The Coven, Part XCIX

Read from the beginning.

Tea did not come on a tray containing teapot, cups, and spoons. Instead, Sir Percival returned to the cathedral bearing a caddy filled with large covered mugs, which he unceremoniously placed on the floor over the map of the midlands.

Pride nodded in thanks before taking a cup, and gestured for Hope and me to take a cup before he continued speaking.

“We are here-” he gestured at the map, “barely outside of Verdant City, at the first of several cathedrals that were built to edify pilgrims on their way to del Sol.”

A yellow line appeared on the map under our feet, marked by a few bright yellow spots, the first of which was a little way outside the area marked Verdant City.

“The tunnel isn’t completely sealed,” Pride continued. “There are places a pilgrim may exit to gather supplies at Rouge Village, Crossroads Village, Bridon City, and Hill Country Village. The tunnel was never finished, unfortunately, so when we reach Hill Country Village it will be necessary to continue to del Sol on foot.”

Hope stepped forward, studying the end-point beside Hill Country Village with a frown. “It is two hours by carriage from Hill Country Village to Rowan Heights, and then another four hours by carriage del Sol- even longer by foot. The inquisition watches the road very carefully for convicts seeking sanctuary.”

“Yes, but there is no other way. My soldiers are ready to defend you from inquisitors on the road,” Pride said.

“If I may,” the man in brown said with a deferential bow to Pride. “Perhaps if we disembark from the tunnels before we reach the village, we may find a path around the inquisitors.”

“I don’t think you will find such a path,” I said, “unless we find a vessel and approach by sea.”

The man in brown did not answer me, but he knelt down and examined the map very closely, tracing the shoreline with his fingers in thought.

I stepped closer and examined the shore as well, absentmindedly taking a sip of tea as I went. I stopped abruptly, however, as soon as the tea touched my tongue.

I choked a little and forced the drink down. It was not like any tea I had ever tasted. It was thick, strong, and unbearably bitter. There was a slightly cloying aftertaste that suggested that the drink had been spiked with wakefulness potion, yet the drink was so strong the potion hardly seemed necessary.

The man in brown looked up at me as I coughed and, standing abruptly, walked back toward Pride.

“Is it really necessary to allow the prisoner and the-” he stopped and then turned to me with a sneer, “the other one to remain here?”

“We must protect Lady and Lord Frey. It is our mission,” Pride said.

“Of course we must protect them, but must we allow them to listen in on our plans?”

“Would you have them wander the halls alone?” Pride asked.

The man in brown remained silent for a time. Then he said, “they do not seem to know their place. They are insolent- especially the girl.”

Pride looked at me for a moment, his expression inscrutable. Then he looked back at the man in brown.

“I will grant that they are insolent, Clarity, but what is their place in our hierarchy? They have no rank as soldier and no clerical rank. Lord Frey has an old title, but it’s one that Reverence might not acknowledge when this is over. Lady Frey is descended from slaves and gentry alike. They are oddly shaped pieces of a puzzle.”

The man in brown, Clarity, turned again to face me. His plain, weather-worn face twisted in contempt.

“They are outcasts- hardly worth the sand under your shoes, Archangel.”

“Yet they are under Reverence’s protection- beloved of his Lady,” Pride said.

Clarity sighed, but bowed his head to Pride. “I will defer to your judgement. Where shall I place them?”

“Let them go where they will. It won’t be long before they are no longer our problem. Speaking of problems…”

At that moment the room was flooded with light once more. The door opened and then shut again, leaving the room in darkness as Raven entered.

“How dare you interrupt these proceedings, demon,” Clarity snapped.

“You told me to come here when I finished cleaning up,” Raven said, crossing her arms. “Anyway- I have new information, but if you aren’t interested, I’ll go.”

“Stay. What is your news?” Pride said.

Raven came forward and stood over the area of the map marked Verdant City. She knelt down and touched both it and the area marked St. Blanc. As she touched them, both areas of the map went red.

“Wisdom has secured Verdant City and St. Blanc. The Prince and three of the bishops have been secreted away, but the rest of the bishops are under arrest, and are being held under guard at the St. Blanc cathedral. All of the Prince’s supporters have either escaped or have been converted.”

Then Raven stood and walked, following the yellow line for a time before walking a little further north.

“Most of the prince’s guard have been converted, and have joined the inquisitor’s army. Wisdom’s troops are marching in this direction, toward the western villages.”

One of the dragoons stepped forward with a salute. “Excuse me, Archangel, but I have intelligence from that area. The western villages are faithful to Order, and there is a good militia stationed there. I suspect the bastard God will find the area difficult to conquer.”

Pride beckoned the dragoon forward. “Please come here, Sir Beaumont. If you were a general at Sancti, what would you advise your Queen?”

The dragoon, Sir Beaumont, stepped forward, holding his pike up as to not disturb the map. He was a well-formed man in his thirties with a round, comely face.

“I would advise my queen to seize Aeterna immediately. There is no hope for reconciliation now that her son is fleeing a greater power. It is best to stop the new power before it has a chance to flourish.”

“Where would you stage your attack?”

Sir Beaumont paced around the map, finally stopping in the north.

“I would send my warships to the eastern shore, where Wisdom is watching, and give as much noise and trouble as I could. While he was thus distracted, I would send my army here, through the northern mountain pass, to infiltrate to the true heart of Aeterna- Bridon City.”

“Would that be wise? The Cathedral Lux is well-fortified.” Clarity said.

“It was well-fortified, in days of old,” Sir Beaumont said. “Since St. Blanc was built, though, it has been neglected. I think that those who believe in Aeterna- who believe in its history- will seek the Cathedral’s protection in these troubled times. If Sancti can take the Cathedral Lux, she will snuff out the lingering spirit of Aeternan sovereignty.”

Pride strode forward and gazed at the mountain pass for some time. Then he looked toward Raven.

“Demon child, escort Sir Beaumont to the nearest mirror. He has my permission to use it.”

“Archangel!” Sir Beaumont said with another bow. “I am honored by this favor.”

“You are to act as my envoy,” Pride said to Sir Beaumont, ignoring his thanks. “Contact the Archbishop of Sancti, and offer him an alliance.”

 

 

#

 

 

There was no time to further discuss the plan, no time to consider its implications- no time even to rest our weary eyes. Everyone, from the Archangel to the lowest soldier, filed out of the cathedral and formed ranks in the tunnel. Pride and Clarity led the party at the front, followed by Hope and I flanked by our dragoon guards. The rest of the soldiers fell in according to rank behind us, and we all marched in formation toward del Sol.

Raven and Sir Beaumont separated from the party and went back to the magic mirror with a promise to catch up with us at “B1.” Hope and I watched them go, and then linked hands, unable to communicate any of our thoughts freely with each other.

After a time, however, Hope broke the silence and spoke to Pride.

“I beg your pardon, Archangel, but I am not sure I understand your motive for allying with Sancti.”

“You dare question our leader’s judgement?” Clarity snapped, at last provoked into speaking with Hope directly.

“Not at all; I’m sure he has good reason,” Hope said. “I only comment on my own ignorance. From the outside, it seems strange that a follower of Reverence would ally with the heretic Queen.”

“I am surprised that you consider Queen Benevolence a heretic,” Pride said, “though she did disobey some of Order’s more recent laws. Joy dislikes slavery, so Reverence asked his followers to abandon the practice. Queen Benevolence is dedicated to Reverence, so she banned slavery in her own kingdom. You will find, however, that in Sancti a proper hierarchy is still maintained.”

“The rulers of Sancti had shown themselves worthy of the peasants’ respect, through charitable institutions and the enforcement of just laws. Therefore, the peasants give all due obedience to their lords,” Clarity added.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw a country marching in formation like the soldiers who marched behind us.

“Lack of reverence brought our country to chaos,” Clarity continued, his voice dropping into a cadence reminiscent of a sermon, spoken in rhythm to the sound of marching footsteps. “The lords left their peasants and lands, and went to play the courtly game. The peasants were left without a guide, or help when struck with poverty. They heard tales of decadence, and watched St. Blanc with envious eyes.”

“How would you remedy the situation?” I asked.

Clarity continued as though I had not spoken, until Hope repeated my question.

“Aeterna is beyond saving; she must be subjugated by a stronger land. Queen Benevolence will make sure that Aeternan lords keep to their place instead of trying to usurp each other at court. Sancti’s laws, with a few punitive laws added to them, will keep the peasants bound to the land.”

“What putative measures do you anticipate Sancti will impose?” Hope asked.

“I can’t pretend to know. I’m sure at least taxes will be raised to provide tribute to Sancti. The peasants will be kept busy working to pay their tax, and will not have time to grumble amongst themselves against their betters. Peace will be maintained.”

“I dislike seeing anyone suffer under such burdens,” Pride added, “but there is no other way to save the souls of this nation.”

Hope’s palms were growing clammy and slick with sweat, but his countenance was serene as he murmured his acquiescence. We marched in silence the rest of the way to our next stop, the hidden room marked “B1.”

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The Coven, Interlude

Read from the beginning.

A contract, Prudence thought, is not a clay bowl that may spring an occasional leak. It is a sieve, with no end of holes in it.

Prudence was sitting by a stream, far away from the road so that she could wash her face without being seen. She leaned closely over the stream, but still- when she cupped water in her hands, half of the water leaked out by the time her hands reached her face.

      It is just like the blood oath Pius made, Prudence thought. Pius, she was realizing, would not have killed her or Celeste, simply because there was no advantage to be gained by doing so. When the deal had been struck, however, she had been so frightened that she had only thought to bargain for safety. She hadn’t even attempted to consider Pius’s true interests.

      Now she was on her way back to del Sol, and any advantage the oath might have given had slipped away like water through her fingers. Pius had her in his grasp, and until she arrived at del Sol he could use her to trick, manipulate, or blackmail those she loved.  

      Prudence pulled the veil back over her face and stood, turning toward the road. There were carriages and carts backed up for a mile at least, full of people who had thought to flee Verdant City before violence erupted. As Grace had predicted, there were fewer available inquisitors, but the inquisition had not abandoned the checkpoints altogether. The result was at least a day’s delay for any traveler attempting to pass through.

      Is this part of Pius’s plan, too? Prudence wondered. Does he hope this chaos will delay my return to del Sol?

Prudence turned away from the road and toward a grassy field, where Mercy and Celeste laughed and played. Prudence watched their merriment with a heavy heart. She was no expert, but she had seen Grace’s training sessions often enough to realize that the “game” Mercy had proposed was not a game at all, but rather a martial exercise disguised as a game.

