The Coven, Part LXXXI

He was so quiet, and his breathing so soft and regular, that it was easy to believe that my father slept. When I looked up from the book, however, I saw that he was sitting up and blinking into the morning light.

I had the means to free my father’s mind. I knew that the spell would break as easily as the curses that had bound Hope and Prudence. But my new ability was dependent on my will, and when I considered breaking the spell, I could feel the shard of ice which had pierced my heart the day Father revealed what he’d done to my mother. The ice imprisoned my will, and I could not act to free him.

Regret for vengeance, it seemed, was not the same as forgiveness.

Still, I had made a promise to Lady Fairfax, so I opened my father’s history and read aloud.

I read mechanically at first, but soon the book’s contents caught my interest. It was a history unlike any I’d ever read- unrelentingly rigorous and full of footnotes and citations. Assumptions other historians had made were deconstructed, and nothing was stated without evidentiary support.

“When I define the dark ages,” I read, “I include much of the Ancient War, for there are few surviving texts from that period in history. Therefore, only the litany can be considered an authoritative source of information on the Ancient War. However, I will humbly summarize the litany’s tale here, and include one or two points of interest I was able to glean from my own research-“

“Folly- empty words and folly,” my father groaned.

“Father,” I looked up. “Are you listening?”

“I’m sorry, Harmony. It is all lies..all lies…”

“I am Grace,” I said firmly. “Look at me.”

“Lies and doom- my doom,” he groaned.

I closed the book. “Tell me the truth, then. Why are you doomed?”

Father did not answer. After a few seconds of silence, I gave up and opened the book again.

“Though no man living has ever seen an Ancient, the litany provides a terrifying description. More beast than man, and without the spark of divinity contained within the heart of all the civilized races, the Ancient-“

“Stop- stop- no more,” my father cried. “Forgive me- forgive me…”

I closed the book. My father’s cries of agony shook me to my icy heart.

“I wish to forgive you,” I muttered, “but I can’t. You took my mother from those who loved her and used her to further your ambition. You never loved her or me-“

“Haven’t I been kind to you, Harmony?” He said, his voice trembling. “Haven’t I given you comfort and wealth? Why won’t you be happy?”

“I’m not-“ I flung the book aside in frustration. “You cannot force a slave to be happy.”

“I couldn’t free you,” he sat forward so quickly I thought he would leap out of bed, but instead he grasped my shoulders, staring at me with a frenzied look in his eye. “You knew I couldn’t free you. I told you I couldn’t free you. I tried to free your child but I couldn’t.”

My blood froze.

“What do you mean, you couldn’t?” I choked.

My father’s fury seemed to ebb away, and he fell back on the bed, staring into the light once more.

“Don’t you dare-” I moved forward and took his head in my hands, forcing him to look me in the eyes. “What do you mean when you say you couldn’t free Harmony’s child?”

“Poison, flintlock, rope- I was too weak to do it. Too weak.”

“You mean… you tried to kill someone?” I whispered.

“The mercy of hell is too good for me…”

“A blood oath,” I said. “You broke a blood oath, and you tried to take your own life.”

“I didn’t know I’d lied. I thought I could free the child.” My father reached a trembling hand out and stroked my hair. “I’m sorry, my love. I’m sorry.”

I grasped my father’s hand. “Do you still have the blood oath? Where is it?”

But my father’s hand went limp in mine, and his eyes went blank again. His tenuous lucidity was gone.

 

 

#

 

 

“Lady Frey- what in the world are you doing?”

Lady Fairfax stood on the threshold of my father’s office, staring at me as I sifted through a pile of documents.

“Lady Fairfax,” I said, standing. “I need your advice.”

“Certainly,” Lady Fairfax said, picking her way through the books, boxes and papers as she entered the room. “What do you need?”

“Does my father own a safe or a lock-box, or some other place he would keep important documents?”

“He never would have kept such things in the house,” Lady Fairfax said. “All of his business contracts are in his vault at the Verdant City bank.”

“Do you know which vault is his, or where I can find his bank book?”

“I have the bank book; his account number and vault numbers are all inside. Why do you…”

Lady Fairfax paused and then came closer, lifting her skirts as she stepped over the books and boxes of loose papers that littered the floor.

“You’ve found something, haven’t you? You’ve found something that may help him.”

“I- I may have. I cannot be certain until…”

“Say no more.” Lady Fairfax went to the desk and removed a false bottom from the top drawer. “Here is his bank book and vault keys. Take whatever avenue you may to free him.”

 

 

#

 

 

I sent for the carriage, and then rushed to my room to ready myself. Prudence, however, intercepted me in the hallway.

“Whatever is the matter?” she asked. “You are flushed. Here- sit down.”

“I cannot. I am going out, and I must be off as soon as I can-“

“Why?” she said gently. “Tell me- what is the matter?”

Prudence took my hands; I had not noticed my hands were trembling until Prudence steadied mine with her own.

“I think that-“ I said before I paused, unsure of how to express my fears.

“Come inside- I will give us privacy,” Prudence said.

I almost relented, but at that moment Mercy stepped around the corner and walked quickly down to hall toward me.

“Have you ordered the carriage?” Mercy asked. “It is waiting at the front door.”

“Thank you, Mercy,” I said.

I turned back to Prudence. “We will talk later. I must go now.”

“Where are you going?” Mercy asked.

“I have an errand at the Verdant City Bank. I won’t be long.”

“I will accompany you,” Mercy said.

“That won’t be necessary, thank you.”

“But-“

“Please, allow me to exercise my liberty while I still have it,” I burst forth.

Mercy raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.

“You don’t mean- are you under suspicion?” Prudence whispered.

“No- nothing like that. It may be nothing, but I must verify. Please…”

“I cannot force you,” Mercy said, “but if you are smart, you will listen to me; the city is crowded with people who are here just to see your husband’s trial, some support you, and some would see you and Lord Frey hung. If you don’t wish to be assaulted, kidnapped, or assassinated, you won’t go out at all. If you must go into public, you will at least wear a veil and take me along to help protect you.”

I turned to Prudence, who nodded in agreement.

“Remember- you aren’t protected by the laws of del Sol, here. Abbess Joy did not wish to tell you- she thought you would feel obligated- but she was forced to expel two would-be assassins during your stay in that peaceful place.”

This gave me pause. “What else would you advise, Mercy, if I must go out?”

“Ask coachman to cover the arms and remove the livery from the carriage, and take a circuitous route to the bank,” Mercy said.

“Very well,” I relented. “I will heed your advice, Mercy. Just- promise that whatever you may see or hear on our journey, you will keep it secret.”

“You have my word of honor,” Mercy said firmly.

 

 

 

#

 

 

While the coachman made the ordered alterations to the livery, I found a length of black crepe to cover my face as though I were in deep mourning. Then Mercy, wearing a very close bonnet, accompanied me in the carriage.

The bank was close to Verdant City’s square, which was almost as crowded as it had been the night we’d arrived. Coachman took a detour through a side road to bypass the crowds, and then pulled up to the side of the bank where Mercy and I disembarked.

I clutched my veil with one hand, and Mercy linked arms with me on the other side before guiding me through the crowds at the door. Once inside, I gave my father’s name in a low voice to a young clerk, who started at the information and then ran to fetch a superior to assist me.

We waited a few tense moments, the crowd pressing in on all sides, before the superior arrived. The superior, Mr. Musgrove, took me into his office to verify my authority to act on my father’s behalf, and then after some small questions about my own account and investments, he escorted me down a long hallway to my father’s vault.

“I do hope that, given your father’s state of ill health,” he said as we went, “that your visit does not indicate…”

“My father’s condition remains unchanged,” I said. “I only thought it best to prepare for the worst.”

“Very wise,” Mr. Musgrove said. He stopped and opened a door, which led into a room filled with locked, metal doors.

“I will open the vault and then give you privacy. I will be just on the other side of the door- knock when you are finished, or if you need any further assistance.

“Oh! My Lady,” Mercy said in an awed whispered. “He isn’t going to lock us in, is he? The room is so small, I can hardly breathe.”

“The door will not be locked,” Mr. Musgrove said with a condescending smile. “I will be just outside to make sure no one disturbs your mistress.”

“Thank you, sir,” Mercy said, bobbing a little curtsy. She stood near the door as Mr. Musgrove located the correct vault and opened the door, and then she curtsied to him again as he left.

As soon as Mr. Musgrove was through the door, she put her ear to the door and slowly turned the handle.

“He did not lock it,” she whispered to me. “I will guard the door. Please hurry.”

The vault was not large, but it was filled to the top with boxes of documents and contracts. I did not stop to read any of them, instead scanning the titles and skimming for any mention of my mother or myself. After an hour of searching, I came across an intricately carved wooden box, which proved to be locked. I tried each of my father’s keys, but none of them fit.

“Come here. I will try to open it,” Mercy said.

I handed her the box, and she took a pin from her cap and fiddled with the lock until, with a grunt of frustration, she struck the box.

I heard a snap, and then she handed the box back to me.

“I couldn’t pick the lock, so I broke the hinges. I hope it was not valuable.”

I accepted the box with a whisper of thanks, and then prized the remains of the lid off. Inside I found a packet of papers tied with a length of twine, which proved to be letters from Father Sauris detailing the conspiracy he’d formed with my father to entrap the Frey family.

I have no doubt that your suspicions regarding the Frey lineage are true, and if so, the family condemnation will forever be a plague upon the true church. Introduction of Ancient blood may prove a solution, at least in the short-term, for a merciful end must be preferable to eternal hellfire. In the long term, however, I fear we must find other ways to ingratiate ourselves to the Frey Family, or else we will be lost.

      “Why were you so afraid of Lord Frey?” I whispered to myself.

The Ancient bride must be freeborn, and here I believe the fancy you’ve taken for that little assassin may prove serendipitous, if you do not object to dirtying your own family line for the greater good.

      I read each letter thoroughly, but none of them contradicted the claim that I would be freeborn. In fact, the last letter I read contained a promise that I would not be placed under a contract, and this letter was signed and sealed by both the young Prince and the High Priest.

Unsatisfied, I felt into the corners of the box and found a small space where I could insert a fingernail. This proved to be a false bottom, and when I removed it I found another folded parchment.

I, Lord Valor Ainsworth, being of sound mind, solemnly swear to the slave Harmony to sire her a daughter free of the enslavement of her race. In exchange, the slave Harmony does likewise swear to leave the protection of del Sol to enter into the service of Lord Valor Ainsworth, and to enter into the covenant of marriage with the same. This is done with the knowledge and consent of the High Priest Sauris, keeper of the Ancient race.

      At the bottom of the page was drawn the seal of the Ainsworth family, spattered with long dried, faded blood.

The words on the contract blurred, and I crumpled it to my chest.

“Lady Frey?” Mercy said quietly.

I quickly dried my eyes. “I have found what I sought- or at least, I have found everything there is to be found, here. Allow me to put everything in order, and then we can go.”

I moved to put the broken box back into the vault, but as I did so I stumbled slightly, and one of the papers slipped from my fingers and onto the floor. Mercy picked it up and, as she handed it to me, her eyes lingered a moment on the words.

“Your mother was…”

She closed her eyes and handed the paper back to me.

“I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to read it,” she continued.

“I’m not ashamed of her, but-“

“It’s dangerous; I know,” Mercy said.

