The Coven, Part LXXV

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

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

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

“Pius still won’t let you see him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, yes. I remember,” I said.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

#

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has your father been sleeping well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go to sleep,” I said in frustration.

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

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

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

Read from the beginning.

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The Coven, Part LXXIV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would they really ask-“

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright- continue,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if I say ’nothing’ too readily…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have rested enough,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gentler?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How has he altered?”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No- he only asked questions.”

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

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

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

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

“I am fine, thank you,” I said.

“Someone is following us,” Mercy interrupted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, I will try,” I promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Equanimous Goode?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part LXXV

Start from the beginning.

The Coven, Part LXXIII

Bright rays of morning light leaked past my eyelids, stirred my mind, and enticed me back to the world.

The sun had risen high enough to reflect off of the paved roads and brick buildings, filling my room with the city’s white glare. I opened my eyes to see the glare mingling with the dust that danced in the seldom-opened window. My eyes followed the beam of light from the window to the pillow beside me, where it was caught in a web of scarlet curls.

Prudence was still asleep, though her eyes were squeezed tight as though to protest the invading light. I could not bear to reach out to wake her- to be the one who caused her eyes to squint open, and her mouth to frown.

Then a loud thumping at the door caused me to jump up, and my heart to thump in response.

Prudence continued to sleep as though she had heard nothing.

There was a strange discord in the air- the morning light contrasted sharply with the dark shadows the lie behind the curtains. There was a second thump at the door, and at that moment a cloud fell across the sun, blotting the glare away. A dark premonition fell over me, and I could not silence the voice in my mind that said danger.

I reached out and shook Prudence. “Wake up- put on your veil. Someone is knocking.”

Prudence groaned and sat up, but she put on the veil so I could not see her frown. Then I got up and unlocked the door, and I saw Mercy on the other side.

“Good Morning, my Lady,” Mercy said with just a bit of annoyance at the edge of her sweet voice. “Do you need me to help you dress? Brother Lux will arrive soon to examine your father.”

“Of course- thank you,” I said.

Prudence rushed past us, muttering that she would wake Celeste.

 

 

#

 

 

My father sat stiffly against plush velvet cushions, dressed in a satin dressing gown that hung off of his thin shoulders. He hadn’t moved since the moment I arrived, except to sit up when directed by Dr. Pearson, and to swallow a spoonful of medicine. Now he was staring blankly into a bright beam of sunlight without even blinking or squinting his eyes.

I went to the window and drew the curtains shut.

“I had hoped that your presence would reach him,” Dr. Pearson, said sadly. “You are Lord Ainsworth’s closest relation. Perhaps if you speak to him-“

Just then the door opened, and Brother Lux entered the room.

All at once, my father’s countenance changed. His eyes went wide with fear, and he pressed back against his cushions as though trying to escape.

“Don’t come closer,” he whimpered. “Don’t touch me.”

Brother Lux shut the door, and then sat on a stool near the bed.

“I will not touch you, my Lord- not until you give me leave,” he said in a low, soft voice. “For now, I just wish to speak with you.”

My father stared at Brother Lux for a long time as though bewildered. Dr. Pearson moved away from the bed and nodded to Brother Lux, as though giving him leave to question the patient.

“I went to Willowbrook- I did,” Father finally ventured in a hoarse croak. “They brought me here.”

“It’s alright, Verdant City is a place of healing,” Brother Lux said gently. “Your loved ones only wish to see you well.”

“No no-“ Father fell against his pillows again and stared up at the ceiling. “They want me to burn. They all want me to burn. Hell is too good a place- a worse fate awaits me. It is all over.”

Father sighed deeply, and then looked up at Brother Lux. “You are the eagle- but you can have the rose. I will not stop you if you take the rose. Just please- don’t take me yet.”

Brother Lux turned to me. “Do his words make any sense to you?”

It was not difficult to maintain an expression of dull confusion, though I felt a chill run up my spine as Brother Lux watched me.

“He’s speaking of a fairy tale, like Lady Fairfax said last night.”

Brother Lux regarded me a few moments more, and then he stood and turned to my father.