      The game was a variation of ‘tag’, in which Celeste must run and touch a tree at the end of the field before Mercy could catch her. Mercy started the game between Celeste and the tree, and performed a complex set of attacks that Celeste was forced to dodge as she ran.

      When Celeste had declared that the conditions of the game were unfair, Mercy had only replied, “that is the game.”

      Mercy was being gentle with Celeste, only impeding Celeste’s progress by blocking her path and tagging her with light touches. Still, Prudence felt a chill go down her spine as she watched, imagining a true assailant trying to catch her daughter.

      Still, Prudence could not stop the game. She could not deny its necessity.

      “You are very deep in thought,” Prudence heard Miss Taris call from behind.

Prudence turned to see the young lady, who was dressed all in white, with her blonde hair worn immodestly down to her waist and her face glowing with health and happiness.

Prudence turned away again, muttering, “I have much to occupy my thoughts.”

      Prudence moved to join her daughter, but Miss Taris took her arm.

      “Wait- I have some news for you.”

“Is it- the outcome of the trial?” Prudence asked hesitantly.

“The outcome doesn’t matter, anymore. Last evening, Wisdom’s followers stormed the dungeons and liberated all of the prisoners. They are, at this moment, being conveyed to safety. Lord Frey is on his way to del Sol.”

      Prudence spun sharply to face Miss Taris. “Can we wait for him to catch up with us?”

      Miss Taris shook her head. “He must go in secret; Order’s loyalists are still after him.”

      Prudence clenched her fists in frustration.

      “Have you heard anything about Lady Frey?” She asked slowly. “Is she still being kept in Verdant City?”

      “No, she travels with Lord Frey. Don’t worry- both are safe. Wisdom is in control.”

      Miss Taris smiled, emanating an aura of triumph and peace. Her magic was young, and so strong that Prudence could almost see it shimmer in the air around her- pink and blue and gold. Prudence could not help but be affected by the feeling, but knowing its source helped her examine her own thoughts more closely.

      “So- Lord and Lady Frey are in the same predicament as me. We are all at Wisdom’s mercy.”

      Miss Taris laughed, and a feeling of joy burst forth, flooding the field all around them.

      “Have faith, Miss Goode. Yes- I know your true name, but you needn’t worry. Wisdom harbors no malice toward you, and so neither do I.”

      Miss Taris stretched forth her hand, and the emanation of joy grew, until it was like a halo of gold all around her.

      “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I am Wisdom’s angel, now, and I bear his goodwill. All you have to do is reach out and take his gift, and all of your cares will be over.”

      Prudence took a step back from the offered hand. “What gift? What do you mean?”

      “Worship him- sing his litany with me. Make Wisdom your God, and you will be free from your family’s condemnation. Wisdom has made his own heaven, and there is a place for you there.”

      Prudence shuddered, but did not speak.

      Miss Taris stood for a time, as still as a statue, with her hand outstretched. Then she chuckled a little and lowered her hand.

      “You remember how it felt- the curse you suffered when you made your contract,” Miss Taris whispered. “That is only a taste of hell, Miss Goode. Would you really be willing to suffer that for eternity? Would you really allow your own daughter to suffer the same fate?”

      Miss Taris turned toward the field where Celeste and Mercy played their game, and Prudence followed suit. Celeste was running past Mercy toward the tree once more, and when Mercy attempted to block her, Celeste used one of the techniques Mercy had shown earlier to get past. Then, with a cheer of triumph, Celeste reached out to touch the tree.

      Before she could touch the tree, however, Mercy grabbed her from behind and tackled her to the ground, tickling Celeste until she shrieked with laughter.

      “I cannot decide for Celeste,” Prudence finally said. “But I have chosen for myself. I will not worship Wisdom.”

      “I don’t understand you at all,” Miss Taris said with a heavy sigh. The joy dissipated from the air around them, leaving only a quiet peace. “Is it pride that holds you back? Resentment? Wisdom offers you everything, and still you will not take it.”

      “Wisdom only offers me eternal happiness. Eternal happiness is not what I seek,” Prudence said.

      “Then- what do you seek?”

      Prudence thought for a moment, and then a secret smile blossomed behind her veil.

      “I seek myself.”

      In the field beyond, Celeste dragged herself away from Mercy, and moved her arm just enough to brush the bark of the tree.

The Coven, Part XCIII

Read from the beginning.

The seasoning that hunger provided overcame our trepidation about the strange food, and rendered it agreeable enough that Hope and I finished eating quickly. Then Raven handed us each a glass bottle filled with water, and while we drank she went to the magic mirror.

“Hadn’t we better sleep before we meet this angel?” I asked.

“That would be ideal, but we’ve taken too much time already.  Pride told me to contact him as soon as you were subdued.”

Raven touched the mirror, and the shifting colors disappeared, replaced by lines and lines of multicolored sigils. Raven’s fingers flew swiftly over the screen, touching the sigils, and dissonant music rang through the room in time with her fingers, as though she were playing upon an instrument.

After a few moments, I heard footsteps echoing down the hall. Then the door slid open, revealing a plain man in brown robes.

The man stood silently, staring at Hope and me across the threshold. After a time, Hope spoke.

“My wife and I-”

Dragoons, lead the way,” The man snapped before Hope could finish.

The man stepped away from the opening, and two men in colorful soldier’s regalia, bearing longarms, stepped into the room and flanked Hope and me.

“You have performed adequately,” the brown-robed man said to Raven. “Clean this room, and then meet up with the ranks in room C1.”

Raven made a face, but did not argue.

Hope and I left Raven behind as the man and his dragoons marched us out of the room and further down the tunnel. We walked and walked through the seemingly endless grey, and time seemed to stand still once more.

Hope made several attempts to speak to the men, but each time the brown-robed man would cut him off with a sharp order to the dragoons, telling them to “keep up” or “look sharp.”

Hope gave up trying to speak, and we fell into silence. Then, without warning, the brown-robed man stopped and stepped toward an unremarkable stretch of grey wall. He placed his palm against the wall and it slid open, revealing a dark opening.

“Oh!” Hope said as though in sudden understanding.

The man in brown robes ordered his dragoons back, and then gestured for me to enter the room first.

I stepped across the threshold, and entered the immensity of space.

 

 

#

 

 

I could feel solid ground beneath my feet, yet I could not see a floor. Above, below, and all around me was a black void filled with stars. Just ahead, I could see the gentle curve of the crescent moon.

I heard footsteps behind me, and then the door slid shut. The end of a dragoon’s longarm prodded me in the back, urging me forward.

I moved forward, but slowly. I felt as though I would soon fall off the edge of nothing, or else I would float off into the infinite night. The ground, however, remained solid underneath me. Little by little, my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I saw that there were shadowy figures all around me, blocking the light of the stars. Ahead, partly illuminated in the pink moonlight, another figure appeared to be perched on an outcropping of stone.

“I knew you had come,” I heard the figure say. “You have filled these tunnels with the stench of death.”

I stopped.

“Come come- do not dawdle,” the voice said again. “Approach. I am eager to see your face.”

The crescent moon swelled, passing through all its phases until it was full and bright. I could see my way forward easier, now. There was a slight glare beneath me, as though the floor were a pane of glass through which starlight could pass. I could also see the face of the man who sat upon the stone, harsh and angular in the red light. It was the haughty face of the angel who had battled with Wisdom and lost.

I stepped forward, and then stopped just before the stone.

The angel stared down at me, cocking his head as though he gazed at an interesting puzzled. Then he sighed heavily.

“This is the child Joy loved so well- loved well enough to fall? I see nothing remarkable. Harmony, at least, had some spirit- some determination that shone through her eyes.”

“You knew my mother?” I said.

“Obviously I did, if I remember her eyes,” Pride said, his voice dark with sarcasm. “Harmony fought death until her last breath. You, however, have embraced it. What a disappointment.”

“If you only knew what I’ve suffered to survive,” I said indignantly. “What I’ve suffered to help my loved ones survive-”

“Surviving is not the same as living,” Pride said with a toss of his head, “but it is pointless to explain. Your life last for a blink of an eye, and then poor Joy will have another person to mourn.”

He shrugged helplessly, and then looked behind me. “You- Lord Frey, I take it? Stop skulking behind your wife and let me look at you.”

Hope moved silently to my side and took my hand.

“I must disabuse you, Lord Frey, of any notion that you have a claim to the throne. Your ancestor, Uriel Frey, was as pathetic a man as ever lived. He was a mere goatherd with no accomplishments or honors in battle to distinguish him. He refused to fight in the Ancient war because he was afraid. After the Gods punished him, he returned to his hills and found some success selling wool and textiles. He saved enough money to buy land and title, and gave the hill-country where he dwelt the pretentious name Coteaux, which even now no one uses. He spent the rest of his life composing ridiculous stories about himself.”

“I will add your tale to my collection. I have quite a few, already,” Hope said.

“I saw your ancestor’s sins with my own eyes. I was present at his judgement. He was an insolent upstart, just like you.”

“I was under the impression that you wished to offer us your protection,” I said. “So far, all you’ve done is insult us. Are we your prisoners, or are we free to go?”

“Insult you?” Pride slipped down from the rock and stared at me. “When did I insult you? I’ve invited you into this sanctuary, I’ve answered your questions honestly- I even praised you mother. I am really astonished that you are so sensitive after being persecuted for so long.”

“We are sorry to appear ungrateful,” Hope said with a courtly bow. “But I am sure you understand our need for caution.”

“There is no need for caution. I will protect the Ancient girl for Joy’s sake, and I will protect you for the Ancient girl’s sake. What misgivings could you possibly have?”

Hope bit his lip. “I understand that the God who pursues us, Wisdom, has already defeated you once.”

A slow smile spread over Pride’s face. “That was before Reverence awakened.”

Pride raised his hand, and the moon rose sharply to its apex. Then it burst forth with white light, blinding me for a moment. When my vision cleared, I could not help but gasp aloud.

The dream I had dreamt my first day at del Sol had, impossibly, come true.

I was hovering over Rowan Heights, hand-in-hand with Hope. I could still feel ground beneath my feet, but when I looked down I saw hills far below me, rolling away toward the midlands in one direction, and to the valley in the other.

Clouds drifted in the air all around me, with patches of blue sky visible above. The scene shifted, and I was no longer hovering, but soaring. Even so, I could still feel my feet touch earth, and there was no wind on my face.

Remembering my dream, I clutched Hope’s hand tighter.

“I’ve never seen magic like this,” Hope whispered. “Is this heaven?”

Our movement slowed again, and we stopped above bluebell hill. I could see the cottage nestled like a doll’s house among the heath. Verity and her sheep wandered through the spring flowers, but I could hear no bells, nor Verity’s musical calls.