 

 

#

 

 

“Abbess Joy and Sister Jubilee told me that you had gone on some dangerous adventure at del Sol,” Mercy whispered on the carriage ride back. “They didn’t say what you had done but, given your mother’s situation and where she was buried…”

“The less you know, the better,” I said.

“I understand,” she said quietly, but then she sighed and spoke again. “At the bank- were you searching for your own contract? Or has it already been destroyed?”

“I may not have a contract at all,” I said. “Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that I was freeborn, but I will need to speak to my father to confirm it.”

Mercy nodded. “If you ever a contract, destroy it before anyone can see it, and confine the knowledge as best you can. You are lucky, because you were raised as though you were free, and married in the public eye, but if anyone finds out, you will spend the rest of your life in fear.”

Mercy paused and looked out the window.

“Mercy-“

“I saw him- my former master- in the town square when we arrived. I saw him again in the Cathedral courtyard. It was silly to think he’d disappear just because Lord Frey stole and destroyed my contract. I was foolish to think I was really free.”

“Is this the reason you sought to join the coven- to seek freedom?”

“That, and vengeance,” Mercy said with a wry grin. “That’s why I sought training from Miss Chastity. My master was not a kind man.”

“If your former master sees you, and if he seeks to expose you, I will do everything I can to protect you. I will tell any lie necessary to conceal your identity.”

Mercy looked at me for a few moments with a strange expression. Then she took a small, folding knife from her sleeve. She cut her palm, letting blood seep from the wound.

“I swear I will never reveal your secret,” she said simply. “Swear you will do the same.”

“I should tell you that I am resistant to magic, and that resistance extends to blood oaths.”

“Who said anything about magic?”

She handed me the knife, and I cut my palm.

“I swear I will never reveal your secret,” I said.

We put our hands together, and Mercy’s lips stretched into a genuine smile.

 

 

#

 

 

When I returned to Brighton Place, Prudence was waiting for me.

“If you could- please give my father and I some privacy.”

“Say no more,” she said. “As soon as you shut the door, I will make sure no one will hear or disturb you.”

I pressed her hand in gratitude, and then went to my father’s door. He lay in bed where I had left him, but his eyes were closed as though in sleep.

I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Wake up- look at me.”

My father opened his eyes, but he did not respond.

“Please- I must know.” I looked into his eyes, and I tried to find the place where magic resisted my will. My will was still not present, however. I only stared into the blank, watery eyes of the father I could not love or forgive.

“Father, please tell me. Am I free?”

He did not answer.

“Did you really break your blood oath? Was Harmony’s daughter enslaved?”

He still did not answer.

I took the blood oath from my pocket and began to read aloud.

“I, Lord Valor Ainsworth, being of sound mind, solemnly swear to the slave Harmony to sire her a daughter free of the enslavement of her race.”

“No- no- please stop,” he whimpered.

“I can’t help you unless you tell me the truth,” I said.

“You- you can help?” He blinked a few times.

“I can help you, but first I must know; does Harmony’s daughter have a contract, or is she free?”

“Contracts, contracts, lies and folly- ink and paper,” he groaned. “Words are nothing.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But still, the law can bind us as long as people believe in it.”

“The stories are true.” My father closed his eyes again. “The rose and the thorns.”

“Wake up.” I shook my father again. “Does this mean that I have no contract?”

“I am bound by blood and lies- blood and lies,” my father whispered.

“Then to hell with it all,” I said. I took the contract and tore it in half. “To hell with your blood and your lies.”

“Ah! What are you doing?” My father cried, sitting up.

“I’m doing whatever I like. I am free.” I went to the fireplace and tossed the contract into the flames.

“Oh! Oh! I’m burning. I’m burning in hellfire,” my father said, and he clutched his chest.

“No you aren’t. This is all in your head.”

“Ah-“ he groaned and fell back, breathing in gasps, and trembling violently as he did.

“I- I- I am dying,” he whispered.

“No- you aren’t,” I said, faltering.

I drew closer to my father. His had gone ashen, and as he gasped for air his lips and eyelids were tinged in blue.

“Father,” I touched his hand. “I didn’t mean to-“

“Why- why didn’t you love me?” he gasped.

“I couldn’t love you,” I whispered. “You never loved me.”

“I gave you everything,” he gasped. “Your- child- will- be- a- queen…”

“Father-“

“I’m dying. I’m dy-“

He gasped again, and his whole body convulsed.

“No- I never meant for you to die,” I cried.

The convulsion stilled suddenly, and his gasping ceased.

It was too late, I thought. My hesitation- my inability to forgive had condemned my father. The shard of ice melted away, leaving a gaping, empty hole in its wake.

“I’m sorry,” I cried. “I’m truly sorry for what I did.”

And then I could feel it- the place where will met magic. I pushed through in desperation and the spell shattered.

My father’s body convulsed again, and he let loose a great gasp. He took a deep gulp of air, and then another. In a few more breaths, the color came back to his cheeks.

“You foolish girl- you foolish girl,” he breathed. “Why won’t you understand? You don’t have a contract, but without the soul, there is no free will.”

“You- you know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are. You’ve been a blasted nuisance these fifteen years, Grace.”

And then, for the first time in my life, my father drew me near and put his arms around me.

Read from the beginning.

Advertisements

The Coven, Part LXXX

Hope and I talked a little more before I was obliged to leave. I talked about Hope’s case as much as I dare under the guard’s scrutiny, but Hope quickly steered the topic of conversation away from legal matters. He asked me about my time at del Sol, and I was able to assure him that the sisters had been kind to Celeste and me, that Abbess Joy had been dedicated to our help and protection, and that I had found a mother figure in the Abbess.

Hope spoke a little of the inquisition, though he was reluctant to reveal what he had personally suffered. He told me, in indirect language, that Lady Willoughby had suffered a terrible violation, and I was able to imagine what had happened.

“Lady Willoughby’s strength has surprised all of us,” Hope said, “but what happened to her, combined with how it has affected her husband, may prove too much. Lord Willoughby is a broken man, as you may have heard. The rest of us are powerless to help either of them.”

I closed my eyes and saw the merry smile of the woman who had been so kind to me. A fresh wave of anger washed over me.

“As though the violation were not enough, Lady Willoughby has been maimed, and can no longer speak,” Hope continued. “They have no family to visit or help. Lord Willoughby has no near relation living, and Lady Willoughby’s family disowned her upon her marriage.”

And Lady Willougby’s friends at court have all scattered in fear, I thought.

I turned back to Brother Lux. “May I visit Lady Willoughby? May I see the others?”

“Not today, Lady,” Brother Lux said, stepping forward. “Father Pius will arrive soon with the carriage, and I advise that you go home as soon as possible to rest. You will be allowed one more visit before the trial commences on mid-week.”

“Grace,” Hope squeezed my hand gently. “If my brother advises you to rest, I hope you will. I appreciate everything you’ve done, but look to your own health and safety first. Take care you do not do anything to anger those in authority. Their power is beyond anything you know.”

My eyes filled with tears again. Hope had suffered depravation, torture, and maiming, and yet all of his concern was for me. I took a deep breath to steady my voice and spoke.

“I understand what I face- I discerned its true nature not long ago,” I said, wondering if he would comprehend the deeper meaning of the statement. “I am still determined in my course.”

“Grace-“

“I promise I will sleep,” I said in a stronger voice. “Promise me you will do the same. I daresay you need the sleep far more than I.”

“Oh!” Hope said, as though in sudden understanding. He rose from his seat, and I embraced him again.

“You amaze me, Grace,” Hope said.

“You amaze me,” I said. “Hold on, just a little longer, and I promise I will do everything in my power to free you.”

 

 

#

 

 

“Thank you, Lady Frey, from the bottom of my heart.”

Brother Lux spoke these unexpected words on the carriage ride back from the cathedral.

“For what?” I asked.

“Thank you for what you did for my brother,” Brother Lux said.

“I only gave him words of encouragement. It wasn’t much-“

Brother Lux cut me off with a laugh. “Lady Frey, it’s futile to lie to me. I see with Wisdom’s eyes. I can see the threads of magic that bind the world as clearly as I see you sitting before me. I saw you break my brother’s curse.”

I fought the urge to swear aloud. I’d been hoping to keep my new powers secret for as long as possible, yet I’d been discovered within days of obtaining them.

“Pius saw what you did for Prudence, as well. Don’t be alarmed,” Brother Lux said quickly. “I am glad you’ve done it. Despite our- differences– I have no reason to wish Prudence cursed. In fact, you have reduced her chance of exposure, for the inquisitors have only seen her cursed face.”

Brother Lux reached out, as though to grasp my hands. Then he seemed to remember himself, and he drew back awkwardly.

“Do you think that you could do it again? If I let you see the others, could you break their curses?”

“I will help the others in any way I can,” I said. “I may not be able to do anything for Captain Goode, since you have taken his hands…”

A chill came over me as I spoke- as I fully felt what kind of monster the polite young monk who sat across from me really was.

“I will not do the same for you, Brother Lux. I know very well why I should not.”

“I would not ask you to remove my so-called ‘curse.’” Brother Lux said, leaning back with a derisive grin. “It is all that is shielding me from the mouth of hell. Help the others- that is all I require.”

“I will help the others for their own sakes, not yours,” I said.

The carriage pulled to a stop at Brighton Place, and I descended without looking back at Brother Lux.

 

 

#

 

 

I went straight up to the nursery, where I found Celeste and Prudence still seated at tea, along with Mrs. Equanimous Goode.

“I really must press you to try one of these tarts- they are delightful,” Mrs. Goode was saying to Prudence, who waved the offered tray away. The party seemed oblivious to my presence until Celeste cried aloud.

“Lady Grace! You’re back.” Celeste stood from the table and ran to greet me.

“A Lady does not leave the table without excusing herself,” Mrs. Good chided.

Celeste ignored Mrs. Goode and leaned in for a hug.

“Father Pius was very kind,” Celeste said. “He gave me his absolute promise that no one else would be arrested. Still, I can never be completely easy until you are home again.”

“I’m here now,” I said, “and I will join you for tea, if you will allow me.”

“Of course, please be seated,” Celeste said, gesturing to an empty seat with all the charm of a proper hostess. “And have a tart, they really are good.”

I sat, and Prudence poured a fourth cup of tea while Celeste continued to prattle.

“Father Pius isn’t the ogre I’d thought he was. He said that he would allow my- allow Sister Jubilee to visit Uncle Hope and Uncle Just to offer prayers from del Sol.”

“Did he really say so?” I asked, taking the tea from Prudence.

“Oh yes,” Celeste answered for her mother. “I know he was telling the truth, because there’s just something about the high priest that one has to trust, you know? He said that he must follow the law and remain impar- impartial, but he was sure that once the truth came out, everything would be alright.”

My blood ran cold when I thought of Pius using the force of his charm to influence an innocent young girl, and yet I could not deny that I saw no trace of the anxiety that had plagued Celeste that morning.

“It sounds like Father Pius made quite an impression on you,” I said.

“And why should he not?” Mrs. Goode Sniffed. “We have not had a High Priest who possessed such wisdom in ages. He will purge the church of all its corrupt factions and bring truth to the world.”

Mrs. Goode, having finished her speech, handed me the tray of tarts with a satisfied air, and I accepted one with a murmured, “thank you.”