“I will not touch you until you give me leave, my Lord,” Brother Lux said, “but I will not go until I’ve examined you.”

“I will not stop you- I cannot stop you,” Father said. “Just take the rose.”

My father let out a groan from so deep inside it seemed to rattle his chest, and I stepped backward in terror. But then my father went quiet, and his breathing became even. It was as though he had fallen asleep- his chest still rose and fell rhythmically.

“Lady Frey, come here. I need your assistance,” Brother Lux said as he approached my father. “Do what you can to keep your father quiet while I examine him.”

Unsure of what else to do, I gingerly took my father’s hand. It was the first time I’d ever held my father’s hand. It wasn’t much larger than my own, and though his skin was covered in age spots, it was not overly thin or wrinkled. I squeezed his hand, but he did not respond; his hand hung passively as I held it.

Father groaned a little, but he did not otherwise protest as Brother Lux took his pulse, felt his glands, and looked into his mouth and eyes. Then Brother Lux placed his hand over my father’s head, as though to feel for a fever, and left it there as he spoke.

“Answer my questions as best you can, my Lord” Brother Lux said. “How old are you?”

“I- I was 35. I was 35.” My father said in an agitated voice.

“When is your birthday?”

“It was too long ago.”

“What is your daughter’s name?”

My father moved, then, pulling his hand away from mine. “Joy has the child. Joy will not give her back.”

“Father- I am here,” I said quietly.

My father turned to look at me, then. He knitted his brow as he stared at me, and he struggled to sit up again.

“No, Harmony- you shouldn’t be in the city. You will get ill again. Go to the country, ride your horse, get exercise and fresh air.”

“Not Harmony, Father; I’m Grace, and I am perfectly well.”

He fell back against his pillows and groaned. “Doctor- doctor, advise my wife. Take her back to the country. She can’t be confined in the city. She will get ill…”

“No- it’s me.” I protested. “Look at me.”

Brother Lux looked at me and shook his head, silencing my protests.

“It’s alright. We will make sure Harmony is well,” Brother Lux said soothingly, placing his hand over my father’s head once more. “Close your eyes, now. Rest.”

Father fell back against the pillows, shut his eyes, and became still.

Then Brother Lux gestured for Dr. Pearson and me to follow, and we went to the next room, where Brother Lux shut the door.

I found myself in a study, which despite being a good-sized room, seemed smaller for the profusion of books. The bookshelves were overstuffed and books spilled onto every table, tumbled onto all of the chairs, and there was not a square-inch visible on the large desk. Brother Lux cleared a stack of books from the desk chair and sat down.

“You have a remarkable method with patients, Brother,” Dr Pearson said, perching his slight frame on a stack of very large volumes that stood near the desk. “I haven’t gotten an answer from Lord Ainsworth for weeks.”

“I have seen such cases, before,” Brother Lux said. “In my opinion-“

Brother Lux’s words were cut short, however, when the hall door opened and Lady Fairfax entered.

“Brother,” she said, and she took Brother Lux’s offered hand as he stood to greet her. “I do hope that you were able to learn something about my dear cousin’s condition.”

“I was, Lady,” Brother Lux said.

Lady Fairfax nodded, and deftly stepped around Brother Lux to take the desk chair from him. Brother Lux nodded to her humbly as she passed, and took the smaller chair across the desk.

“As I was just mentioning to Dr. Pearson, I’ve seen cases like Lord Ainsworth’s before. In older patients, mental faculties can sometimes go into sharp decline. Lord Ainsworth’s anxiety, confusion, and his inability to recognize his loved ones and surroundings are all indicative of dementia.”

“Doctor?” Lady Fairfax turned to Dr. Pearson beseechingly, as though seeking a contradiction.

Dr. Pearson, however, stroked his long, white whiskers with a thoughtful expression. “Well, yes, that diagnosis does seem to fit all of the symptoms. He seemed to be raving, at first, but since your conversation it’s clear that he’s merely confused.”

“Then- is there something that may be done for him?” Lady Fairfax asked.

Dr. Pearson fell silent.