“It can’t be heaven or magic- I can see it, too,” I said. “Is this achieved using some forbidden technology?”

I could hear laughter, and then I saw Pride before me once more. He was hovering with us above bluebell hill, his head thrown back, laughing with abandon.

He raised his hand again, and the sun, the clouds, and the hills all vanished. We were left in a cavernous room, with a grey dome above our heads and a black granite floor beneath our feet. Foot-soldiers, archers, and dragoons stood in neat rows around the room’s periphery at silent attention.

“What a funny remark!” Pride said. “I wonder how much you really know, and how that knowledge is arranged in your mortal mind.”

Then, without further explanation, he raised his hand and gestured again.

The room did not change, this time. Instead, the brown-robed man stepped forward.

“Archangel,” the man said with a low bow to Pride. “Remember that time is of the essence.”

“Very well- I’m done showing off.” Pride waved his arm, and the floor beneath us changed, becoming a large, flat map of Aeterna.

“Bring us some very strong tea, Sir Percival,” Pride called to one of the Dragoons. “There is still much to discuss.”

The Coven, Interlude

The Coven, Part XCII

Read from the beginning.

My footsteps clicked a steady rhythm on the stone floor, yet time did not seem to pass.

Hope and I walked through the tunnel we’d found hidden under Prudence’s false grave. The tunnel was almost featureless. The floors and walls were grey, there were no branches or doorways as far as the eye could see, and the electric lights hung in such a uniform manner that I passed underneath another one every eleventh step. There were no stars overhead to rise and set, and no fall of darkness or light of rising sun to mark the passage of time. There was only the sound of footsteps that echoed through the endless grey.

I had left my pocket tied to my waist when I’d changed into Hope’s clothes, so I still possessed my watch, but it had wound down and was stuck at 6:30. My injured shoulder ached, and my stomach rumbled with hunger, but I was determined to walk as long as Hope could. Hope walked straight and tall, his new eyes fixed on the path ahead.

Just a little more before we rest, I thought. It is too dangerous to dawdle.

We’d left the first battle of the fledgling war behind us. After Hope was found guilty of witchcraft by the council of bishops, Pius had revealed himself as a new God and had signaled his followers to overthrow the old order. Some soldiers loyal to the old Gods had escaped, and had attempted to execute the prisoners before they fled, but I had arrived with a group of Wisdom’s followers to rescue the condemned.

Even after rescuing Hope, I knew we were not safe. Many soldiers remained who were loyal to the Aeternan church, and they would pursue us.

The new God, Wisdom, would pursue us, as well. He had chosen Hope to be his sovereign- his puppet upon he Aeternan throne. Wisdom had set up the trial to reveal Hope’s claim to the throne before all of Aeterna, and had planned to manipulate Prudence to secure Hope’s loyalty. Even now, Prudence was under Wisdom’s control, so Hope and I had fled in order to find her.

Wisdom had healed Hope’s injuries and restored Hope’s mutilated eyes. Even so, Hope had experienced starvation and torture in prison, so as we walked, I watched him closely for any signs of fatigue. He stood straight and tall, but his figure was still skeletal and malnourished under his white robes. His skin was perfect and unmarked, but so pale it seemed translucent in the electric light. He looked straight ahead, and his jaw clenched as though determination was all that kept him upright.

After a few more steps, my fears were confirmed. Hope’s strength seemed to crumble away all at once and he swayed, bracing himself against the wall.

“Hope-“

“It is nothing,” he said quickly. “Give me a moment to catch my breath, and then we can continue.”

I peered more closely at Hope’s face. There were shadows under his new eyes, and beads of sweat appeared on his brow.

“We’ve been walking for hours,” I said. “We should rest.”

“Not here,” he said. “Lux knows of this tunnel, so even though we are alone, I cannot be easy. I feel exposed, here. Let us try to find some place where we can rest unseen.”

I turned and looked backward, and then forward, but there was nothing but empty tunnel as far as I could see. Hope straightened, however, and fixed me with a gaze so determined I could not refuse.

“Ok, we will go a little further- but slowly.”

Hope nodded, and then reached for my arm to steady himself. He pulled slightly on my left shoulder as he did so, causing a sharp pain. I walked around him, offering him my right arm instead, and he raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“For now, we are alone,” I said, forcing cheerfulness into my voice. “You must have a hundred questions about everything that has happened- everything that I could not tell you in front of your guards.”

“I do,” he said, “though I hardly know where to begin. Tell me- how were Celeste and Prudence when you last saw them? Were they well?”

“Celeste has felt a bit confined in the city, but that is only natural for a girl who is growing so quickly. She is restless, and I must admit that she has suffered from some anxiety, but she is healthy, and she is happy to be with her mother once more.

“When I left Prudence, she was more than well. She was confident- unafraid. She has an unusual strength of mind, and I’m certain that strength will assist her.”

“I’m very glad to hear it,” Hope said. “Prudence’s mind was… fragile, when she left me. But that was over a decade past, and I did not know if she had improved.”

“Her mental strength, and the fragility you perceived, were really one in the same,” I said. “Prudence’s intellect rejects illusions and naturally seeks the core of truth, and she had trained her mind in methods to see past bias and artifice. For this reason, she struggled with the art of magic. She has mastered her abilities, now. She can see the concrete world I see and the illusions magic creates side by side. She can sense the boundary between the magic and mundane, and so the dissonance between the two no longer causes her discomfort.”

“I didn’t know such an ability was possible,” Hope said. “If anyone could discover something like that inside of them, though, that person is Prudence. She was always a spirited woman.”

I slowed my pace a little, and placed my hand over Hope’s where it rested on my arm. “She is still spirited- and brilliant. I’ve come to rely on her intellect. Oh! How I wish she were here to tell me what a fool I am.”

Hope laughed. “Yes- that was always a particular talent of hers. I often received the lash of her tongue, and each time I deserved it.”

Hope fell silent a moment, his smile fading. Then he said, “there was something other than magic that caused her pain- the outcome of her particular curse. I may be asking too much, but-”

“Prudence’s curse was the first I broke,” I said. “It was difficult because I had never seen her cursed face; to me, she was always beautiful. I was well aware of the pain the curse caused her, however, so I was able to focus on that- to clear my mind and steel my will. Prudence helped me find this ability, and she helped me test it, so you have her to thank for breaking your curse just as much as me.”

Hope turned to me, his brown eyes filled with warmth.

“I do thank you, though, for Prudence’s sake as well as my own.”

Our pace slowed even more, and Hope’s arm grew heavier on mine, but we continued to walk.

“You do not mind speaking of Prudence,” Hope remarked. “I am glad you are friends. I am glad there is no shade of jealousy or mistrust between you.”

Jealous of Prudence! I thought in surprise. The idea seemed almost like blasphemy, now. I could not explain this to Hope, however. The feelings that burned in my heart were like lead on my tongue.

“I have so many other questions. What has happened to Mercy? She was not arrested, but I know she would not betray me to work with Pius.”

“Mercy came to del Sol as my protector,” I said. “She taught me to fight while we were in seclusion. Now she is with Prudence and Celeste.”

“Good. Though they cannot match a God, Prudence’s magic and Mercy’s staff should provide some protection from other malevolent forces. But I wish you were not so unprotected.”

“I have Mercy’s training and I have a sword,” I said. “I have the ability to resist magic, and I have you by my side. What else could I possibly need?”

“I had forgotten; you are my soldier, aren’t you? I am truly blessed above all men.” Hope stopped and turned to embrace me.

Hope squeezed my sore shoulder, and I could not stop myself from wincing. He drew back and looked at me, concern in his warm eyes.

“What is the matter? You’ve been-”

Before he could finish his sentence, I heard a sharp hiss from the tunnel ahead. I turned and saw a section of the wall had slid open, revealing a hidden passage. A girl with bright red hair stepped out of the passage and pointed a flintlock at Hope and me.

“Raven!” I said.

“It’s no match for a flintlock, but you should draw your sword, anyway,” Raven said, her voice calm, though she wore a harsh expression.

“Raven?” Hope stepped forward. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“I can explain later. For now, strike a defensive pose. The walls have eyes, but not ears, so you only need to look frightened. And Lady Frey- really- it will look odd if you take this long to draw your sword.”

“If it’s my sword you want-” I said, drawing the sword with a brandish, “then you shall have it.”

“Now- don’t get carried away. I’m not going to shoot you, and you are in absolutely no mortal danger. I’m working for the cult of Reverence, and they forbid that anyone hurt you.”

Raven raised her flintlock higher, pointing it straight at Hope’s head. “Lord Frey is too valuable of a hostage to injure, too, so don’t worry about him. By the way, now would be a good time to hand me your sword and hold up your hands in surrender. Then you should step reluctantly into that room.”

Raven narrowed her eyes menacingly and took another step forward. Hope looked at me with an expression of confusion.

I sighed and held my sword hilt-first toward Raven.

Raven took the sword, and then motioned with the flintlock for us to step into the room.

Inside, I found a space very similar to the room in the tunnel under bluebell hill. On the far wall there was a magic mirror, painted with dancing streaks of colored light. On one side of the room was a metal chest of drawers, and on the other side two chairs.

Raven closed the door behind her, put the flintlock in her waistband, and handed me my sword. Then she flung her arms around Hope’s neck.

“It’s so good to finally meet you in person,” she sighed happily, “and you are alive! Let me look at you. You are well, aren’t you?”

“Perfectly,” he said. “What is happening, Raven? When did you enter our realm? Why did you capture us, and then embrace me as a friend?”

“I’ve formed an alliance with the cult of Reverence; I’m acting as a spy. Didn’t Lady Frey tell you? It was her idea.”

“It was certainly not my idea,” I said. “You decided to join Reverence all on your own, and you left before Prudence and I could dissuade you.”

“I would have argued with Prudence all night if I hadn’t left. By the way, where is Prudence?”

I hung my sword back on my belt, but did not answer.

“You can speak freely- I’ve cast silence on this room so no one can hear us, and the cameras- the eyes- in this room have all been disabled.”

I remained silent.

“You don’t trust me?” Raven said. “Lord Frey- tell her I’m trustworthy. Tell her we share a bond- that we’re like family.”

Hope paced a placating hand on Raven’s shoulder. “Well, perhaps it would be best not to discuss anything of a … delicate nature just yet.”

“You don’t trust me, either?” Raven said, looking up in disappointment. “Can’t you feel the resonance between us? Look into my eyes; you can see into my mind.”

Hope cocked his head curiously, and then he leaned down, staring intently into Raven’s eyes. Raven blushed, but she did not move. The two stood staring, face to face, for a long time. I grew weary as I waited, so I unstrapped the valise from my back and sat down in one of the chairs, rubbing my sore shoulder.