“You should take a biscuit, as well. I must say you seem exhausted, my dear. You must be, after seeing your husband in such a state. I hope you will not allow his appearance distress you. He is much stronger than he may appear, and the trial will be speedy.”

“Why should Uncle Hope’s appearance be distressing?” Celeste asked.

Mrs. Goode sent Celeste a withering look, but I answered.

“Your Uncle Hope has been kept inside for some time, so he is somewhat pale and thin.”

“Oh yes, and they cut off all his lovely hair- he told me in his letters,” Celeste said. “He isn’t ill from being cooped up, is he? Did he have a cough?”

“No- no cough,” I said. “As your Grandmaman said, he is very strong.”

I could hear Prudence heave a small sigh of relief.

“Is Uncle Just well, too?”

“I was not able to see him, today,” I said. “But I gave your Uncle Hope your love, as I promised, and he sends you his love in return.”

“Thank you- I knew you would,” Celeste said.

Mrs. Goode wiped her mouth and stood. “If you will excuse me, I think I shall depart. I only wished to see my granddaughter and hear how Lord Frey was faring. Don’t get up on my account, Lady Frey. As I’ve told you before, I don’t stand on formality. I will see myself out.”

“It’s no trouble,” I insisted.

I gave Celeste and Prudence an apologetic smile, and then escorted Mrs. Goode to the door. After Mrs. Goode’s comment about Wisdom, I did not feel comfortable allowing her to wander through the house alone, but she went straight to the entrance without dawdling, and did not seem interested in snooping or questioning me.

I returned to the nursery, where Celeste and Prudence were finishing their tea. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, and after dinner, Celeste seemed restless.

“Do please let me stay up tonight,” Celeste asked. “I’m always asleep by the time you come home.”

“You may stay up a little,” Prudence said. “If you will promise to entertain us.”

“Entertain you?” Celeste asked.

“You have not had a music lesson in some time,” Prudence said. “I know Lord Ainsworth needs to be kept quiet, but the drawing room is very far from the sickroom, and the clavichord has a light tone. I don’t think we will disturb Lord Ainsworth, and I daresay Lady Fairfax will not object.

Lady Fairfax, far from objecting, was delighted with the plan. She sat in her armchair with the air of someone attending a palace concert while Celeste first played a simple air I had taught her at Rowan Heights, and then sang a duet with Prudence.

I had never heard Prudence sing or play, because I always worked with Sister Love while she gave Celeste her music lesson, and when Prudence sang with the choir at del Sol her voice was lost in the chorus. Now I could fully appreciate what I’d missed, for even when Prudence lowered her voice to match Celeste’s, the drawing room seemed hardly able to contain such a full, rich tone.

When the duet was over, Lady Fairfax requested that Prudence sing another song, so Prudence sang an aria, this time giving full reign to her considerable talent, and I accompanied with less skill on the clavichord. Prudence sang an encore, and then I played a solo to allow Prudence the chance to rest her voice.

“A most delightful evening,” Lady Fairfax said. “It is wonderful to have young ladies in the house, to drive away some of gloom of these rainy days. I only wish we had more opportunities to spend the evening together in such a way.”

Celeste had fallen asleep and was snoring softly, with Snowbear curled up in her lap likewise snoring. With a chuckle, Prudence shook Celeste awake and took her upstairs, and when Smith came in to snuff the lanterns, Lady Fairfax drew me aside.

“I understand you were allowed to visit your husband, today. May I ask…”

“He is alive, and his health is as good as one might expect, given his circumstances,” I said.

“How is he faring… mentally?” she said in a breathless tone.

“His spirits are low, but he is rational and in command of his faculties.”

“Yes- Lord Frey always seemed to have great strength of mind. It is an important quality- one too often overlooked in leaders.”

“I don’t anticipate my husband being in such a role soon, given his situation,” I said firmly. “But how is my father faring? Has his mental state improved much?”

“He has been more vocal, but his words make very little sense,” Lady Fairfax said. “I know you haven’t much time, but is there anything else you might do for him- anything you haven’t thought of?”

I hesitated just a moment- long enough for Lady Fairfax to notice. She clutched my hand.

“However painful it may be, please try. I am lost without his guidance.”

 

 

#

 

 

“I’ve experienced few burdens heavier than the obligation of power,” Prudence said gently. “I will not add to that burden.”

Celeste and Lady Fairfax had long gone to sleep, and all the lamps and candles in the house were extinguished. Prudence and I lay together, side by side in the patch of moonlight that fell through the window.

“I can’t ignore those in need, but I still wish you would chide me for my recklessness. I exposed myself without thinking when I broke Hope’s curse. Be the voice of reason that you’ve always been, and warn me from doing it again,” I said.

“How can I, after the good you’ve done?” Prudence said. “Because of your recklessness, Hope can sleep again, free of his visions of hell. How can I advise you to hide such a power away?”

“Yet, you won’t tell me that I must help my father, either?”

“I can’t, Grace. I understand your concerns; your father may remember that Hope cast the spell, and testify against him. Yet I also understand the guilt you carry, and the need to make it right.

“I won’t tell you how to use your power. I wish I could bear this burden for you, but I can’t,” she concluded.

“I’m only asking for your advice-“

“Grace, when my magic caused me pain, you would never have dreamed of advising me to use it, or to refrain from using it to help my friends.”

Tears came to my eyes, and I could not hold them back any longer. Prudence wrapped her arms around me while I cried. I cried for Hope, and I cried for all the wretched prisoners I could not free. I cried for my father and I cried in frustration.

Finally, I was drained. I could cry no more.

“For what it’s worth,” Prudence sniffed, wiping away her own tears, “I trust you.”

“I know,” I said. “That is worth a good deal.”

“Thank you,” Prudence said. “When I think of what I’ve seen Hope suffer on account of his nightmares, I am overwhelmed by relief that they are over. Thank you for my own sake, as well. Knowing that my true face lies under my veil, and not the face of a monster, makes it easier to bear. When this is all over, I will burn that veil and never cover my face again.

“If only he could see…” Prudence trailed off, and then she shook her head before she spoke again. “Father Pius came to tell me that I will visit the others, and coached me to appear as though I were a mere sister offering prayers from del Sol. But I’m afraid to face Hope again. Will he hate me for what I’ve done? Will he even believe it is me? I’m almost afraid that the shock of hearing my voice will provoke Hope to reveal us. Is that Pius’s plan?”

“Hope will not be surprised,” I said. “I’m sorry- I should have asked you, but I could not deny him such a gift; I told him that you are alive.”

“But the guards…”

I took Prudence’s hand and began to trace the letters onto her palm, as I had for Hope.

“Our hands were here by my chest, and my back was to the guards. I might have been stroking his hand to comfort him, but Hope understood. Your voice will confirm my message.”

“So… he already knows. He knows.”

Prudence’s voice drifted into the still night air. Then her eyes closed and her breath rose and fell steadily as she succumbed to sleep. I watched Prudence as the moon rose higher in the city sky, and my fatigue gave way to a rare feeling of peace.

My eyes closed, and I slept in the knowledge that somewhere, where the moonlight could not touch him, Hope slept, too.

Part LXXXI

Read from the beginning.

The Coven, Part LXXIX

You will tell Uncle Hope that I miss him, won’t you? And Uncle Just, too?”

Celeste had asked the same question three times already. She looked as anxious as I felt inside- she had long since given up picking at her breakfast, and was half-standing in her chair as though ready to jump up and leave at any moment.

I took a deliberate bite of scone, and then swallowed before I answered in as calm a voice as I could manage.

“I will certainly convey your message to your Uncle Hope,” I said. “I don’t know if the inquisitors will allow me to see the others, but if they do then I will give Captain Goode your message, as well.”

“I told Grandmaman to give Uncle Just my love, but she didn’t really promise that she would. She didn’t want to talk about Uncle Just at all. Do you think she is angry at him?”

“Your Grandmother isn’t angry at Just,” Prudence said. “She simply doesn’t believe that young ladies should discuss grown-up matters.”

“But we are still family,” Celeste said indignantly. “What does my age have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know,” Prudence said. Then she managed a lopsided grin and said, “I already agree with you, Celeste; you should argue with your Grandmaman, instead of arguing with me.”

For a moment, Celeste looked ready to argue further, but then she sighed, folded her napkin, and went around the table to kiss her mother on the cheek.

“I’m so glad to see your smile, now, that I don’t even mind you’re being difficult.”

Prudence raised her eyebrows, but leaned into the embrace. “I’m being difficult?”

“The world is full of miracles,” Celeste sighed happily, ignoring her mother’s words. “I’m sure that the trial will go well, and we will all be happy together at Rowan Heights again. But- quick! I just heard footsteps. Put on your veil!”

Celeste flung Prudence’s veil back over her face. In a few moments I heard the footsteps Celeste had heard, followed by Snowbear’s barking.

“Oh! That dog- Lady Fairfax will be cross if he isn’t quiet.”

Celeste left Prudence to straighten her veil and ran from the room. She returned a few moments later with Snowbear in her arms.

“Snowbear found an intruder,” Celeste said crossly.

Before I could ask who she meant, Brother Lux entered the nursery.

“Pardon me- I don’t mean to intrude,” he said with a bow toward Celeste. “I have come to escort Lady Frey to the cathedral.”

He turned to me and said, with another bow, “as soon as you are ready, I am at your service.”

Brother Lux spoke to me as he had all week: with a mix of his usual, gentle tone combined with a new air of overcautious formality. I wondered whether he was trying to ease his conscience or soothe my anger after I’d learned that he’d blinded Hope, but neither explanation made much sense to me given his present state of power.

“I am ready,” I said curtly. I brushed a few crumbs from my dress and stood. “Just let me get my things.”

Brother Lux turned to Prudence. “You will need your wrap, as well. It looks like it will rain again.”

Prudence shot up. “You mean- I might see him, too?”

“I’m so sorry; I thought I’d told you. Pius would like a private audience with you, so he’s asked me to take you to his office on our way to see the prisoners.”

Prudence turned her veiled face to me, but did not speak.

“There is no need to hesitate. Pius remembers his vow. He only wishes to speak with you.”

“But, Celeste-“

“I took the liberty of speaking with Miss Mercy. She’s agreed to stay and protect Celeste while you are gone.”

Prudence looked at me again. I could tell that she was making the same calculations as I, though we could not discuss them aloud. What could Pius have to discuss with Prudence? Was he separating us purposely? Finally, with no recourse, Prudence nodded and sighed.

“My things are in the cloakroom.” Prudence said, but before she could move Celeste threw her arms around her waist.

“Please- no. Don’t go.”

“Celeste-“

“It will be like before,” Celeste cried. “The night they took you, or the night they took Uncle Just and Chastity. All of the grownups said it was alright, but it wasn’t.”

Celeste’s eyes were bright, and in between her words she was taking short gasps, as though she could not breathe from fright.

“Darling,” Prudence said gently, putting her arm around Celeste’s shoulders. “What happened to the optimism you had moments ago? Don’t you believe in miracles, anymore?”

“I believe in miracles, but I know that bad things can still happen. I couldn’t stand it if something else went wrong just when- just when- when it seemed like things were going to get better.”

