
“Sir Nighthawk was certainly not credible,” I said.
When Sir Nighthawk came forward, it was clear that he had prepared to testify that he had not seen Captain Goode at camp the night of Father Sauris’s death. Upon questioning, however, Sir Nighthawk immediately conceded that he had confused the date, and that he actually had seen Captain Goode briefly at dinner the night of the full moon. He went on to inform the bishops that he was suspicious of Captain Goode because Captain Goode rarely drank with the other officers in taverns, and that he had been promoted too early for Sir Nighthawk’s liking.
“He sounded like nothing more than a jealous fool. I wonder why he was called to testify at all?” Hope said.
“Sir Nighthawk probably sounded more credible before he was put to the litany of truth,” Captain Goode, who was listening nearby, replied. “He does not have much ability on the battlefield, but Sir Nighthawk is usually well-spoken and sensible.”
“The litany does more than prevent lies,” Lord Willoughby said in a tone so soft it commanded everyone’s attention. “It brings forth the things most people hide. Sister Happiness wears a meek, humble face in public, but today she showed us all the viciousness she usually reserves for her pupils.”
Lady Willoughby nodded firmly in agreement.
“Lady Willoughby, I am awed at how well you comported yourself today under such slander,” I said. “To anyone with discernment, your dignity was far more impressive than all Sister Happiness’s vicious noise.”
“I agree. Now we must hope that those who sit in judgement have any discernment,” Chastity added.
“I have yet to see any evidence that they do,” Captain Goode said.
“I wonder what we would learn if my brother were subjected to the litany of truth,” Hope whispered in a voice so low that only I seemed to hear.
The night wore on, and the room grew quiet as, one by one, the occupants fell asleep. The lights were all dimmed but for a single lantern, by which I poured over Prudence’s note.
The note was written hastily, and yet the handwriting was unmistakably Prudence’s. The words, however, seemed not to be entirely hers, as though some if it had been dictated to her.
I am sorry I could not sit with you today, but when I arrived in the courtroom the crowd was already so thick that I was forced to find seating wherever I could. Rest assured I am well, and though Celeste is bored, she is as healthy as ever and is very well protected. The inquisitors that guard us are all loyal to Pius, and they seem ready to guard us with their very lives, just as Pius promised while we were at del Sol.
I am still filled with anxiety, of course, but I have faith that the trial will go well, and we will all be reunited in the end-
There was the sentence that filled me with such anxiety. Faith had never been a favorite word for Prudence. She had always put more stock in evidence, in analysis, and in action. Perhaps, I thought, this was a time of such suspense, and where so little could be done, that faith was the only thing she had to sustain her. As the letter continued, it was clear that Prudence was still very much herself in other ways.
If not for your absence, I would be quite content with our arrangements in the annex. But your absence is not a trifle, however many books or cups of tea or warm rugs we are given. It has been only one night, yet I already miss your conversation. I have the strangest longing to start an argument with you, the subject of which does not matter in the least. I need a foil to make me feel as though I can still struggle against something.
The last line was so thoroughly Prudence that it brought a smile to my lips. I finished the letter, re-read it, and then folded it again, mulling over the contents.
As the paper rustled, Hope stirred a little and sat up.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I did not mean to wake you.”
“You are still awake, Grace?” he asked. “But- you often used to stay up nights, didn’t you?”
“My habit has only grown worse over time,” I admitted. “I was just reading a note from Pr- from Sister Jubilee. She and Celeste are safe and well, if a bit restless. They send their love.”
“When you get the chance, convey my love, as well,” he said. “Grace…”
“Stay up with me. Tell me- tell me everything you can. Not about the trial or the estate, but about… life.”
I folded the letter and placed it back into my pocket. Then I slipped into the cot beside him. Hope’s body was ice cold, though the room was warm and close, so I pressed our bodies together, took his hand, and began to talk.
I told him about the seashore at del sol, where the air was filled with the sound of crashing waves and the call of gulls. I told him about the tide pools where Celeste had discovered a tiny, populated world. I told him about Celeste’s discovery of the strange phenomenon of the tides, and her journey to uncover its mystery. I told him about warm evenings by the fireside in the calefactory, where Prudence and I had read books over tea, connected in our silence. I told him about the journey from del Sol, and the hampers that Abbess Joy had laden on us for our journey so filled with bounty from the sea that it had gone half-uneaten.
I whispered for a long time, uninterrupted, into the still night. When I spoke of the attic at Bridon Place, and the kingdom of books I’d discovered in my youth, Hope’s hand went slack in mine. His breath grew soft and steady in sleep.
I leaned close and pressed my head against his chest. His breast bone jutted through his robe, and his ribs were hard ridges against me, but though he felt so light and fragile, I could hear his heartbeat, strong and steady in my ear. That primal sound, more sacred than the most powerful liturgy, held me fast. I barely dared to breathe, lest I miss a single beat.