Finally Hope blinked and stood straight. “We can trust her, Grace.”

I reached out with my feelings, steeling my will, but I felt no magic resistance.

“You didn’t hypnotize him,” I said.

“Of course I didn’t,” Raven sniffed. “I’m a little insulted that you still don’t trust me after everything I’ve been through. I came here in a ship that almost broke up, I’ve had to hide from inquisitors in the city, and now I have to deal with the cult of Reverence- and they are just awful. It’s been miserable.”

“I’m sorry- I knew so little of you when you came, and we’ve only spoken twice. You were a very suspicious figure in Verdant City.”

“I’ve worked really hard since I got here. I learned a lot about Reverence, and how to exploit his cult. I’ll tell you everything now; we might not get another chance.”

Hope crumpled into the chair beside me. “I’m beginning to appreciate how much I missed while I was imprisoned. Perhaps it would be best if I heard the whole tale from the beginning. How did the two of you meet?”

Raven and I exchanged glances, and she nodded to me.

I closed my eyes and wound backward through the circles of time in my mind.

“Well,” I began, “the first time I met Raven was through the magic mirror, under the tunnel at bluebell hill.”

#

I told my tale in its entirety, from the time Hope had been arrested, uninterrupted. I told Hope of my first confrontation with Pius and the power he had used against me. I told Hope of the deal I had struck with Lux and the journey we’d made to bluebell hill, where I’d ventured alone into the tunnel through the magic seal. I told him of my attempt to destroy the magic mirror, and how this had accidentally led to my first meeting with Raven.

I continued to speak, telling Hope about everything that had happened at del Sol- how I had met Prudence and discovered her identity, how we had worked out Pius’s plan, and how we had, with Abbess Joy’s help, plotted to meet with Raven. I left out the secrets I could not tell- the help I’d received from the Oculist Guild, my initiation into the guild, and the most secret thing I dared not mention before Raven – the battle at the Ancient temple.

I was able to pass over the details of Pius’s vow easily, for Hope already knew that secret, and my tale progressed easily to Verdant City, where I’d spotted Raven in her ill-fated attempts to follow me unseen. I told of the night she’d stolen into my room and attempted to use magic against me, and how, in that moment, I’d learned to overcome magic with my will.

I had hoped that Raven would speak- to tell her side of the tale when she’d decided to ally with the cult of Reverence, or the role she had played when the cult had attacked Brother Lux’s carriage, but she did not speak. Instead, she got up and rummaged through the metal drawers, as though looking for something.

Hope did not make a sound as I spoke. He barely moved except to close his eyes as though trying to see the story through his inner eye. I continued until I’d reached the end of his trial, and Hope’s liberation. Then Hope opened his eyes and leaned back in the chair.

“I hardly know what to say, Grace. You’ve faced far more danger than I’d dreamed. You’ve been targeted by many factions- and not just for my sake. The world is on a precipice.

“Raven, you know Pius’s true nature better than either of us; how great of a danger does his reign pose to the world?”

“I’m not sure how to answer that question,” Raven said. “First- you must be hungry.” She removed three covered, metal trays from the drawers, and handed one to Hope and to me before she sat on the floor with her own.

“These are emergency ready-meals; they should be filling, if nothing else. Pop the lid off like this, and it will heat automatically.”

Raven demonstrated, pulling a tab on the side of the tray and removing the cover. A billow of steam rose from a thick stew underneath, which she stirred with a white spoon from the side of the tray.

I followed suit, and I felt the whole tray, which had been cool in my lap, suddenly grow warm.

“How wonderful! This tray is made from forbidden technology- like the lights- is it not?” I said.

“It is,” Raven said. She put a spoonful of stew in her mouth and made a face. “It’s chicken and rice- I think. It is bland, but it can keep for a long time.”

Raven nodded encouragingly, and after we each took a bite, she smiled and continued.

“You were right about the carriage attack, Lady Frey; I was there. I had told Pride- the angel you saw- that Lux worked for Wisdom, and Pride ran off to attack without thinking. I followed to make sure Pride didn’t hurt any innocent bystanders. That wasn’t necessary, though. Lux is powerful; I’ve never seen an angel who could become their God’s avatar at will.”

Hope put his spoon down and raised his eyebrows. “My brother- an angel?”

“Oh yes- I’m sure he’s an angel. Wisdom will have made all of his favorites immortal, by now. Pride had no chance to win against such a young angel, whose God is at his full power. Reverence has been asleep for years.”

“When he revealed himself, Wisdom claimed that the Gods have abandoned the world. Is that true?” Hope asked.

“I know that Order sleeps,” I said. “Abbess Joy has confirmed that, herself.”

Raven nodded solemnly. “Gods cannot remain in the mortal realm for long. I don’t know why, but they become more alien over time, until they drift away from humanity altogether. It happened to Chastity long ago, and fifteen years ago, it happened to Reverence. Then, finally, Order became dormant and left his church to fend for itself. That is why holy magic has become so rare.

“The cult of Reverence has been desperately trying to awaken their God, especially since Pride’s defeat. They are terrified of Wisdom, and have retreated to these tunnels, licking their wounds and trying to rally forces to defeat him.”

“How does the cult know of these tunnels?” I asked. “I’d have thought that the church would destroy them, if they knew of their existence.”

“This technology is all forbidden to the laity, but important members of the clergy can use it whenever it’s convenient for them,” Raven said, rolling her eyes. “Reverence himself built and furnished these tunnels. They were originally supposed to be a gift for Abbess Joy.”

“Why would Reverence give Abbess Joy such a gift?” I asked.

“I don’t know the whole story, but from what I understand, Reverence has been in love with Joy for ages. He wanted her to ascend to godhood and become his consort, but she preferred to stay and help people on Earth.

“Reverence hated the idea of Abbess Joy wandering the earth unprotected, even though she is really powerful in her own right. He built these tunnels so that pilgrims could reach del Sol easily, and Abbess Joy would be able to stay safe in del Sol. Before the tunnels were complete, the High Priest assigned an Ancient guard to protect Joy, and the Ancient guard and Abbess Joy fell in love. The Ancient was later sold in marriage, and then died, but before she did, she gave birth to a child, whom Abbess Joy swore to protect.”

Raven looked up, her eyes wide. “They say that you were that child. That’s why Reverence has forbidden his followers from harming you. Abbess Joy swore to protect you, so the cult of Reverence must protect you, too.”

Hope turned to me. “This is your connection with Abbess Joy- why she protected you?”

I nodded. “Abbess Joy would protect me, regardless, but yes- that is our connection. It is my fault Abbess Joy fell. She refused to give me up to my father- to allow him to use me for his own ends- but the High Priest was in on the plan, and for some reason I can’t understand, Order allowed their scheme. I was taken away, and Abbess Joy was bound to del Sol.”

“Clarity St. Anise- the priest of this cult- says that Reverence went to sleep just after Abbess Joy’s fall. It was clear that Joy would never love Reverence, and she was finally safe- bound to del Sol- so Reverence didn’t have anything left to keep him here.”

“But still, the cult is trying to awaken Reverence,” Hope said.

“They are stuck without Reverence,” Raven said, shrugging. “They don’t have any purpose of their own, so they pointlessly follow Reverence’s final orders indefinitely. They try to ‘protect’ Joy by watching the roads to del Sol, and they maintain these tunnels, even though Reverence never had the chance to give them to Joy.”

Raven took another bite of stew, and then put her tray aside, looking at me intently. “Pride sent me to fetch you, Lady Frey. He wants to protect you from Wisdom, and he is willing to help Lord Frey, too, as long as Lord Frey denounces the Aeternan throne. I’m not supposed to give you a choice, but if you don’t want to negotiate with him, you can pretend to overpower me and run away.”

I looked up to Hope. “What do you think?”

Hope sighed. “I don’t support Reverence any more than I did Order, but if the cult inhabits these tunnels, I don’t think we will get far without meeting them.”

Raven smirked. “You don’t have to support Reverence; you can always help me create chaos”

“All that I require is that we reach del Sol as quickly as possible, so we can find Celeste and Prudence,” I said.

Raven nodded and stood. “In that case, I’ll call Pride and tell him where we are.”

 

Part XCIII

The Coven, Part XCI

Read from the beginning.

Wisdom’s eyes flashed white, and one by one, the bishops fell to their knees.

As though signaled by the bishops’ fall, the inquisitors drew their weapons and turned against each other, half of them now displaying Wisdom’s symbol over their crimson robes. The men who had been calling for wisdom from the gallery jumped down into the main courtroom, and the crowd pushed through the courtroom doors, overwhelming the Prince’s guard.

All around me were sounds of violence and the desperate cries of those in retreat, but it all coalesced into a roar in my ears. My attention was focused on the prisoner’s box, where Hope and the others stood chained and vulnerable.

Two inquisitors, each now wearing Wisdom’s symbol, stood on each side of the box, but the Prince’s guard rushed the side door to escape the courtroom, and they quickly overwhelmed the inquisitors. Three plain-robed monks emerged from the side door as though summoned by the guard, and with startling efficiency they took chemical-soaked rags and placed them over the prisoners’ faces before the prisoners could struggle. Then the monks and guard dragged the prisoners by their chains through the side-door and out of sight.

Hope!”

I ran for the door, but something held me back. I struggled mindlessly for a time, and then I stopped and turned to see that the inquisitor who was guarding me had caught hold of my arm.

“Lady Frey, you must come with me. It isn’t safe-“

I twisted my arm out of the inquisitor’s grip, ignoring the sharp pain that gripped my shoulder, and knocked the inquisitor off-balance. Then I sprinted across the courtroom and opened the side-door where the prisoners had been taken.

I ran down a narrow stone stairwell and through a rough wooden door, then though the double-doors that led to the hallway by the infirmary. The infirmary was empty- of course the condemned prisoners would not have been returned- but I ran inside anyway. My feet seemed to know the plan before my brain did; I ran to my valise, stripped off my dress and put on Hope’s shirt and breeches. Then I strapped the valise to my back to keep my arms free to fight, and hung the symbol of Wisdom Miss Taris had given me around my neck.

I opened the front door and ran up the steps to the courtyard. Outside I saw a crowd of men, all of them openly wearing the symbol of wisdom. They craned their necks to gaze at the main Cathedral door, but seemed unable to approach. Restless and ready to fight- this was the army I had wished for so long ago.

I climbed onto a stone bench and raised my voice.

“They have taken the prisoners,” I called. “They have taken my husband and friends back into the dungeons. We must liberate them!”