Brother Lux stepped forward. “Breathe, Miss Celeste” he said. “I have no intentions of-“

“I can’t,” Celeste said, gasping harder. “I can’t breathe- if- you- say…”

Brother Lux stepped closer and put his hand on Celeste’s forehead. “Breathe,” he simply said.

Celeste’s breathing slowed a little, and she shut her eyes for a moment.

“Please,” Celeste said heavily. “Don’t take her away.”

“I will not,” Brother Lux said quietly. “With your leave, I will bring Father Pius here, instead.”

Celeste looked up sharply. “You will?”

Brother Lux nodded. “How could I possibly say no when you look at me with those brown eyes. You needn’t worry today. I hope that I will earn your trust in the future.”

Brother Lux lowered his hand and stepped back. “I must still take Lady Frey to the Cathedral. I hope you trust that I will bring her back safely.”

“Lady Frey can fight bandits,” Celeste said, raising her chin a little. “I’m sure she can fight you if she needs to.”

Brother Lux turned his dark eyes to me, and nodded sharply.

“You may be right, Miss Celeste.”

 

 

#

 

 

The carriage ride to the St. Blanc Cathedral was excruciatingly long. It wound through the slick city streets and then onto a muddy path that connected Verdant City with St. Blanc.

The length of the ride made me feel more acutely how long I’d been gone, and the anticipation of what I would see on my return was awful. I knew I would weep, but seven so- I would see Hope again.

When the ride was finally over, the carriage pulled up to the cathedral door where two men stood ready to meet us- Father Pius and an inquisitor I recognized as Brother Amicus.

“The coachman will be ready shortly,” Brother Lux said with a bow to the two men. “He wishes to clean the horse’s hooves, and then you may be off.”

“Of course- thank you,” Brother Amicus said with a smile that was as bright as sunlight breaking through clouds. “We should have plenty of time, but if we are late we can only offer the lady the cart- everything else is being used, at present.”

Brother Amicus turned and looked at me shyly. I quickly assured him the cart would be fine, and he bowed deeply in reply.

I felt a new sympathy for Prudence and Mercy when I watched brother Amicus and Father Pius enter the carriage. I understood how they must have felt when I went to meet Pius alone, and why they always asked so many anxious questions afterward.

Prudence will be alright- remember Pius’s vow. I reminded myself. You must think of Hope.

      Brother Lux offered his hand, but I brushed it aside and picked my way through the puddles to the cathedral door on my own.

Brother Lux did not take me into the dungeons. Instead, he led me downstairs into a small room adjacent to the dungeon entrance. He left me in the company of red-robed inquisitor with a promise that he would return shortly.

I sat in silence for what seemed like hours, but my pocket watch only ticked past a quarter-hour. My red-robed guard did not seem disposed to make conversation, though I attempted to engage him twice before I gave up. I strained my ears to for any sound that would indicate Hope’s approach- the creak of a stair, or the sound of heels on stone- but I heard nothing. Finally, when it seemed as though I would sit in anticipation all night, the door creaked open.

Brother Lux entered first, walking backward as he led his prisoner by the hand. For a moment I could hardly recognize the prisoner he led inside- the prisoner’s hair was closely-shorn, and he was shaven, yet he was covered in grime and filth. His brown robe hung on his frame as though it had been draped on a skeleton.

Then my heart seemed to leap into my throat as I recognized the prisoner’s face. His sunken cheeks had made his cheekbones and his high-bridged nose more prominent. His mouth was dry and cracked, but is was still full and warm as it mouthed his first words.

“Is she here?”

I could not speak, for fear I would cry aloud. The only answer I could make was to rush forward, and to take his free hand in mine.

“Grace!” Hope clutched my hand with surprising strength. “Oh! Speak. Let me hear your voice.”

I swallowed hard and spoke. “I am here.”

Hope was alive. I hadn’t realized how little I truly believed that he was alive until I could see him- touch him. I took him in my arms, gingerly, and allowed my tears to flow.

Hope was with me again, but nothing was the same.

I dried my eyes as soon as I could manage. I had three gifts to give Hope, and two of these gifts would have to be given in secret before the guards’ eyes.

I looked over Hope’s shoulder, and I saw that Brother Lux had backed away and stood against the wall. I leaned closer to Hope, closed my eyes, and concentrated.

I was able to find my new power quickly. It was getting easier with practice, and Hope’s trembling, suppressed sobs helped me to steel my will. I thought of the despair he’d first shown me on Prudence’s death day, and the cries he’d uttered in his sleep every night I’d let go of him. I thought of the false images he’d described- the illusion of hell- and I could feel the place where the curse resisted my will.

My will was like iron. I hardly had to move before I could feel the curse shatter into pieces.

Hope gasped aloud, and then his gasp turned into soft laughter.

“My brother is still here, isn’t he?” Hope said. “He’s trying to be quiet, but I can hear his breath. He’s here with guards, who are waiting for me to betray myself.”

“Brother Lux is still here, and there is one guard with him,” I confirmed. “Never mind them. Here- there is a chair here, and I will sit next to you. There is so much I wish to tell you, and wish to hear.”

“How are you?” He asked as I helped him to sit. “And, please, how is Celeste? Are you both well? Are you both happy?”

I sat beside him and clutched his hand to my heart. Here was the second gift I had to give- one that could be given freely. “Celeste is well, and she has grown considerably since you last saw her. She is almost to my shoulder, now. She has devoured all of the primers, and she is tackling complicated books. She will soon be ahead of me.

“She’s asked me to tell you that she loves you. I am a poor messenger- I cannot convey how much she loves you.”

“No- no, you are perfect. I can hear the truth in your voice. I would trust no one else.”

Hope leaned toward me earnestly, and clutched my hand in both of his.

“What about you, Grace? I’ve been anxious about your health since my brother told me you had been ill at del Sol. I can only imagine what sickness you may have been exposed to, in a place where the ailing flock for healing-“

“I’m perfectly well- please don’t worry about me. I only caught a small cold, and had to stay in bed for a couple of days. I was well over the cold by the time we came to Verdant City.”

“You are quite sure?”

“Perfectly sure,” I place Hope’s hand on my cheek. “My only concern now is that you remain strong, and that your suffering is not beyond what you can endure until you are freed.”

“I can feel how strong you are,” Hope said, stroking my cheek. “I am glad. You must take care of yourself, for there is little chance I will be freed.”

“I do not agree- and I am not only speaking with a wife’s bias. Your solicitors believe that you have a case. Trust me- you have more support in the public than you can possibly realize.”

“That- that is surprising to hear. But there is no point in trying to save me. I am a broken man,” Hope touched the edge of his blindfold with his left hand. “I didn’t wish you to see how broken-“

“It’s ok- I already know.” I kissed Hope’s hand and then held it in front of my heart.

I had sat with my back to the guards on purpose, and I hoped that, from where they stood, it would look like I only stroked Hope’s hand in affection. In reality, I was tracing letters onto Hope’s palm, over and over, with a practiced motion.

 

P-R-U-D-E-N-C-E L-I-V-E-S

 

“I cannot promise the recovery of anything permanently lost,” I said as I traced the letters, “but when I was at del sol I saw how remarkable a recovery people can make from starvation, depravation, and even torture.”

I continued to trace the letters as I spoke. The third time I completed the words, Hope seemed to understand. He gasped and clutched my hand.

“Are you- are you quite sure?” he said. “You are not attempting to give me false hope?”

“You know my character too well to ask,” I said. “You know I always examine all available evidence as carefully as I can before I reach a conclusion, and that I would not make such claims lightly. In this case, there can be no doubt.”

Hope took a deep breath, seeming lost for words. He had received my third and final gift.

My vision blurred for a moment, but I blinked the tears away.

“You are well loved,” I said, hardly able to keep my voice from trembling with emotion. “Many people are fighting for you, and I convey their love as well as my own. I promise that we will not stop fighting for you.”

“I- I believe you,” Hope said breathlessly. “I love you, Grace. Please give Celeste- give everyone my love, as well.”

I leaned forward to kiss Hope. Hope kissed me back, deeply, drinking from my lips as though they were a fountain of life.

Part LXXX

Read from the beginning.

 

The Coven, Part LXXVIII

Prudence went to the window and pulled the sash down behind Raven. She lingered by the window for a moment, watching Raven leave, before she pulled the curtains shut.

There was a small crease of worry between Prudence’s eyes, and I felt that familiar urge to smooth her brow and lift her frown into a smile.

“I don’t know what possessed me to quarrel with Raven,” Prudence said, turning back toward the bedroom. “I should have been afraid; she’s powerful.”

“Your fear provoked you,” I said, “but you will overcome your fear. You have the ability to see beyond her power, now.”

“I suppose you are right,” Prudence said. She sat at the foot of the bed and put a hand wearily to her head.

“I- I would like to try…”

Prudence looked up at me and raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”

“I believe I may have discovered a new ability of my own,” I said. “May I use you as my first test subject?”

“What are you testing?”

I hesitated. If I told Prudence what I was testing, and the test failed, I would have raised her hopes and then dashed them for nothing.

“I don’t wish to prejudice your observations,” I said. “Do you trust me?”

“Do what you will. I trust you.” Prudence closed her eyes and waited patiently as I placed my hands hands on her cheeks.

I took one deep breath and then another, clearing my mind as Prudence had taught me. Then I concentrated on Prudence’s face, which was easy to do.  I’d already burned each one of her features into my mind.

The next step in my experiment was more difficult, because I could not see the curse that hid those features from the world. I closed my eyes and recalled the picture that Prudence had drawn of the wrinkled, twisted visage that she saw in the mirror. My mind recoiled from the memory, but I forced myself to look at it, and summoned all of my hatred of it.

Destroy that horrible illusion, I told myself. Reach out and smash it.

      I thought of reaching out, and then I reached out. I could feel the curse’s resistance as though it were a physical object under my fingers.

Then I tightened my feelings like a fist and smashed through.

Prudence gasped, and I opened my eyes to see her staring at me in shock.

“I felt something,” she said. “What did you do?”

“I’ve learned how my magical resistance works,” I said. “I used to believe that I was immune to magic, and that a talented mage could use my immunity against me. When I thought about the problem more deeply, however, I realized that the explanation doesn’t make sense. Most magic is too weak to breach my defenses, but I’ve been affected by strong magic in the past. When I first met Hope, he attempted to mesmerize me and almost succeeded before I had reason to resist. The night of the dumb supper, the same thing occurred- Hope tried to control my mind and I stopped him of my own free will.”

“Does this mean you are not soulless?” Prudence said.

“I don’t know. If your soul is something that connects you to others, then whatever is inside me is something different- something that’s my own. I used it tonight to break Raven’s spell over me. Now I’ve used it to break another spell.”

“What spell?” Prudence said, and then her eyes went wide with sudden realization. She stood and ran to the mirror that hung over the commode.

She stood still at the mirror for a long time, tracing her face’s contours over and over as though mesmerized. Then she turned to me, tears in her eyes.

“I can’t see it, anymore. I can’t see the cursed face.”

“I destroyed it,” I said.

“We- we shouldn’t get carried away. We need to test this.” She raised her hands in front of her face, and chanted something in a soft voice. Then she nodded to herself as though in satisfaction.

“I can still use magic- good. Now we need to have someone else look at me- someone who is impartial, and someone who wouldn’t usually be able to see past the curse. But who?”