Brother Lux rose and went to Lady Fairfax, taking her hand in his. At this gesture, Lady Fairfax’s regal bearing seemed to crumble away, and her eyes filled with tears.

“I promise, my Lady, that we will do everything we can to keep Lord Ainsworth quiet and comfortable. With enough care, we may be able to relieve his worst symptoms.”

Lady Fairfax nodded meekly, even as tears dripped from her face onto the books below. Her tear had fallen on a worn, paper dust jacket, and where it spattered, ink smudged and ran.

I then the entire scene smudged, and my breath caught. The guilt I’d been nursing swelled inside of me until I could not breathe.

“Please excuse me,” I whispered before I rose and fled the room.

My vision was so blurred with tears that I hardly knew where I was going, but I felt myself climbing staircase after staircase, and when I blinked my tears away I saw where I had gone.

In times of trouble, my feet always remember to seek the quiet comfort of a library.

      The library was in a dusty, forgotten corner of the house. In my childhood, I had called the room the ‘accidental library’ because it was obvious the room was built to be a garret. Over the years, however, rough shelves had been built into the walls, filling the high wall at the back of the room, the crooked walls where the ceiling sloped downward, and even squeezed into the side where the ceiling hung so low that an adult could not stand. There were also two mismatched free-standing bookcases that stood where they just touched the vaulted ceiling, creating a tiny room behind them.

There was no desk, table, or chair in the room, but there were a number of worn, velvet cushions where I had often sat. Now I fell into one of the cushions and allowed myself to weep.

I wept until my tears ran dry, and then I looked around the room once more. The library was almost entirely unchanged, except a little more dust had settled in the corners, and the skylight seemed a little dirtier, making dark smudges across the patch of sunlight on the stained wood floor. A memory, as dusty as the room itself, filtered into my mind.

 

A young girl ran into the dusty garret and slammed the door behind her.

      The girl was long limbed and skinny- a little tall for her nine years, though she was far from finished growing. Her white pinafore was only half-pinned, and a tangle of dark curls fell into her eyes. The girl pulled her hair back and leaned against the door, listening for the growl of the monster that pursued her.

      “Where the devil is Miss Sutton? I can’t get anything done with THAT DAMN GIRL underfoot.”

      The girl stiffened against the door as footsteps echoed up the stairwell, but then the footsteps paused, and finally retreated. The girl pressed her ear against the door and held her breath until the footsteps faded completely into the distance.

      Then she heaved a heavy sigh, relaxed, and stepped into the room.

      All around her, shelves of books towered up to the ceiling, frustratingly out of touch without stair or ladder to reach them. She looked up at the books, the ceiling, and the skylight, turning around and around to look until she felt dizzy.

      Then footsteps echoed up the stairs once more. “I don’t know where the girl is. I was trying to dress her when the threw a tantrum.”

      The girl froze, and then reached up to touch her tumbled hair. Her governess, Miss Sutton, had been in a foul mood that morning, and had pulled and yanked her curls until she thought her scalp would be pulled clean off. The girl had screamed and run, and that had been when she encountered the monster.

      Recalling the danger, the girl ran again, ducking behind the bookcases.

      Then the girl grew a deep breath, and a smile tugged at her lips. She had found herself in a little room that was entirely made of books- there were books on all the walls, books stacked in piles on the floor, and even old book covers that papered the low ceiling. A small footpath between stacks of books led to a low-backed chair, which itself was surrounded by stacks of books.

      “It’s a fortress- a fortress of stories,” the little girl whispered reverently. “Nothing can ever find me, here.”

      The girl pinned her own pinafore, ran her fingers through her hair, and grabbed the nearest book. She would stay in her little fortress, safe from the monsters, until the storm of anger had stilled outside and it was safe to emerge for tea.

      The little girl sat down, opened the book, and read,

 

The Tale of the Magi

 

In the kingdom of Excelsior there were two great mages. One was a holy mage, who lived at the top of a mountain, and one was a witch, who lived in a bog.