The men turned to stare with shocked expressions at the woman in breeches who stood so brazen before them. Then the crowd parted, and a familiar man emerged- one I had once met at del Sol.

“I’ve been awaiting your orders, my Lady,” Mr. Wilcox said with a low bow. “Show us the way.”

 

 

#

 

 

The courage that had been my ally in daylight seemed to flee before torchlight.

They may already be dead. The thought invaded my mind as I tried to concentrate- to count my steps and remember the way to Hope’s cell.

I was not blindfolded this time through the dungeons, which should have been to my advantage. The corridors, however, were no longer silent- the sounds of my own footsteps were muffled by the crowd that followed. My footsteps were interrupted every time we passed a guard or a cell. The men dispatched each guard and searched them for keys, and then opened each cell to liberate the prisoners within.

Mr. Wilcox had a steadily growing collection of keyrings and chains, but we could not find a match for every cell. The men, however, proved willing and able to combine their strength and ingenuity to pull the cell doors off their rusty hinges. The going was slow, but I could not bring myself to stop the cries of joy that followed each liberation.

All I could do was close my eyes and repeat to myself the number of steps I had taken, ignoring all of the doubts that presented themselves.

Maybe they didn’t take Hope back into the dungeon, but killed him outside.

      Maybe this was not the plan; maybe I misread Lux’s clues.

      Maybe Lux was wrong.

      Why would I trust him, anyway?

      The light grew dimmer as we descended deeper into the dungeons, with fewer and fewer torches lining the walls. The way was interrupted less often, too, with fewer cells to open. Somehow, the dim light helped me find my footing- I could remember how the slope of the stone had felt against my feet the first time I’d descended. Soon, I stood near the last set of stone steps.

I heard hushed voices below, and my feet froze.

Mr. Wilcox put his finger to his lips and raised his hand in a gesture to halt. Then he crept forward on silent feet and I followed, doing my best to remain as silent.

As we drew near, the voices echoed clearer.

“If the public doesn’t see his death,” a dry voice wheezed, “then they won’t believe he is gone. They will continue to fight.”

“It doesn’t matter- we cannot risk taking them with us,” A stronger voice replied. “Execute them now.”

Mr. Wilcox raised his hand again, still looking down the stairwell, and he held up his fingers, three, two, one. Then he brought his hand down sharply.

With a thunderous cry, Wisdom’s followers stormed down the stairwell.

When we reached the landing, I saw the white robed-prisoners, still chained, kneeling before a row of guards. The guards were armed with swords, all raised to strike down the prisoners, but they froze and looked up in surprise at the attack.

Then the guards switched targets, charging instead at their assailants.

Mr. Wilcox rushed forward through the fray, his considerable bulk forging a path for him. I heard a clatter at my side, and without stopping to think, picked up the dropped sword and rushed to Mr. Wilcox’s side, deflecting any blows the guards aimed at him while he fumbled through the keys.

I had never fought with a sword before, and my arms quickly grew fatigued from hefting its weight. My work was made easy, however, because Wisdom’s ill-armed forces overwhelmed the guard by sheer numbers. Soon I heard the *click* of a lock, and then the chains fell away from each prisoner in turn- Lady Willoughby, Chastity, Lord Willoughby, Captain Goode…

And then, finally, Hope was free.

I tucked the sword through my belt and reached for Hope, but something pulled me away from him. Before I realized what had happened, I was pulled through a dark tunnel, held in arms as strong as iron bands. My captor was swift, and soon we were alone in a dimly- lit corridor while the sounds of the battle echoed against the stone walls far behind us.

Captain Goode turned me to face him, pressing my body against the wall.

“Where is Prudence?” he said.

“Pius sent her back. She is on the road to del Sol-“

Before I could draw another breath, Captain Goode’s hand wrapped around my throat and pressed hard.

I sent my knee toward his stomach, but he blocked my blow with his own knee while holding me fast to the wall with his other arm. Then he pressed against me harder, holding me down with all of his weight.

Captain Goode’s weight pressed against my injured shoulder, but I could not cry out in pain. A red miasma crept around the edges of my vision, and all I could see was Captain Goode’s sadistic grin.

“You won’t live to regret serving the bastard God,” he growled. “You won’t live to regret betraying my sister.”

I struggled in vain, but could not draw another breath. The room around us went from red to black and I was falling…

Falling…

Then my body hit the ground, and air rushed into my lungs.

When my vision cleared, I saw two shadows struggling with each other. One figure was larger, and clearly had the upper hand. It was able to force the smaller figure face-down to the ground.

Captain Goode had wrestled my rescuer into submission.

Then Captain Goode pulled back his opponent’s robes and pressed his hand to the bare flesh underneath. The white flesh went red, and I heard a scream of agony.

The sound of the scream- Hope’s scream- roused me from my stupor. I stood and drew my sword, and every instinct within me reached out to break through Captain Goode’s spell. Captain Goode stumbled back as though in surprise, and I pulled him away from Hope by the back of his robes, pulling my sword around to touch the front of his throat.

“Your wife has betrayed you,” Captain Goode spat as Hope stumbled to is feet. “After she slits my throat, she will come for you next.”

“I wouldn’t kill Prudence’s brother,” I said, lowering my sword. I dropped the back of Captain Goode’s robes, and he stumbled away.

“The bastard God has Prudence,” Captain Goode said to Hope. “Your wife admitted this, herself. For all we know, Prudence and Celeste are already dead.”

Hope turned to me, his eyes wide with panic.

“Pius sent Prudence and Celeste back to del Sol,” I said. “For now, they are protected, but we must find them as soon as we can.”

Captain Goode spun to face me. “Why would you possibly believe they are safe?”

“Pius swore a blood oath to protect them. He cannot harm them, or allow them to come to harm. Prudence made him swear before she agreed to come here.”

Captain Goode turned back to Hope. “If you believe such lies, you are a bigger fool than I thought.”

Hope came to me, his new eyes almost burning with intensity.

“I’ve felt Pius’s power, Grace. He does not exaggerate when he calls himself a God. If anyone could defy a blood oath…”

“He did not swear the oath to me or to Prudence- he swore it to Abbess Joy. She knew he had ascended, and she still knew that the oath was binding.”

Hope sighed and clutched my hands in relief.

“Still,” I urged. “We cannot wait.”

Hope nodded. “Then we will go to them.”

“I’m warning you Frey; if you follow this girl, you will doom yourself, your child, and-“

Captain Goode was unable to finish his sentence. Hope spun to him, his eyes flashing red, and Captain Goode froze in place like a deer caught in lantern light.

“Rejoin the battle,” Hope said. “Fight the guards, defend the others, and defend yourself, but do not interfere with my wife or me in any way. Go!.”

      Captain Goode turned and walked like a marionette back through the corridor.

Hope turned back to me. “Are you alright? How much did he hurt you? Here- the light is stronger this way. Let me look at you.”

Hope led me to a patch of russet light under a staircase. He looked at me briefly, and then he motioned for me to follow him toward the light’s origin. We ascended the steep stairwell together until we found ourselves in a tiny cell on the cathedral’s ground level. There was a rusty, iron grate, through which we could see a small patch of grass that led to a tangled wood. The whole scene was painted orange and red by the setting sun.

Hope turned his newly-healed eyes toward me and gazed hungrily at my face. Then he ran his hands over my throat, looking intently at the flesh.

“There is a bruise showing, already,” Hope said. “Does it hurt?”

“Only a little,” I said.

Hope pulled me to him in a tight embrace.

“I would have killed him,” Hope whispered fiercely. “If not for your act of mercy, I would have killed him for touching you.”

“He thought he was protecting Prudence,” I said.

“He wasn’t thinking clearly,” Hope said. “He’d been growing more and more paranoid in his cell. He blamed you for our situation- he thought you’d conspired with Pius against us. Still, I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t think he’d go so far as to attempt murder.”

“I might have done the same, if I’d thought he’d betrayed Prudence and Celeste to a monster,” I said. “As it is- I was too careless. Prudence and Celeste were supposed to be here when you were freed. We were supposed to have a plan for escape, but everything has gone wrong, somehow. I’d pinned my hopes on ephemeral things- like Pius’s blood oath, the assistance of a rogue demon, and rumors of a secret path to del Sol. I was desperate.”

“Don’t blame yourself- it is a miracle we’re even alive.” Hope released me from his embrace and turned to stare out of the grate at the woods beyond.

“Are you well enough to flee?” I asked. “You have been through hell, and your eyes have only just been restored. Do they give you any pain?”

Hope laughed, his warm, rich voice filling the barren cell with life. “I am perfectly well- I’ve been made new.”

Hope pulled his robes apart at the chest, showing the bare, pristine flesh underneath. Then he turned around, further lowering the robes, and his back was the same- I could not even see a mark where Captain Goode had touched him.

“Not a single scar remains to remind me of my time in Hell. Pius was right- his and Lux’s sins were washed away.”

Then Hope turned around again, and a dark look clouded his face. “Still, when I face him again, I will make sure Lux fully atones for his sins.”

He drew up his robes once more. “I may find that task difficult. My brother shares a God’s power now, and that power seems limitless. Wisdom healed my eyes, regenerated Just’s hands- he even brought Prudence back from the dead.”

“Wisdom didn’t resurrect Prudence,” I said quickly. “He intended for you to believe he had, but Prudence has been alive these two years. Lux contrived some way to fake her death in prison and spirited her away to del Sol.”

Hope drew back in surprise. “So it’s true- you did meet Prudence at del Sol.”

“I did. Abbess Joy knew who she was, but at del Sol Prudence had been hiding underneath a veil, and going by the name Sister Jubilee. When Pius brought me here to deliver testimony, he also insisted that Prudence come. We did not know why he insisted, but Prudence longed to see you, and so with the help of Abbess Joy, we convinced Pius to swear she and Celeste would remain protected.

“I didn’t realize why Pius brought her until two nights ago. Pius separated Prudence from me, and hypnotized her into believing that Wisdom had resurrected her, and that Pius and Lux were still your friends. Pius promised her that you would live, and that you would be king.”

“I see- so Pius planned to use my greatest grief against me, and make me his puppet on the throne.” Hope eyes flashed with anger once more, and he put his hands on the grate, as though he meant to tear it off its hinges.

“Prudence wasn’t able to resist Wisdom’s hypnosis, but she has an ability to see through magic, and I think that ability did assist her. Wisdom wasn’t able to stop Prudence from loving me,” the thought seemed to fill my heart with light, “and she sent for me against Lux’s orders. When I went to her last night, I saw what had happened, and I was able to break the spell. That’s why Pius sent her back to del Sol. I had thought he might hypnotize her again, and Prudence was confident she could see past the spell if he did, but It seems Pius has given up that plan.”