Prudence clutched her trembling hands and began to pace the room as she spoke.

“Has Mercy ever seen your face?”

“No- she came to Rowan Heights long after I’d gone, and at the abbey I kept my face covered around everyone but you and Abbess Joy- and some of the Guild members, of course.”

 

“Mercy seems like she would be the ideal candidate, but if you show your face to her, she may recognize you. Mercy was Hope’s confidante,” I said, recalling how she had guarded him as he slept in his hidden room. “She may have seen your portrait.”

“If she was really in Hope’s confidence, then I think we should trust her,” Prudence said.

“I agree. She already knows Hope’s other secrets, and I trust she would never tell them. She has the strength of mind to see through Pius’s manipulation; she rejected him to his face. I don’t believe she would betray us.”

Prudence nodded decisively. She took her veil from the chair-back where it had been draped and threw it on.

“Mercy is sleeping in the nurse’s room. Let’s see her at once. I dare not wait until morning.”

 

 

#

 

 

Mercy greeted us, bleary-eyed, at the nursery door.

“I suppose,” she yawned, “that this is vengeance for all the times I woke you before dawn.”

“We are sorry to disturb you,” I said, “but-“

“Lady Frey is anxious,” Prudence said, cutting me off. “I’ve told her that she’s being silly, but she will not wait until morning. May we come in?”

“This is your room,” Mercy said, stepping aside to let us pass. She closed the door behind us, and Prudence took her candle and used it to light several more in the room.

“I think that this is enough light,” Prudence said. “We would like your impartial opinion, Mercy. Lady Frey has told me that I look extremely ill, but I feel perfectly fine. What do you think?”

Prudence removed her veil and stepped forward. Her countenance was bathed in candlelight.

“I’m not a doctor- how should I know?” Mercy groaned. She stepped forward, however, and placed her hand on Prudence’s forehead. “You don’t feel feverish. Your cheeks are plump, and your color looks good, but I suppose you may be flushed.”

“I don’t know.” I stepped forward. “Do you not think her eyes look haggard, and her lips dry?”

“If she is haggard it’s because you’re keeping her out of bed,” Mercy said. “But she looks nothing of the sort, to me. There aren’t any bags or circles around her eyes. Her lips look perfectly soft.”

Tears welled in Prudence’s eyes, then, and she sank to her knees.

“What’s wrong?” Mercy said. “Do you feel ill?”

“No- no thank you,” Prudence said. She wiped her eyes, and waved away my attempt to help her stand. “I feel better than I have in years.”

“If you are sure,” Mercy said, moving to the door, “then please excuse me- I should get ready to begin my duties. We will discuss this later.”

Mercy gave me a significant look before she shut the door behind her.

“Prudence?”

“You did it- you really did,” Prudence said thickly, throwing her arms around me. “I don’t know how I will ever repay you.”

“Please don’t,” I stammered. “I-“

But my words were cut off by a kiss as light and fleeting as a summer wind on my cheek. Then Prudence turned and fled into Celeste’s room, leaving me in a state of confusion. I didn’t know whether to follow and watch the scene of joy unfold, or to leave the moment to the mother and daughter alone.

After a few moments of hesitation, I recalled that one victory did not mean my work was done. I went to my room, giving Prudence and Celeste their privacy, and climbed into bed. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, going over my testimony over and over until Brother Lux’s wakefulness potion wore off, and I fell asleep.

 

 

#

 

My sleep was dark and dreamless, and it seemed like no time at all passed before I opened my eyes again. When I’d closed my eyes, the first rosy tints of dawn har hardly streaked the sky outside, but now the afternoon sunlight poured through the open window, leaving patches of light on my bed.

Mercy was sitting at the end of my bed, watching me with a patient expression.

“How long have you known?” Mercy asked me as I rose.

It took me a few moments to realize what she meant. Then I remembered my prediction that Mercy would recognize Prudence.

“I’ve known ever since we were at del Sol. I discovered her the night I returned with Abbess Joy from my mother’s grave,” I said.

“You still trust her?”

“She’d earned my trust long before I uncovered her secret.”

“How did she earn your trust?”

I sat up further. “I can’t tell you everything. I’m sorry, but some of it involves secrets that aren’t mine to tell. I noticed, very early, her genuine care for Celeste, and the faith that Abbess Joy had placed in her. But the bond of friendship we formed was also a factor. The invaluable assistance she has given me has-“

“She broke his heart,” Mercy interrupted. “She ran off to save herself, and left Lord Frey to his fate.”

“She didn’t just save herself- she saved Celeste,” I said. “It’s not my place to tell her secrets, but please believe me when I tell you that she had good reasons to do what she did.”

Mercy sighed. “And you have your own reasons to trust her- I understand. Nothing I can say will dissuade you, but rest assured that I will continue to watch her even more closely than before.”

“I understand,” I said. “Just- don’t pry too deeply into her secrets.”

“I’ll pry as deeply as necessary to keep you and Celeste safe,” Mercy said. “I’ve been watching everyone we meet, from St. Blanc to the Abbey del Sol.”

“It’s been difficult- I failed at St. Blanc, but I refuse to fail again. The staff here is much easier to manage- it’s far smaller than the staff at a St. Blanc, and the gossip more reliable.”

“Have you learned anything?” I asked. “Is the staff here trustworthy?”

“Some staff members may be trustworthy. They all believe that Lord Frey is innocent- or else they keep their mouths shut. Word is that Lady Fairfax is ready to support any candidate who may take the Prince’s place on the Aeternan throne, and some of them have the mad idea that Lord Frey was arrested to hide a secret claim to the throne.”

“Where would they have heard such a thing?”

“Rumors have been spreading throughout the city- it would be impossible to tell the origin.”

“Do you know if any of the staff members are loyal to the Queen of Sancti?”

“None that I can tell,” Mercy said. “No one would dare admit to being loyalists while there are multiple claims to the Aeternan throne. After the next war, they might lose their heads.”

I shivered slightly.

“I cannot learn anything from Lady Fairfax’s own lips,” Mercy continued. “She’s asked you to take tea with her this afternoon, and I think you should go. Guide the conversation toward politics, but try to appear as neutral as your position allows. Also, try to discern if she has any connection to Pius or the church.

“Lady Fairfax was a powerful figure at court, and it is odd that she left St. Blanc instead of staying to seize power when the Prince grew weak.”

Was it odd? I wondered. I knew that Lady Fairfax was closely related to the Prince, but if she’d tried to stake a claim to a throne he’d failed to take, and name herself successor under a line he’d failed to secure, then her path would have been even more dangerous than the Prince’s.

Still, there was no harm in meeting Lady Fairfax for tea, so I agreed to go.

 

 

#

 

 

 

I peeked into the nursery on my way to the drawing room. Prudence and Celeste sat on the floor, playing a very spirited card gave that involved slapping one card on top of another with great speed. Though the door was ajar, Prudence’s veil was tossed back, and she laughed openly.

I closed the door gently and continued on my way.

When I arrived in the drawing room, the tea things were being laid out, but Lady Fairfax had not yet arrived. She entered the room just as the butler, Smith, had completed the preparations and stepped back from the table. She sat at the table, and Smith assisted her with the chair- the entire event had an air of well-practiced ceremony.

“Please sit,” Lady Fairfax said as Smith pulled out my chair.

“Thank you,” I muttered.

Lady Fairfax gave Smith a glance, and he bowed and swept from the room without another word. Then Lady Fairfax leaned forward and poured the tea.

“Let us assume we’ve said the usual pleasantries,” Lady Fairfax said as she poured. “I am too eager to hear if you’ve marked any improvement in Valor. I have not seen any, but…”

“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to tell,” I said. “My father has not responded at all when I’ve spoken to him. So far, Brother Lux is the only person who has been able to provoke a reaction from my father, for better or worse.”

“I wish I could still irritate Valor as much as I did when we were children,” Lady Fairfax said. “He’s grown used to my ways, I’m afraid. Does he still mistake you for your mother?”

“Yes, he does.”

“You do resemble your mother. My memory is imperfect, and I only met her once, but even I can see the resemblance.”

Lady Fairfax looked at me more closely. “Of course, you have a more open countenance than either your father or mother. Your mother was a woman of some reserve; she never spoke of her past. Before I could learn much about her she became ill and went to del Sol, and Valor found it too painful to speak about her.

“Did you discover anything about your mother’s past while you were at del Sol?”

I took a long drink of tea, preparing myself to tell the lie. “She was orphaned early in life, and was raised in an Abbey,” I said.

“Ah- I thought it might be something like that,” Lady Fairfax said. “The late Lady Ainsworth did not possess many social refinements, and her reserve does seem well-suited to abbey life. Valor had no need to marry for fortune. It was obvious to me, especially when I saw how hard Valor took his young wife’s death, that theirs had been a love match.”

Lady Fairfax set her teacup down on the saucer without clinking the porcelain and regarded my expression with a small, mysterious smile.

“I’m not surprised that you didn’t know,” she continued. “Valor would never speak of his wife, but I know my cousin better than anyone.”

The room darkened briefly as clouds obscured the sun, and less light streamed through the windows. Smith came in, unsummoned, to light the candles.

“Well, you’ve answered my question, even if the answer was not what I wished to hear,” Lady Fairfax sighed. “If you have not been able to reach Valor, then all we can do is pray.”

“I will continue reading to him,” I said tentatively, recalling my new-found power. “Perhaps I will come across something in his books that will reach him.”

“I’ve just had a thought,” Lady Frey said. “Smith, bring Lady Frey his books.”

Smith bowed and left the room. He returned a few moments later bearing three heavy volumes, which he deposited on the table beside my teacup.

“If we can reach nothing else, perhaps we can reach Valor’s pride,” Lady Fairfax said.

I examined the books. They were handsomely bound in brown leather, and the top one bore, in gold letters across the top, A History of Aeterna, Volume I.

      I opened the first book, and inside I read, A history written and compiled by Lord Valor Ainsworth.

      “I had no idea that he’d written a history,” I said, looking up to Lady Faifax once more.

“It was his life’s work for a great many years. I wonder that you didn’t know; it’ clear that you’ve inherited your scholarly nature from your father. I think it will be good for you to read this work for your own sake, as well as for your father’s. Perhaps you will understand him better once you have.”

Thunder sounded in the distance, and rain began to patter against the windows. Smith entered the room once more and reached for the curtains, but Lady Fairfax stopped him.

“Let the curtains be; I like the sound of rain,” she said.

Smith bowed and left once more, and Lady Fairfax poured another cup of tea.

“Do try the whiteberry tarts, Lady Frey,” she said coolly, as though we had previously been discussing the weather. “Cook is quite proud of them; they are the first whiteberries of the season.”

I closed the book and took a tart from the tray.

“Lady Fairfax,” I said gently. “A dear friend recently gave me wise advice that I could not ignore- that we always must prepare for the worst while acting to achieve our dearest hopes. If the worst should happen, what will you do? Will you remain here in Verdant city, or return to court?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always relied on your father’s advice regarding politics. We have been compatriots for a long time- he directed our political moves at court, and I used my influence and talents to execute them.”

I controlled my expression as best as I could and took a sip of tea to order my thoughts. If they really had been so close, then Lady Fairfax might have known more about my Father’s marriage than she had led me to believe.