 

 

I awakened from my reverie and stood. I had thought I was a different person than the little girl who had hidden from her father and her governess over a decade hence, yet I found myself in the same position- hiding in a fortress of stories from the frightening reality below.

Had my memories played tricks on me? The recollection of my first journey to the library had seemed very clear, but I thought my mind must have substituted the Tale of the Magi- the story from my stolen book that had been torn out and lost- for whatever I had actually read on that morning so long ago.

I walked through the opening in the bookcases and ducked into the little room behind them. I was too tall to stand upright in the little room, now. I had to stoop down until I reached the low-backed chair and was able to sit. Then I looked around, searching for a familiar book cover.

A faded blue cover in the pile near the chair caught my eye, and I reached out and opened the book.

 

Folk Tales of the Midlands, as told by the Vole Brothers

Book III

 

I turned another page, and there I saw the story.

 

The Tale of the Magi

 

How had I forgotten the tale? As I read, the story unfolded itself in my memory. Two mages, a holy mage and a witch, had battled each other for a hundred years. Unable to get the better of the holy mage, the witch sent spies to watch the holy mage carefully in the hopes that he would unlock the secret of his enemy’s power.

Eventually, the witch learned that the mage possessed a magic mirror, which he guarded most carefully. The mirror always showed the mage’s face, whether the mage looked into the mirror or not.

The witch, guessing that the mirror was the secret to the mage’s power, cast a spell of sleep over the mage’s palace, and sent his servant in to steal the mage’s mirror. When the mage awakened and found the mirror was gone, he fell into despair, for the mirror had been a phylactery that contained the mage’s very soul.

The mage could not perform magic without the mirror, so he was forced to travel by foot through the witch’s bog, facing one dangerous adventure after another, until he finally reached the witch’s lair. There, he found the witch guarding the mirror. The witch laughed at the mage as he approached, mocking his powerlessness.

This is how the mage replied:

“I have journeyed long through the dark and misty bog in search of my soul. You have sent trial after trial to stop me, but with each trial I surpassed, my will has grown stronger. I no longer need the soul that is contained in the mirror, for I’ve found the strength to create a soul of my own.”

With these words, the mage unleashed a holy spell so powerful that the witch was destroyed forever.

 

 

 

I put the book aside.

No wonder I could not remember this story, I thought. The books contained here were my fortress when they should have been my guide.  

      I stood, smoothed my dress, and combed my fingers through my hair.

Then I opened the door and descended the garret steps into my father’s house.

Part LXXIV

Start from the beginning.

 

The Coven, Part LXXII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How has he altered?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

#

 

 

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

“How soon can I see Hope?” I asked.

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

“I will do whatever I can,” I said.

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

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

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

 

 

#

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“N- no. Thank you,” I stammered.

Mercy curtseyed once more, and then left me alone.

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

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

“Goodness- you frightened me,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I trust you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What lie to you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part LXXIII

Start from the beginning.

The Coven, Part LXXI

I left del Sol laden with new riches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

#

 

 

Thump Thump Thump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guards opened the gate and waved the carriage through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part LXXII

The Coven, Part LXX

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

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

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

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

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

“Lux- am I speaking to Lux, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save me? From what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Miss Merry?”

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

“I am.”

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

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

“You are lucky to have escaped your marriage.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why wait?”

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

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

“We aren’t going to the tower.”

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I moved to follow, but Honest grabbed my arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part LXXI

 

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

The Coven, Part LXIX

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Dear Cousin Lady Frey,

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

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

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

I look forward to your arrival.

Yours etc.

Piety Fairfax

 

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

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

 

Dearest Grace,

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry turned back to Brother Lux with a glare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Enter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brother Lux ignored me and took Prudence’s hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wanted to scream, but I could not.

Prudence rushed to my side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

“Thank you,” I whispered.

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

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

 

#

 

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

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

“But-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbess Joy leaned forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pius nodded. “Is that all?”

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

Pius stood. “Then the deal is struck.”

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

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

“I am, if Lady Frey is certain.”

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

“Yes, I am certain.”

Abbess Joy turned back to Pius and nodded.

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

“This blade has drawn blood before.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” she muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

Part LXX