Hope turned back to me. “Why do you think so?”

“Because Lux counted on me to liberate you. I’m sure he knew that I’d memorized the path to your cell. Miss Taris gave me this,” I said, holding up the symbol of wisdom I wore. “Earlier today, Lux watched me while I was examining the courtroom and when I noticed how vulnerable the prisoner’s box was, he gestured to the symbol he was wearing and nodded. It was a clue- He meant for me to free you if you were captured.”

“And that meant we might be alone together, as we are now, and that you would tell me everything,” Hope said. “He must believe he can manipulate me, regardless.”

“All of Wisdom’s enemies want you dead; I can see why he would be confident,” I sighed. “We must escape. We must find a way to get to del Sol, undetected. If only I hadn’t been so distracted. I could have found a way-“

Hope came closer and put his hands on my face. He stared at me intently, as though memorizing every curve and shadow of my face.

“You found Prudence, you contrived to make a God swear to protect her, you broke the curse that had plagued my mind for over a decade, you spoke before the bishops and all of Aeterna on my behalf, and you stormed the dungeons carrying a sword, leading an army to free me. You somehow- somehow – found the power inside of yourself to break a God’s spell, and yet you still think you’ve failed?

“You amaze me.”

He pressed his lips against mine, and for a precious moment we were lost in each other.

“You make is all sound so easy,” I sighed when he broke the kiss. “It wasn’t, though. I’ve barely held on.”

Hope pulled me to his chest, and then he lifted his head, as though distracted.

“Look, Grace- outside.”

I pulled away from him and looked out of the grate. Outside, I could see four figures, dressed in white, running alongside Wisdom’s followers toward the Cathedral annex.

“They are safe. They’ve escaped the guards,” I sighed in relief.

“Now we must do the same,” Hope said. “The first step is to open this grate. Do you still have your sword? We might use it to break these rusty hinges.”

“The sword is here on my belt- your belt, I should say. Sorry I’ve borrowed your clothes without asking.”

“They look better on you, anyway,” Hope said absently. “Let’s break free from the dungeon here, instead leaving by the main exit. Then we can make our way into the woods. We can decide where to flee from there.”

“I wonder how Lux spirited Prudence away,” I said, drawing the sword once more. “She was unconscious for most of the journey, so she couldn’t remember, but it seems that there must be some secret exit or tunnel where we can leave unseen.”

“Oh!” Hope said suddenly. He paused, blinking as though in surprise, and then broke out in a huge, lopsided grin.

“I know how Prudence escaped.”

 

 

#

 

 

By the time I broke through the rusted grate, the sun had set. Hope and I slipped into the moonless night, moving through the blackest of shadows into the tangled woods beyond.

Hope took my hand and guided me with certainty through the terrain as the dim lights and muffled sounds from the cathedral vanished behind us. Soon we were alone in almost utter darkness, but his footsteps were still smooth and steady ahead.

“This wood serves as the cemetery for the condemned,” Hope explained. “I was lost in grief the first time I saw it. I’d dismissed my confusion as the product of a troubled mind, but now I realize- the answer was right there in Prudence’s grave.”

We stopped, and Hope guided me forward and placed our entwined hands against the rough bark of a tree.

“This oak was supposed to guard Prudence’s final resting place,” Hope said. “I remember the day I came here so clearly. It was the day after I made my near-fatal error- the day after I’d called on the powers of hell to bring about Father Sauris’s death. I’d thought that vengeance would satisfy something inside of me, but afterward I just felt-”

“-empty,” I whispered. “I know; I’ve felt it, too.”

“So I came to visit Prudence’s grave, and pray for her forgiveness.”

Hope brought my hand down to the base of the tree, and then to the ground. I felt loose sod and a tangle of vines underneath, barely concealing the rough outline of a coffin.

“I thought they’d buried her very badly, but it isn’t unusual for the priests to treat a criminal’s remains with disrespect. However, I suppose you can’t feel it, but there is something strange here- the faintest trace of magic in the air.”

Hope dropped my hand, and without another word we both began digging- tearing away the loose sod and vines until the coffin’s lid was fully exposed. Then I heard a *creak* as Hope pulled the coffin’s lid open, and a *thunk* as he stepped inside.

“The coffin is empty,” he said. “The magic is concentrated here, at the bottom. I’m certain it must be a magic seal, similar to the one that conceals the tunnel at bluebell hill. Do you think you can undo the spell?”

I stepped into the coffin and felt along the bottom, where I found another hinge and a rough handle. I pulled the trapdoor open, and on the other side I saw a ladder, leading into a stone tunnel filled with electric light.

Hope stood behind me, waiting with bated breath as though nothing had happened. I closed my eyes and concentrated, willing the seal to release itself, and then I pushed through. Hope gasped, and then laughed.

“You see? It wasn’t so difficult to find the hidden path, after all,” he said.

He turned to me, and held out his hand. “Will you be afraid?”

I took Hope’s hand without hesitation, and together we descended into the unknown.

Part XCII

The Coven, Part XC

Read from the Beginning

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

Mr. St. Roch strode forward, holding a folder full of papers above his head as though to protect it from the crowd.

“I have reason to believe that the document is a forgery,” Mr. St. Roch said, shouting past the guards who blocked his path. “If you would simply look at my samples…”

“Really, Mr. St. Roch, you’ve made enough of a nuisance of yourself already,” Bishop Septimus snapped.

“I would like to see his evidence,” Bishop Benedict said, “especially considering the mysterious origins of this blood oath.”

Bishop Benedict looked up to Father Pius, who nodded.

The guards stepped aside, and Mr. St. Roch came forward, stopping only briefly to bow to Father Pius and then the Bishops’ bench. Mr. St. Roch and Bishop Septimus argued together, comparing documents, pointing, fidgeting with and trading papers. Finally, all of the papers were laid out on the floor for the bishops to examine.

“You see, this letter- written in Lord Frey’s own hand- was examined by your inquisitors and stamped before it was conveyed to Lady Frey. The signature is clearly distinct from the one on the blood oath. And here- Mrs. Goode supplied letters from her son, Captain Goode, written before his hands were taken. There is also a note supplied by Miss Chastity’s sister-“

“This is all pointless; the hand can alter with time and circumstance,” Bishop Septimus shot back. “A humbled prisoner will not sign with the same pompous flourishes as when he is free and defiant. The lack of a loop here or there hardly signifies-“

“This is not a matter of the odd flourish- the person who wrote the signatures on the oath learned to write in an entirely different school! The prisoners, with the exception of Lady Willoughby, were privately educated, while the person who wrote the oath clearly studied monastic writing-“

Mr. St. Roch cut himself off, and a hush fell over the court.

Bishop Septimus had been kneeling to examine the documents that were laid out on the floor. Now he stood, raising himself to his full height, and cleared his throat.

“What, exactly, are you trying to imply, Mr. St. Roch?”

Mr. St. Roch remained kneeling beside the documents. “Only that the hands do not match, Bishop. Nothing more.”

“It sounded to me as though you meant to implicate a member of the church,” Bishop Septimus said, raising his voice. “And it’s not the first time during these proceedings that you’ve tried to place the Church of Order in a bad light.”

Mr. St. Roch hesitated, and then he stood, looking at Bishop Septimus eye to eye.

“Light illuminates, my friend; only darkness can conceal truth. The purpose of this trial is to illuminate, is it not?”

Bishop Benedict stood and stepped between Bishop Septimus and Mr. St. Roch. He turned to Bishop Septimus with an apologetic smile and shrugged his shoulders.

“I fear there is more heat than light, here. I myself don’t know what to make of all this. Mrs. Auber, can you think of any clue, no matter how small, that may suggest the origin of this blood oath?”

Mrs. Auber shook her head.

“I suggest we examine the documents more closely later, when heads are cooler. For now, if you will be so kind as to take your seat, Mr. St. Roch and Mrs. Auber, we will call the next witness.”

“Very well,” Father Pius said from atop his throne. “Mrs. Auber and Mr. St. Roch, you may both be seated. Lady Grace Frey, please stand.”

 

 

#

 

 

As soon as my name was called, I heard a strange sound. From the gallery high above, and scattered corners behind me, I heard reverent whispers rise.

Lady. Lady…”

      In that moment, I knew that Father Pius had been wrong to advise me to appear meek and humble before the court. Pius had carefully arranged the proceedings of the court, but not to impress the Bishops. The people who supported my husband-the people who believed -expected a queen.

I stood to face the crowd, ignoring the hisses that came from all around me. I had expected the presence of an audience to frighten me, but somehow it had the opposite effect. The very presence of a people helped me slip into the role of Queen. I raised my head and walked toward the dais in deliberate, measured steps.

Bishop Benedict met me with a reassuring smile, and took my hands in prayer, leading me through the litany of truth. I bowed my head and joined in the song, and then repeated my false oath like an actor delivering a line.

“Thank you, Bishop Benedict,” Bishop Septimus said, his hands full of the papers that had littered the floor seconds before. He stowed the papers on the bench where he’d been sitting, and then gazed at me through his spectacles.

“You are Lady Frey?” he said. “You must be very recently married- you can’t be any more than…”

“I am twenty years old,” I said.

“You look much younger,” Bishop Septimus said, as though to contradict. “How old were you when you married Lord Frey?”

“I was nineteen- we were married just after midsummer,” I replied.

“Just in time for you to get entangled in all of this,” Bishop Septimus removed his spectacles and waved them at the courtroom around him. “How long had you known Lord Frey before you were married?”

“I met him a week before our marriage,” I said.

“So soon before?” Bishop Septimus said, raising his eyebrows. “Your father must have been acquainted with Lord Frey beforehand to arrange the match.”

“I believe my father was acquainted with the late Lord Frey,” I said, “but I was not out in society before my marriage.”

“Curious,” Bishop Septimus said. “I have reviewed your marriage contract, and it is signed by Father Sauris himself. Do you know why the High Priest would have had a hand in arranging your marriage, as opposed to the local Bishop?”

“My father’s estate, Willowbrook, is very close to the Cathedral Lux, where Father Sauris kept his office. My father always consulted Father Sauris in spiritual matters, so it did not seem strange to me that Father Sauris helped arrange my marriage.”

Bishop Benedict stepped forward, placing himself between Bishop Sauris and I. He wore his usual gentle smile, but I could see a slight crease in the lines between his eyes.

“I’m afraid we are getting a little off course,” he said lightly. “I think the events leading up to the dumb supper may be more relevant to this case.”

“My questions are perfectly relevant,” Bishop Septimus shot back. “After all, Father Sauris himself sent this girl to Rowan Heights mere weeks before Rowan Heights struck back at him. What was his purpose in doing so? Did he suspect Lord Frey, and send this girl to report to her father?”