Lady Fairfax preempted my next question by stating, “your father staked a lot on his alliance, through your marriage, to the Frey clan. With Lord Frey’s help, he might have been able to rally support from all the noble families to seek independence from Sancti. Now that the Prince is ill, and Lord Frey arrested, all of Valor’s plans have been destroyed. I will not bow to Sancti’s Queen, however- I am not fool enough to do so. I will throw in my lot with anyone who can create a sovereign Aeterna.”

Lady Fairfax dabbed her mouth with her napkin and stood. “Keep fighting, Lady Frey. Fight the corrupt bishops for your husband’s life.”

She left the room, and I stared after her for a few moments, trying to discern truth behind her words.

I went to the window, staring out at the rain as I thought. A melancholy feeling was stealing over me. At one time I might have embraced the melancholy and walked in the rain, wrapped in my own thoughts and allowing sensation to wash away doubt and clear my mind. I had no such indulgence in Verdant City, however. I had stared out at the rain-washed streets only a few moments when the cathedral carriage pulled up to the door, ready to bear me back to father Pius.

Read from the beginning.

The Coven, Part LXXIX

The Coven, Part LXXVII

My vision blurred with fatigue, but there was nothing to observe in the stone room, anyway. There was nothing but the echoing of footsteps on stone as Father Pius paced around me, and the cadence of Father Pius’s voice as he questioned me.

“Did Brother Lux take you to your room when you became ill at the dumb supper?”

“No- my husband escorted me to my room. Brother Lux came to examine me later- shortly before midnight.”

Father Pius nodded as though in approval. “Was Brother Lux alone when he examined you?”

“Yes, he was.”

“Don’t choose this moment to tell the truth,” Pius snapped. “Remember that this leaves your husband unaccounted for.”

I closed my eyes and searched my mind for any inconsistencies another lie may produce. Then I said, “my husband accompanied Brother Lux to my bedroom, and stayed while Brother Lux examined me.”

“What was Brother Lux’s diagnosis?”

“Only fatigue and overindulgence in drink. He said I would be well once I had rested.”

“Very well. After Brother Lux gave his assessment and retired, did your husband leave as well?”

“No- he stayed with me all night.”

“Good,” Father Pius stopped pacing and the clicking of heels on stone stopped, leaving blissful silence in its wake.

“This is your most critical testimony; you mustn’t stumble over a single detail. Let us go over it again- who was present the night of the dumb supper?”

I had only opened my mouth to answer when Pius put a finger to his lips. He stepped away and opened the doors, behind which Brother Lux already stood waiting.

“Good evening, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said in a measured tone, bowing low to me as he entered. “I am here to lend my assistance and ensure our testimony is concordant.”

“Good evening,” I said distractedly. It was the first time I had seen Pius and Lux together since I’d learned they could exchange bodies and enter each other’s minds. Despite their differences in physical appearance, watching them approach side by side was like seeing double.

At least I know they are both here, I thought. I cannot think of any reason they would change bodies while in the same room, unless they wish to amuse themselves and to revel in my confusion.

      “Pray continue, Lady Frey,” Pius said, returning to his station. “Who was present the night of the dumb supper?”

“My husband and I were present, of course,” I said. “Our guests were Brother Lux, Lady and Lord Willoughby, Mrs. Auber, and Captain Goode-“

“No, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux interrupted. “Captain Goode did not attend.”

“He must have,” I protested. “The meal was held in Prudence’s honor.”

“Recall that Captain Goode had been ordered to return to his regiment the week before. He was not able to attend.”

“Oh! You are right,” I rubbed my eyes and blinked as the blurriness returned. “I had forgotten.”

“You must not forget. Your husband dies if you forget,” Pius said in so fierce a voice that I sat up straight, jolted awake.

“Burn every detail of the story into your mind, Lady Frey,” Father Pius said. “Repeat it to yourself before you go to sleep.”

Brother Lux reached into his robes. “If we are working late tonight, you will need this. I beg you, however, to take my advice and sleep as soon as you are able.”

I took the vial Brother Lux offered, briefly examined the contents, and then poured a drop directly onto my tongue. A pleasant shiver ran up my spine, I sat up straight, and my vision grew sharper.

“You take too much upon yourself, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said gently, “and you do this because you won’t trust others to help you. I would guess that you stay up all night to conspire with Prudence, trying to guess how Pius and I will betray you. Instead of trusting Pius’s guidance for your testimony, you re-examine every part of if for treachery. You have to think everything over twice, and the result is mental exhaustion.”

I did not speak; I could not think of an adequate reply.

“I know I have wronged you- we have wronged you,” Brother Lux continued. “It does not necessarily follow, however, that our intentions are opposed now. I am willing to wager that our ultimate goals are the same.”

“Even if I believed you, I would still have to think over my testimony twice. You cannot keep track of your own lies, so why would I trust you with mine?”

“Lady Frey-“

“You are quite correct that Prudence and I stay up all night, wondering what you have done or will do. Last night was particularly difficult. Mrs. Goode visited, and she said that she had seen her son.”

Brother Lux stood straighter, but said nothing.

“Prudence barely kept silent until her mother left, and then you can imagine what happened. She was inconsolable- she had heard what you’d done to her brother, and we could imagine what you have done to Hope all too well.”

Brother Lux and Father Pius exchanged a look.

“You don’t deny it; our worst fears are confirmed, then,” I said. “The reason you haven’t given my letter to Hope, and the reason you had to write his letter for him, is because you’ve blinded him.”

“Lady Frey, it was-“

But Brother Lux cut himself off midsentence and looked at Father Pius, who stepped forward.

“You are right; Lux and I have a greater story to write, and too many mistakes have already been made. Help us work out the testimony tonight, and on week’s end we will take you to Lord Frey.

 

 

#

 

 

When I arrived at Brighton Place, the house was dark. A single light flickered in my room, where Prudence awaited.

She sat in bed wrapped in a blanket, with a book propped open on her knees. I climbed into bed beside her and lay still for a moment, watching the flickering shadows on the ceiling. Then I spoke.

“They confirmed what we’d feared.”

Prudence did not speak, but the book slid from her knees and onto the floor. She leaned over and put her arms around me.

“We’ve accomplished so much, and we’ve accomplished nothing,” she said.

“He is still alive,” I said. “I will be with him on week’s end.”

“Grace, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that-“

“That what?” I whispered.

Prudence heaved a heavy sigh. “There are a hundred small errors a human mind can make, and here is one of them; it’s easy to believe that if something terrible happens, it is punishment for a mistake that you’ve made. But there are perils in the world that simply cannot be overcome. It is possible to make all of the correct moves, and still lose the game.”

“But we’ve done so much already!” I protested. “We’ve defied him in so many ways, and-“

“We’ve barely survived,” Prudence said. “I’m not saying we should stop trying, but we must also prepare for the worst.”

How? I thought. How can I possibly prepare myself for that?

Prudence and I sat in silence for some time. Then the silence was broken by a scratching on the window, followed by a soft screech as the window sash was raised. I held a finger to my lips and crept to the window, dropping into a fighting stance as I waited for the intruder to emerge.

A cloaked figure came through the curtains, and I sprung to action, sweeping their legs before they could get their footing. I put the intruder in a tight hold, which they struggled too weakly to break. The figure under the cloak was small, and so light that I easily hauled them to their feet.

Prudence stood and lifted her candle, peering underneath the intruder’s hood.

“Raven! But… how?” Prudence gasped.

In my surprise, I loosened my grip, and Raven took the opportunity to twist around in my arms. Her hood fell back, and she stared into my eyes- her own eyes flashing bright red.

At once I felt a familiar sensation, as though I were being bound against my will. I tried to move my arms, but the more I struggled, the tighter they seemed to be bound.

Raven smirked and stepped away from me, toward Prudence.

No, I thought. I will not allow you to do this to me.

      I thought of moving, and my limbs did not move. Then I reached out for that feeling, that tightening of the string, that I had found when I converted thought into action. My arms moved a little, and then my legs. Then, all at once, I felt the bonds fall away.

The smirk on Raven’s face also fell away, replaced by a look of shock.

“Damn,” she said. “Pius wrong about how to use magic against you. He said you were Ancient.”

“Half- Ancient, yes, but it was a mistake to use my magic resistance against me,” I said.

I moved to grab her again, but she dodged and ran to the other side of the bed.

“Hey- I was only acting in self-defense,” she said. “You attacked me first.”

“You were stealing into my bedroom,” I said. “The window was supposed to be locked.”

Raven continued to back away. “Locks can’t stop me,” she said. “Anyway, how else was I supposed to get you alone? Every time you go out you are with one of Pius’s lackeys, and I didn’t want anyone but you to see me.”

“I believe everyone in town has seen you, at this point,” I said. “Both Brother Amicus and Mercy watched you follow the carriage from the cathedral.”

“You’re kidding,” Raven said. “I thought I was being so careful…”

Prudence put her finger to her lips, and then went to the door, the walls, and the corners, casting the spell of silence. Then she turned back to Raven.

“Why are you here?”

“A couple of weeks ago, Abbess Joy caught me trying to access her magic mirror. She told me very specifically that I should never access her mirror again, that I should not try to contact you, and that under no circumstances should I ever steal an abandoned ship, whose coordinates she gave me, to come to Earth and find out what father Pius was doing. I assumed she was working with you.”

“Well, yes,” Prudence said. “I wanted to speak with you, but I never imagined that you would come here in person.”

“I’m afraid I’m as lost as you are, with regards to Pius’s actions,” Raven said. She put her hands behind her back and began to pace, though she still glanced at me from time to time. “I had no idea that he was trying to convince people that he was a God.”

“He is a God,” Prudence corrected. “He’s ascended. I’ve seen his new power with my own eyes. Abbess Joy herself could barely stand up to it.”

Raven stopped pacing. “Oh, dear. This might be a problem.”

“It certainly is a problem,” Prudence said hotly. “He has all the resources, power, and allies one could possibly need to take over Aeterna. Considering your past with Pius, can you provide evidence you are not still one of his allies?”

“Don’t be ridiculous- how am I supposed to prove I’m not working for him?” Raven said. “I thought you already knew I wasn’t- why else would you contact me?”

Prudence and Raven stared at each other with near-identical expressions of annoyance. I stepped between them.

“We don’t have the luxury of quarreling amongst ourselves,” I said. “Everything Raven has said so far has proved true. We need her help, Prudence.”

“I only wanted to question her through the mirror, not work with her in person. How can I trust Raven after everything I’ve endured since I formed my contract with her?”

“Excuse me? I gave you a piece of my own power in order to help you. You were warned about the consequences of that power.”

“You didn’t give me the tiniest idea of how bad it would be,” Prudence said. “Even my power felt like a curse. As for the actual curse- it was unendurable.”

An odd thought struck me, then- a thought borne of the desire to test my new-found force of will.

I can do it again, I thought. I know the feeling, now.

      I could not linger on the idea, however. Raven and Prudence continued to argue, their voices raising so much that I wondered if the spell of silence would be enough to contain them.

“Do you have any idea what I went through to get here?” Raven said. “I could have died. Now I spend all of my time dodging inquisitors in the city because I can’t blend in.”

Raven pulled back her cloak and gestured at the dress she wore underneath. It was a shining, blue dress trimmed with a profusion of stiff lace, which was already beginning to unravel at the sleeves.