Bishop Benedict turned back to me. “Did you father ask you to report on the happenings at Rowan Heights?”

The letter my father had sent to me at Rowan Heights, asking for information, entered my mind briefly. I remembered with relief that I had destroyed it long before inquisitors searched Rowan Heights.

“I did not correspond with my father after my marriage, until I was presented at St. Blanc,” I said.

“Did you correspond with Father Sauris?” Bishop Septimus persisted.

“No- not at all.”

Bishop Septimus began to pace, tapping his spectacles against the palm of his hand.

“Is there is anything you would have reported, anything that frightened you at Rowan Heights…”

Bishop Septimus stopped pacing and turned back to me, his watery eyes filled with fake concern. I lifted my head higher and summoned all the dignity I could to keep my anger in check.

“What could frighten me at Rowan Heights that would compare with the real terror I faced when my husband was arrested? What imagined danger could even touch the real possibility I will lose him forever?”

“I understand that you must have been frightened, but your husband was accused of a heinous crime, and he is being given a fair trial.”

“He was not given a trial before his eyes were cut out. The inquisitors have deprived him of his faculties forever. They have deprived Captain Goode and Lady Willoughby in the same way, without any opportunity to speak on their own behalf.”

Angry mutterings echoed my statement from the gallery.

“Lady Frey!” Bishop Septimus burst forth. “I have been indulgent because of your innocence and your age, but I must remind you that your husband is at the mercy of this court.”

My eyes drifted over to the prisoner’s box, where Hope sat. He was thin, chained, his blind eyes covered in bandages, and yet his countenance was impossibly serene as he sat awaiting his fate.

“You are right, of course,” I said with a slight bow. “I must speak for him, now. Ask me what you will, and I will answer.”

Bishop Benedict stepped forward again, and he gazed at me with a strange, almost fearful expression before he spoke.

The rest of my testimony proceeded precisely how Father Pius had predicted, and I answered without making a single mistake. Bishop Septimus poured over his notes, comparing all of my answers to the letters and statements he had collected, but in the end he was forced to admit there were no inconsistencies.

“Still, you were not at Rowan Heights long,” Bishop Septimus said. “I understand you love your husband, Lady Frey, but there are still many things you do not know.”

Father Pius waved me back to my seat, and I allowed the inquisitors to lead me away.

“Bishops, you have a difficult task ahead of you,” Father Pius said. “The fates of the prisoners are in your hands, and by your souls I charge you not to make an error in your judgement. I will allow you an hour’s recess to review the blood oath and deliberate, and then you must render your verdict.”

 

 

#

 

 

The courtroom vibrated with low voices and the restless shuffling of feet as the excruciating minutes passed. The men in the gallery did not shout, and the separate factions among the nobles, and in the crowd that spilled into the hallway, did not tussle amongst themselves. The leaders of each faction were in check- all actions were held for the moment the side doors opened and the bishops returned to render their verdict.

I looked around the room, and realized with a start that the courtroom had been set up to collapse as soon as chaos broke loose. There were few guards in the gallery, even though it was the most volatile section in the courtroom. Armed inquisitors were concentrated around the noble’s section, closest to the nobles who were most loyal to the Prince. I looked, but I could not find Miss Taris among them. Brother Lux stood unarmed at the front of the cluster of armed inquisitors, poised on the balls of his feet as though he were ready for action. Brother Domitian and Brother Severus, also unarmed, stood close to the bishop’s bench, surrounded by armed inquisitors on all sides.

I looked to the back of the courtroom, where the crowd spilled into the back of the hall. A few of the prince’s guard stood at the bottleneck- far too few to stem the tide once it burst forth.

I looked back to Brother Lux, who caught my eye. He touched his chest briefly, and then gave me a slow nod.

At that moment, the side doors opened.

The Bishops returned.

Father Pius followed the Bishops, but he did not ascend the dais. Instead, he stood at the front of the courtroom where the witnesses had given testimony and turned slowly, looking at each of the seated bishops in turn.

“Bishop Benedict, this trial has been deeply troubling in many ways. Before the verdict is read, please come forward and offer the Litany of Strength.”

Bishop Benedict nodded, and came forward to stand beside Father Pius. As he sang, Bishop Benedict’s voice was gentle, but the effect was like adding kerosene to embers. The crowd grew more restless- the tension crackled with a terrible energy, threatening to burst forth.

“Thank you,” Father Pius said with a humble bow of his head. Then he turned to the Bishop’s bench once more. “Bishop Septimus, please stand.”

Bishop Septimus stood, straightening his robes with an air of importance.

“Bishop Septimus, do you speak for the assembled Bishops.”

“I do, your Holiness. The verdict was not quite unanimous, but there was a very clear majority.” Bishop Septimus shot a glare at Bishop Benedict.

“Very well,” Father Pius said. He turned to the prisoner’s box. “Please stand, and hear what the Bishops have to say.”

The prisoners all stood, their chains rattling against the side of the box. I noticed how very near they stood near the door- how tightly the guards held their chains- and my heart leapt in fear.

“Your Holiness, nobles and gentlemen of the court,” Bishop Septimus said, bowing to each in turn. “The assembled Bishops have found the accused, Lord Hope Uriel Frey, Lord Tranquil Willoughby, Lady Patience Willoughby, Captain Justice Goode, and Miss Chastity Evans, guilty of the charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy against the High Priest, murder of the High Priest, and Witchcraft. For these crimes, they are to be put to death by hanging- may the Gods have mercy upon them.”

Cries of shock and dismay rang out mingled with shouts of anger and even triumph. The sounds seemed to ring in my ears- I was struck numb. Yet, before my head could clear, and the pain could strike with its full force, a call rang out.

“My Priest!” Brother Lux sprang forward and threw himself onto his knees at Father Pius’s feet. “I have remained silent, but I cannot any longer. I was suspicious of my brother- jealous. I have persecuted and wronged him, but I do not believe he is guilty. If there is to be punishment, then punish me- take my life in his stead.”

All around me, voices stilled, and those who had risen took their seats once more. The circus continued; the show was not yet over.

Father Pius placed his hand on Brother Lux’s bowed head. “If you have faith in me, I will be your priest. Confess your sins, and I will show mercy.”

“My brother and his friends truly possess power, but that power is not evil- it is holy,” Lux said. “They did not seek to aggrandize themselves, or to avenge themselves by means of murder. Instead, all their efforts have been to help the oppressed and free the enslaved, and they were willing to sacrifice themselves to this end. I did not understand my brother’s power or the faith that gave him the will to fight. I sought to save him from what I wrongfully perceived as wickedness. In my efforts to save his soul, I scarred him and our friends forever.

“Yet my brother forgave me my sins against him. He gave me this- a symbol of the faith that gave him such power. Last night as I looked at this symbol, it seemed to glow with a holy light, and I was no longer afraid. If the God who gave my brother such faith would forgive me, I would follow that God to eternity.”

Brother Lux reached into his robes and drew forth the symbol of wisdom.

There was a gasp in the courtroom, and all around me people shielded their eyes, as though from a great light.

Father Pius leaned down and kissed Brother Lux’s head, and then helped him to stand.

“You have laid your sins at my feet. Follow me, and I will wipe your sins away.”

Father Pius’s eyes glowed white, and he gazed into Brother Lux’s eyes, which reflected the light.

“Look! The prisoners!” A woman from the gallery cried.

I turned and saw the prisoners- their skins shimmered with white light, and when the light dissipated their bruises and wounds were gone. Captain Goode held up his arms, staring in amazement at his two perfect hands.

Hope pulled the bandages off of his face and opened his eyes.

Wisdom- Wisdom!”

“He is the true God- Freer of the oppressed!”

“It is a miracle!”

      All around me I heard cries of joy. Then, almost as one, the Bishops stood.

“This is blasphemy,” Bishop Septimus screamed. “Chastity, Reverence, and above all- Order! These are the true Gods.”

Pius ignored Bishop Septimus, turning instead to regard the crowd all around him.

“I see those who already know me, and I see those who wish to know me. I have shown you the corruption that has infested the old church- the cruelty and the horror. The old Gods no longer listen to your prayers and no longer heal your suffering.”

Pius raised his arms and smiled benevolently on the crowd. “Give me your prayers, my children, and I will hear them. Give me your sufferings, and I will ease them. I- Wisdom, the newly ascended God- will not abandon you.”

There were a few boos scattered in the crowd behind me, and some cries as though in terror. But then, rising above it, the gallery seemed to cry out as one.

Our prayers for Wisdom! Our lives for Wisdom!”

      Pius turned to Bishop Septimus once more.

“The old order is through.”

 

The Coven, Part XCI

The Coven, Part LXXXIX

Read from the beginning.

Mercy’s motions almost blurred together as she moved, and if I had not already learned the cadence of her fighting style, I would not have been able to follow her motions at all. I had to focus all of my attention on evading her blows, because she was aiming for my most vulnerable spots with all of her strength.

I was injured, and Mercy was armed, but I did not have the Luxury to panic. Fleeing would mean leaving Prudence alone in the hands of our enemies. So I anticipated Mercy’s feints and tried desperately to find an opening to attack.

I don’t have to fully disable her, I realized. Mercy must be hypnotized as well. All I need to do is break the spell.

      Completely breaking a spell, however, required a great deal of concentration, and it took all of my focus just to evade Mercy’s lethal attacks. My ankle, which Mercy must have grabbed to jerk me out of the tree, protested with every movement, and Mercy spotted the weakness quickly. She swept my legs and I fell.

“You don’t want to fight me,” I huffed, rolling away from another blow. “I’m not your enemy.”

“You don’t know know what I want,” Mercy growled.

“This isn’t you- Pius has hypnotized you,” I said.

Though I hadn’t touched her, Mercy fell back and hissed as though in pain.

I took the opportunity to spring to my feet once more and aimed a blow at Mercy, which she evaded.

“Stop trying to trick me,” Mercy growled. “Wisdom has given me power. I’m stronger than all of my enemies, now.”

“’Wisdom’ is your enemy,” I said. “He imprisoned your friends, he imprisoned Chastity- your teacher. He tortured and maimed them.”

Mercy cried out this time, clutching her head. I took a deep breath and reached out to break the spell, but Mercy rallied, and struck another blow to my injured shoulder.

I fell back as Mercy advanced, clutching my injury.

“It hurts when I tell the truth, doesn’t it?” I said. “It hurts when reality is discordant with the spell. You know that Pius is your enemy- the pain you feel now is the proof.”