“Is this the only dress you own?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I gestured to her and led her to the adjacent room, which contained my wardrobe. She and Prudence followed and waited in uncomfortable silence as I searched through my clothes.

“Here- I think this may fit you with a few adjustments,” I said, holding up a plain traveling dress. “It is my plainest dress, except for the pilgrim robes from del Sol, which I daresay would draw far more attention to you.”

“Thank you,” Raven said quietly.

“You may change behind the screen if you like,” I said. “Tell me if you need any assistance.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Raven said, taking the dress. She went behind the screen I’d indicated, and Prudence stood in front of the screen as though standing guard.

“I learned about Wisdom from a strange man- he said he was Priest of the Cult of Reverence,” Raven said, her voice slightly muffled by rustling fabric. “Is it true- is Pius really the one they call Wisdom?”

“We shouldn’t continue this conversation until Prudence seals this room, as well” I said.

“Don’t worry- I already have,” Raven said. “I can do it without word or gesture.”

“You can? I’ve only met one person who could, before.” Prudence said.

“Yes, and he got his powers from me,” Raven said. “I’ve never contracted with anyone as easily as I did with Hope. How is he, anyway? Have you heard anything?”

“He is alive,” I said. “He is suffering, but he is alive.”

“Damned barbarians- how could Pius resort to their methods?” Raven groaned. “Things are about to get messier, too. I’ve been listening around taverns- all kinds of brawls are breaking out because everyone is taking sides. The followers of Wisdom believe that Hope is innocent, and those loyal to Order believe that he is guilty.”

Raven emerged from the screen, buttoning her short-dress. “This makes no sense to me.”

“You are buttoning it correctly,” Prudence said.

“Not that- why would Wisdom’s followers believe Hope is innocent if Pius is really Wisdom? Pius is the one who arrested Hope.”

“I believe this is part of Pius’s plan,” I said. “I believe he intends to cause civil unrest in order to seize power.”

Raven closed her eyes and sighed. “The cult of Reverence has been trying to awaken Order. As I said- things are about to get messier.”

“The way Pius has done this- it makes it impossible for us to pick one side, doesn’t it?” Prudence said. “How can we fight Pius when he’s behind the church and behind the cult of Wisdom?”

“We can’t rely on cults or factions; we must fight him our own way,” I said.

“Perhaps,” Raven adjusted her skirts with a thoughtful expression. “But maybe I can cause a little chaos on my own. The cult of Reverence is interested in me- maybe I should form an alliance with them. Then I could help Reverence disrupt the cult of Wisdom, and disturb Reverence’s cult, as well.”

“You’re a demon- Reverence knows you will betray him.”

“I’m a very low-ranking demon- a nobody,” Raven said. “Reverence will underestimate me.”

“Maybe you will succeed,” Prudence conceded, “but to what end? Pius is already using both the church and the cult of Wisdom to destabilize Aeterna, and if you cause chaos among both factions, you may only hasten his goals.”

“Chaos is rarely helpful to anyone’s goals,” Raven said. “Pius is not creating chaos; he’s carefully cultivating instability. He is setting the stage for his own rise. Trust me- I intend to find and destroy every platform he’s raising for himself.”

“Why,” I asked. “You know what reason we have to hate and distrust him, but what drives you to stop him?”

“He’s powerful, he’s taking over, and he’s becoming something alien- something whose goals we cannot understand. That makes him inherently dangerous,” Raven said. “Besides- he has betrayed me, too. We were supposed to stop the Gods- not become them.”

Raven threw her cloak over her shoulders, leaving the blue dress behind, and walked briskly across the room. She paused at the window.

“Thank you for the dress. I’ll be in touch soon.”

“Wait- here,” Prudence took a black cap from a hook on the wall and tossed it to Raven. “Cover that ridiculous hair.”

“You’re one to talk, ginger,” Raven said as she caught the cap. She placed the cap on her head, however, threw open the window-sash, and slipped out into the night.

 

Start at the beginning.

Part LXXVIII

The Coven, Interlude

A young girl sat alone in a crowded inn, nursing a flagon of something brown, foamy, and not quite drinkable.

The girl sat away from the light cast by the peat fire, scooting her stool far into the dark corner as though to avoid notice. She might have succeeded in avoiding notice had her hair not been such an uncanny shade of red, and if the blue satin of her dress had not possessed so unnatural a sheen that it caught what little light that found its way to her corner.

Raven was the most interesting object in the dingy room, and more than one patron paused in their drinking or card-playing to stare at the girl.

      Raven pointedly ignored the stares and put her flagon aside as though she’d given up trying to drink from it. Instead, she gazed into the fire and picked idly at the loose threads on her flounced sleeves.

      Another person sat in the opposite corner of the room, watching the girl with keen, dark eyes. He was much more adept at hiding than she; his hair was short and greying, he wore a plain black cloak, and he held a half-drunk flagon in his own hand.

      After a time, the man stood and made his way across the room, moving naturally from shadow to shadow until he was beside Raven. He sat down and placed his ale on an empty table nearby.

      “Go away, creep. I’m not interested,” Raven grumbled.

      “I have no ill intentions, I assure you. I am a man of the cloth.”

      Raven smirked. “Of course- no churchmen ever break their vows with seedy tavern girls. I’m not an idiot.”

      “You look like an idiot,” The man said, leaning back and picking up his flagon once more. He took a deep drink, and then wiped his mouth, examining Raven from her bright red hair to her shiny blue dress. “Whatever possessed you to come here is such an outfit? If you weren’t a woman, I’d think you were a two-bit player in a traveling circus.”

      “This-“ Raven sat up, opening her mouth as though to protest, and then sad back again.

      “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

      “You know what I mean. You’ve tried, and failed, to blend in with humans. You have put on a costume and called it a dress. You are not a usual foreigner. From which realm do you hail- angelic or demonic?”

      Raven laughed. “Listen to yourself; you sound like a lunatic. Go bother a doctor or a priest with your delusions. I’m not interested.”

      The man leaned forward and removed a pendant from under his robes. He brushed his hand against the pendant, and for a moment it glowed with a pale blue light before fading back into plain silver. The man tucked the pendant back into his robes, looking around briefly at the other patrons.

      The other patrons continued with their games and conversations as though they had seen nothing unusual. Raven quirked an eyebrow, but she said nothing.

      The man turned back to Raven and leaned forward to whisper. “My name is Clarity St. Anise, priest of the cult of Reverence. For years, my cult has watched over the comings and goings at del Sol, and over the activities of a certain fallen angel who is beloved of Reverence. Any threat to del Sol is the enemy of my God. Any threat to Abbess Joy is worthy of death. You were seen when you fell from the heavens in the desolate fields north of del Sol. You were watched as you traveled here through the backroads to reach Verdant City. If you cannot answer my questions satisfactorily, you will be deemed a threat and I will take your life.”

      Raven’s eyes widened slightly, but she bit her lip as though trying not to laugh. “The Gods really do play on a different level, don’t they? If they want to stalk a pretty girl, they have their own cult to help.”

      “I suggest you take this seriously. Your life is at stake.”

      “Then here’s some serious advice. For your own safety, leave me alone, and for the sake of decency, leave Abbess Joy alone.”

      Clarity reached into his cloak and half-drew a dagger from its hidden sheath. Raven’s eyes flashed red as though they shone in the firelight, and Clarity froze.

      “Sit down,” Raven hissed.

      Clarity sheathed his knife and sat down stiffly.

      “Demon,” Clarity said through gritted teeth, and then he grunted as though he struggled with something unseen. “We will not allow you to hurt the Abbess.”

      “Relax- I’m not here to hurt Abbess Joy,” Raven sighed. “She and I have a common enemy.”

      Clarity blinked in surprise. “You don’t work for Wisdom?”

      “I don’t even know who Wisdom is,” Raven said. “I’m very interested in hearing about him, though. Here- finish my ale and talk quickly. I want to hear everything you know before you get drunk, pass out, and forget all about me.

Part LXXVII

Start at the beginning.

 

 

The Coven, Part LXXVI

After we’d settled my father, Brother Lux made a hasty departure. I’d intended to go straight to the nursery after Brother Lux left, but Mercy intercepted me on the way.

“Mr. Sutton is bringing Mr. St. Roch, soon. Lady Fairfax insists that I dress you properly before you meet anyone.”

I ran my fingers through my hair, which was still loose from the night before. My first instinct was to bristle against being treated like a child, but I sighed and acquiesced. “It was very kind of Lady Fairfax to order clothes for me, and she has been kind to father, so I will not make a fuss.”

I followed Mercy into the bedroom. I removed my clothes behind a screen to conceal my scars, and then emerged to allow Mercy to help fasten the buttons and pins. My new bodices were cut very low in the latest fashion, so I was forced to awkwardly hold my lace in place while Mercy pinned. If Mercy noticed how strange this behavior was, she did not remark on it.

“I am glad your attorneys are willing to meet you here,” she remarked as she pinned up my hair. “The less you go into public, the better.”

When I was dressed, Mercy went to the windows and peeked out between the drawn curtains. I put on my false glasses and arranged my oculist card, debased coin, and a few other trinkets in my pockets, and then I sat back and watched as Mercy went from window to window, peeking through each set of curtains in the same way.

“Have you see our stalker, again?” I asked.

“No, I haven’t,” she said.

“That’s good, I suppose, thought the incident was rather strange,” I said. “You’ve seemed shaken since last night. May I ask what is wrong?”

“Your husband was arrested for witchcraft and you are a target for his enemies. I don’t like having to guard you in a crowded city.”

“I’d have thought you would prefer to watch from the carriage box to see over the crowds, but last night you rode inside the carriage. Why is that?”

“You need to learn tactics,” she grunted. “If I sit on the carriage box I can see everyone in the crowd, but they can also see me. Someone may recognize me as your servant.”

“The carriage livery may give away my identity just as easily,” I said. “So far, we’ve been conveyed either in the Ainsworth carriage or the cathedral’s carriage, and they are both easily recognizable.”

“Traveling post would be just as risky,” Mercy argued, still looking out of the window distractedly. “We would be in the hands of an unfamiliar driver.”

“I only meant to say that the livery would likely give me away before you did,” I said. “Is there anyone in particular that you fear will recognize you?”

Mercy spun back from the window. She opened her mouth and shut it several times, as though trying to decide what to say, and then she spun back to the window as though she had given up.

“You needn’t worry about that,” she finally said. “Focus on Lord Frey’s trial, and leave your security to me.”

“I’ve never seen you like this,” I said gently. “The only time I’ve seen you so frightened was at Rowan Heights, and then you were only pretending. If I can help-“

Mercy spun back. “I depend on you for everything, Lady Frey- from my wages to the freedom of my dearest friends- and you have never seemed to understand the power you hold. How could I possibly rely on your help?”

“If there is any responsibility I haven’t fulfilled, then tell me, and I will make amends,” I protested. “I earnestly wish to help you.”

“You’ve fulfilled all of your responsibilities admirably, because those responsibilities were thrust onto you, but you’ve never taken any responsibilities on yourself. I know everything about your life, but you’ve never asked about mine.”

“I- I never thought…”

“You see?” she said scornfully. “You hold almost complete power over my life, and yet you are intimidated by me. You are a child, and the inquisitors will eat you alive.”

Mercy closed the curtains, and then she turned to go. At the door she paused and said, “I can rely on myself, Lady Frey. Learn to rely on yourself, as well.”

 

 

#

 

 

I didn’t have time to ruminate on Mercy’s words, or to try and uncover the secret she was keeping behind them. Even so, the exchange had made me more determined to do something of use.

As afternoon faded into evening, and sunlight spilled through the lace curtains in the sitting room onto parchment-strewn tables and dregs of cold tea, I continued to work. Mr. Sutton had leaned back to close his eyes in thought, though he hadn’t opened them in quite a while. Mr. St. Roch- a rotund man with sharp, dark eyes- regarded me with an inscrutable expression as I re-read a copy of the blood oath my husband had been accused of signing.

Prudence sat in the corner of the room with a basket of needlework, and though her face was veiled, I could tell by the way the periodically paused in her work, and by the rigid posture in her back and shoulders, that she was listening very carefully.

“This is a very simplistic document,” I said at last. “My husband is generally very careful about his affairs; the idea that he would sign this in blood without any clauses protecting him and his family is ludicrous. Of course, the inquisitors do not know my husband’s character, and will not care if I explain.”

“In her accusation, Mrs. Auber described your husband as being somewhat impulsive. She believed that his desire for vengeance would have provided enough motive to sign the blood oath.

“I’ve already had an expert in writing analyze the original signatures. Aside from the discrepancies in the handwriting, I’m afraid there is little evidence to be found in the blood oath.” Mr. St. Roch took the blood oath from my hands and pushed Mrs. Auber’s statement forward. “Can you spot any inconsistency in the accusation?”

I read for a few moments before I spoke. “Here- Mrs. Auber mentions a party that occurred the day I arrived at Rowan Heights,” I said. “She states that Captain Goode gave my husband a suspicious vial of liquid, which she suspected to be poison.”

“Did you not see such an exchange?”

“I did, but I’m certain that the vial Captain Goode handed my husband was medicine for my husband- he suffers from a sleep disorder.”

Mr. St. Roch nodded. “This part of the accusation made little sense to me, as the High Priest did not die of poison. Do you see anything else?”

I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. I hadn’t realized how sore my eyes were until they closed, and salt water welled up a little and stung the corners. I took off my false spectacles and hung them on a chain around my neck, and then wiped my eyes.

How would I see the document, I wondered, if I were truly an innocent bystander who believed her husband to be innocent? I took another deep breath, counted to ten, and continued.

“I cannot comment on the first half of the accusation, because the events described took place before I arrived at Rowan Heights. I did attend the dumb supper that is described a little later- the one that was held on Prudence’s death day. As Mrs. Auber said, I become ill and retired before the meal was complete, but Brother Lux was present to witness the remainder of the meal, and can attest that nothing sinister occurred.”

“She states here that Brother Lux left the room shortly after to attend you, and it was then that Lord Frey said that ‘tonight is the night that we will have vengeance.’ This is, indeed, the night that Father Sauris took his own life.”

“Was it?” I said. “I thought that happened the following night. Father Sauris’s death was not announced until the morning of week’s begin.”

“The true date of Father Sauris’s death isn’t common knowledge,” Mr. St. Roch said with a sigh. “This is a damning piece of evidence, I fear.”

An image came to my mind’s eye of the ritual I’d stumbled upon that night- the bonfire on the hillside, and Hope, cloaked and red-eyed, calling upon his demons’ power. I could not stop myself from shuddering.

“There’s a draft,” I said to Mr. Sutton, who’d opened his eyes to look at me with concern. “I will close the window.”

I went to the window on the far side of the room and lowered the sash, but before I shut the curtain a flash of color caught my eye. A girl with bright red hair and a blue satin dress stood beside a tree, watching the building with an intent expression. She raised her hand and waved at me before ducking ungracefully behind the tree.

I closed the curtain and turned back to Mr. St. Roch.

“Brother Lux didn’t come to attend me until well past midnight,” I said. “If the party wasn’t over at this point, then they must have at least retired to the drawing room. Besides, if my husband had uttered such a statement at dinner, it would have defeated the point of a dumb supper.”

“The fact that such an event occurred will not look good to the inquisition,” Mr. Sutton said baldly, standing and stretching his long limbs. “They were honoring the life of a convicted witch.”

“Condemned- not convicted,” I corrected. “Prudence Goode never had a trial. She was Captain Goode’s sister, Celeste’s mother, a dear friend to all who assembled, and beloved of my husband. I didn’t know Prudence, but I could see the regard everyone assembled shared for her. No matter the circumstances of her death, such feelings do not easily die.”

Behind me I could hear a tiny intake of breath. Though I longed to turn around and look at Prudence, I did not dare give her away.

“Your feelings do you credit, Lady Frey,” Mr. St. Roch said, standing to shake my hand. “I hope you can convince the inquisitors to see things the same way. It is getting late, and I have some more documents to review. The other witnesses have made very unconvincing statements, and I hope we can focus attention toward them as much as possible. In the meantime, keep this statement and write down any other inconsistencies you can find.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I know you have risked a lot- far more than I can compensate you for.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not,” Mr. Sutton said, coming forward to shake my hand as well. “Public opinion is split on the matter, and you have more support than one would have thought. Many whispers are circulating of corruption within the church, and of a plot against the Freys.”

“Public opinion will not matter much,” Mr. St. Roch argued. “The opinion of the inquisitors is what matters. Even so, I have made it my business to defend those who need defending.”

“We shall see how things go,” Mr. Sutton said. “Good evening, Lady Frey, and bless you.”

I stood to see Mr. Sutton and Mr. St. Roch to the door, and then returned to the sitting room.

“What do you say to an early supper?” I asked Prudence, who was still sitting where I’d left her with her basket of work. “My fatigue is starting to catch up with me, and I may retire early-“

“Oh no- you aren’t getting out of this interview so easily,” a sharp voice resounded through the room like a crack.

I spun around to see a middle-aged woman standing in the doorway.

“I am Mrs. Equanimous Goode,” the woman announced, “and you must be the mysterious Lady Grace Frey.”

I stared for a moment at Mrs. Goode, wondering when she had come inside, or how she had followed me to the drawing room unseen. She stepped across the drawing-room threshold and stared back at me.

Mrs. Goode had bright, henna-dyed hair and eyes that twinkled a soft blue behind pince-nez glasses. She was dressed in mourning, but she held her widow’s veil crumpled in her left hand as she extended her right to shake mine.

I overcame my surprise and stepped forward to shake the woman’s hand.

“Good Evening, Mrs. Goode,” I said. “Please forgive me- I was not expecting you, today.”

“Why not? You sent word that you would welcome me, so here I am.” She came into the room and, before being asked, sat on a chair near Prudence.

Before I could say anything, Mrs. Goode extended her hand to Prudence and said, “Sister…”

“I beg your pardon,” I said, stepping forward before Prudence was obliged to speak. “This is Sister Jubilee. She is here to tutor Celeste.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Mrs. Goode said, squeezing Prudence’s outstretched hand.

“Likewise,” Prudence whispered in reply.

“Sister, if you would please ring for more tea-“ I began.

“No- no tea,” Mrs. Goode said quickly. “Do sit down, Lady Frey, so we can get straight to business. I despise making calls, which is why I did not wait until morning. I don’t stand on formality.”

“I understand,” I said, sitting where Mrs. Goode had gestured, as though I were a guest in her sitting room. “Shall I send for Celeste? You must wish to see her.”

“I do, but I mostly came to size you up,” Mrs. Goode said, holding her pince-nez in place with one hand as she looked me up and down thoroughly. “I must say that you look very young. How old are you?”

“I very recently turned twenty,” I said.

“Hmm.” Mrs Goode removed her pince-nez and wiped them with a handkerchief. “When were you and Lord Frey married?”

“We were married just after midsummer,” I replied.

“How did you and Lord Frey meet? Were you out long, before you married?”

Had I not been practicing with Father Pius, I might have been thrown off by the rapidity with which she shot her questions. Fortunately, I was able to answer smoothly.

“My father arranged my marriage. I was not out at all before I married.”

Mrs. Goode finished cleaning her pince-nez and perched them back on her nose. “I made inquiries about you before I came here. Honestly, I’ve been asking everyone one I knew about you since you were married, but no one knew anything. I suppose that’s because there was nothing to find.”

She nodded to herself in a satisfied way. “I knew your father long ago, before he lost all of his sense and became the Prince’s lap-dog. He was a clever man, but he had no way with children. I can imagine that he engaged some hard-nosed governess and told her to keep you out of anyone’s way. I never met your mother, but if she had lived, I daresay you might have had some proper society.”

“I must admit that I do feel my mother’s absence very acutely, at times,” I said quietly.

“Of course you do,” she said, patting my hand. Then she turned to Prudence. “A mother’s influence is so important for a girl, don’t you agree?”

Prudence nodded, and picked up her needlework once more.

Mrs. Goode turned back to me. “Have they allowed you to see your husband yet? When they do, you mustn’t be shocked. I’ve seen my son, Justice- I gather you knew him?”

“Yes, I did,” I said. “Is he-“

“He is in a dreadful state,” Mrs. Goode said fiercely. “He’s nothing but skin and bones, and they’ve taken his hands.”

“His… hands?”

“Yes- they cut them off, you see, at the wrist.” She made a chopping motion on her own wrist. “They had some mad idea that his hands were dangerous. Well, he is a soldier, and we expected one day he would be wounded in battle. Still, my son is strong. Nothing they do will ever break him.”

Prudence dropped her needlework in her lap, and her breathing became very still.

“I won’t hear a word of sympathy,” Mrs. Goode said, cutting me off before I could speak. “You have your own husband to worry about, I’m sure. They are both alive, and that is the important thing. They are innocent, of course, and the truth will come out in the trial.”

“I am glad of your confidence,” I said.

“I know my son. He would never give in to the temptations of witchcraft, no matter the circumstances. His father raised him to be a man of honor and sense, so he would not succumb to superstitious folly. Lord Frey, too, is no fool. Why would men of ability and intelligence resort to whispering charms under the moonlight, like lovestruck girls?”

“You do not believe in witchcraft, then?”

“I know that fools fear witchcraft, and wise men do not. I also know that wise men who are weak try to use others’ fear of witchcraft against them, and that weak fools are the only ones who actually use witchcraft. Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know?”

Mrs. Goode leaned closer, as though to share a confidence, “I think that if anyone in that group is guilty, it is Lord and Lady Willoughby. From what I’ve heard they have indulged far too much in the decadence of court. A place like St. Blanc weakens a nation. We need a leader with strength and fortitude, not a fop in a gilded palace.”

I did not answer, but Mrs. Goode did not seem to expect an answer. She checked her pocket-watch, and then stood.

“It is getting late, my dear. Celeste must have her dinner soon, I suppose, so I will call another day to see her. It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope your father’s health will improve.”

“Thank you,” I said, shaking her hand.

“It was a pleasure to meet you too, Sister… Jubilee, was it?” Mrs. Goode said, turning to Prudence. “By the way, your veil is slipping. Good evening.”

Mrs. Equanimous Goode swept from the room like a whirlwind. Prudence put her hand to her veil, but it was on perfectly straight.

Read from the beginning. 

Interlude