Mercy fell to her knees and screamed aloud- a primal, animal cry that made me fall back in sheer reflex. I remembered my father as he gasped in bed, in so much pain that he could not breathe. I realized that my father’s pain must have been the same pain that Prudence had once felt for years before she gained the ability to see the illusions of magic for what they were.

Inside me, a feeling started to grow- a hatred for this thing that broke people’s minds and bound them in a prison of illusion. I hated the lies that magic told and its ability to veil the truth of reality. Righteous fury swelled inside me until it burst forth, flooding the starlit field around me.

“Oh!” Mercy gasped. She stood, shaking her head as though to clear it. “Oh- Lady Frey. What have I done? Are you alright?”

“I will be,” I said. “Are you alright?”

“I think so, but- oh! Your shoulder. It may be broken.”

Mercy tossed her staff aside and ran to examine me, and I heard a harsh hushing noise from the window.

“Shhh- be quiet, you two,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper. “It isn’t safe to speak anymore; come inside, quickly.”

“Do you think you can climb?” Mercy whispered to me.

I rolled my ankle a little to test it. The sharp pain was starting to dissipate, and though it tingled with warmth, I could move it freely. My shoulder, however, would not allow me to raise my arm to reach the branches above me.

“Here- I will climb first and help you,” Mercy said. “I won’t be able to examine your arm properly until we are inside.”

I nodded and allowed Mercy to go first, and then reached for her outstretched hand with my good one. The going was slow, but between the two of us I managed to make it up the tree and through the window.

Prudence helped us through and then embraced me gingerly, whispering “thank you” before she took a lantern and bustled through the side door.

Mercy pulled down my robes and examined my shoulder while we awaited Prudence’s return. “I don’t think it’s broken,” Mercy finally said. “I broke the skin with the first strike, though, and it’s badly bruised. We will need some rags so I can bandage it.”

“There are some linens in the cupboard,” Prudence said as she bustled back into the room. “Celeste is safe, and I’ve recast the security spells that Grace broke, so we may speak freely.”

Mercy went to the cupboard to find the linens, and Prudence took her station at my side. Prudence removed the kettle from the hob and used the hot water to clean my wound, dabbing at it gently with her handkerchief.

“I feel like such a fool,” Prudence said as she worked. “Now that the spell no longer binds me, it all seems so obvious. I should have been able to see past the hypnosis, like I can with any other magic.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself, Prudence. It was a spell cast by a God.”

“You broke the spell easily enough,” Prudence said. “You broke several spells at once.”

“It wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed. I was in pain, and I was angry. I’ve never pushed my way past spells that powerful before.”

I heard a rip of fabric as Mercy shredded the sheets into bandages.

“At least I know Pius’s motives for keeping me safe and bringing me here to Hope. He means to present me to Hope as a miracle, to take credit for resurrecting me, and- with my acquiescence- to help twist Hope’s mind to his will.”

“He promised you the queenship, didn’t he? You were muttering something to that effect before the hypnosis was broken.”

“Yes- he promised I would reign as Queen at Hope’s side.”

I heard a final rip, and then Mercy returned with a bundle of bandages.

“Whether the Prince or Lord Frey, no one is getting the crown in Aeterna without war,” Mercy said bluntly.

“So, then what do we do?” Prudence asked, shuffling backward on her knees to allow Mercy access to my arm.

Mercy lifted my arm a little to position the bandages, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out in pain. We sat in silence for a time, each lost in our own thoughts as the lantern burned dimmer and dimmer.

“We must flee as soon as we can, which will not be easy. The prisoners are all held with chains heavy enough to thwart even Chastity’s strength, and the Cathedral is crawling with guards. It was difficult enough for me to slip away unnoticed,” I said.

Mercy nodded thoughtfully. “We are in a similar position, though without the chains. Pius kept a close watch on us until we had been hypnotized. Prudence, do you have a pin I could use to keep the bandage in place?”

“I don’t think we could make it past his magical protections without Pius noticing,” Prudence added, standing to fetch the pin.

“Perhaps you could if you went with me- I was able to pass through Pius’s protections undetected. I could steal inquisitor’s robes to disguise all of you, and you can flee to del Sol.”

“Celeste’s robes would require hemming,” Prudence said dryly. “The inquisition is not so in need of members that they recruit 11 year olds.”

“Ah- yes. That would be a problem,” I said.

“Besides- once we’ve escaped, how long will it be until we’re caught on the road? Will I be avoiding inquisitors for another decade?” Prudence handed Mercy a pin and then knelt beside her. “Don’t add to your anxiety by trying to plan a fruitless escape, Grace. We are under the thumb of a God, and we have yet to accomplish any of our goals. Hope is still held in chains, facing the gallows, and I have yet to find any information on the underground route to del Sol. I think I should stay where I am, where I can watch our enemies more closely.”

Mercy quirked an eyebrow at Prudence. “What are you going to do- play spy?”

“Why not?” Prudence asked.

“Pius will know that I’ve broken the hypnosis,” I said. “He and Lux can see magic-“

Prudence smiled. “So can I. Let him hypnotize me again. I will be able to see past it, now that I know what I’m looking for. I can keep the spell in place while keeping my mind my own.”

“I can’t,” Mercy said bluntly.

“All Lux asked was that you protect me from Grace,” Prudence said, “and I won’t need such protection.”

Prudence looked back at me, a kind of triumph glittering in her blue eyes that frightened me in its prematurity.

“When I contradicted the hypnosis earlier- before the spell was broken- it caused you pain. My father suffered the same pain before I freed him from his spell.”

“When I was hypnotized, everything felt wrong,” Prudence said. “I loved Lux again as a brother- it was a love I had lost long ago, and was glad to have again. At the same time, something in the back of my mind was screaming at me that this was dangerous- that there was something wrong with the story he’d told me, but I couldn’t see what. You told me where the dissonance was, and the spell pushed back.”

Prudence stood up and offered me her hand. “Now that you’ve shown me- the same way that you showed me my face- I can find the boundary between my true thoughts and the thoughts magic has planted in my mind. I know I can, as surely as I found my true face. Trust me, Grace.”

I took Prudence’s hand and stood.

“And what about Celeste? If you stay-“

“I will protect Celeste,” Mercy interrupted. “You- concentrate on saving Lord Frey.”

As if to shut down any argument I might make, Mercy spun on her heel and walked away, into the next room where Celeste slept.

 

 

#

 

 

I could think of no other argument to dissuade Prudence. Her movements were strong and sure as she helped me down the tree and back into the annex courtyard. When we were steady once more on firm ground, she turned and smiled at me, her face ghostly pale in the moonlight.

“How can I leave you in the power of a madman?” I whispered to her.

Prudence took my hands in hers. “You can leave me because Hope is waiting for you, and he’s in far more danger than I.”

I started to drop her hands, to turn away, and then hesitated- torn between Prudence and Hope once more. Prudence laughed at my hesitation, and then leaned down to kiss me.

Those lips I’d traced over and over again, trying to capture their perfection, touched mine, and before I could memorize how they felt they were gone, leaving the faintest impression in their wake.

“Go back,” Prudence said. She stooped down and picked up the staff Mercy had left on the lawn, and held it in such a natural way she looked ready for any opponent to strike.

“Go to Hope. Free him,” she said.

“I promise I will.”

I turned away and, ignoring every instinct that screamed at me not to leave Prudence, and followed the instinct that drew me back to Hope.

 

 

#

 

“Hurry and ready yourself,” a sharp voice woke me. “We must get to the courtroom before the sun rises.”

It had hardly seemed a second since I’d returned to the infirmary and slipped into the cot beside Hope. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and peered blearily at the inquisitor before me.

“Where is Brother Amicus?” I asked. “He is my usual escort.”

“Brother Amicus has more important things to do,” the inquisitor snapped. “Do as I say and get ready- today is your day to speak, and you must be presentable.”

I sat up, and Hope stirred.

“Grace- has the sun risen already?” he asked.

“No, but we must go early,” I said.

I went to the washbasin and tried to ignore the heavy presence of the inquisitor, who stood close behind me as I washed my face and combed and pinned my hair.

When I had completed my toilette, the inquisitor stopped me and looked me over from head to toe.

“Your fine dress is wrinkled in the back, and your eyes are red. Good- your fatigue will garner sympathy. Come with me- there is no need to utter goodbyes. You will see your husband in the courtroom soon enough.”

Another inquisitor met us at the Cathedral door and led us to a seat closest to the High Priest’s dais. Even though the courtroom was almost empty, the two inquisitors flanked me very closely where I sat. A line of guards stood together like a gate before the courtroom door, behind which I could hear the rumble of the crowd.

Soon after I’d arrived, Father Pius entered the room- his white cloak sweeping the ground behind him. He did not go to the dais, but went straight to me, brushing aside the inquisitors.

“Miss Celeste, Sister Jubilee, and Miss Mercy are in a carriage, bound for del Sol,” He said in a low voice. “You will not interfere with them again.”

“But you promised- you said they would be under your protection.”

“I do not break my vows,” he scoffed. “My protection extends far beyond the Cathedral grounds. Amicus is with them, and he carries a piece of my power with him.”

The two inquisitors who stood beside me did not react to this statement, but the guards near the door exchanged puzzled glances.

“Perhaps I should thank you,” Pius continued. “This place is no longer safe, and I want Miss Celeste and Sister Jubilee to survive. But when you are on the stand, Lady Frey, remember that they are under my power. Do not disappoint me.”

Then Pius spun on his heel and retreated back through the side door to await his grand entrance.

I cursed under my breath that I had ignored my instincts, and had left Prudence alone. Pius’s words, “I do not break my vows,” seemed to ring in my ears, and I realized too late the first loophole in Pius’s vow- that his promise to protect Prudence only lasted until the time she returned to del Sol.

“Oh, Abbess Joy- protect them when they arrive. Protect them,” I whispered.

I did not have time to indulge in fear or regret. Too soon the cathedral doors opened, and the crowd spilled into the courtroom, pushing and arguing with each other on the way. The doors were left open even after the courtroom was full, and the line of guards remained by the door to keep the crowd outside from pushing through.

In dizzying succession, the bishops filed in, and then the prisoners, and then Pius, who sat on his his throne and called the courtroom to order with a wave of his hand.

“Mrs. Charity Auber,” Bishop Benedict called. “Please rise.”

Mrs. Auber came forward, looking tiny between the two tall inquisitors who assisted her forward. She turned to face the crowd with a serene expression and relaxed posture, as though she stood in a drawing room instead of a courtroom.

Bishop Benedict bade Mrs. Auber repeat her vows, and then graced her with a gentle smile.

“It was very brave of you to come forward, Ma’am,” he said. “I will make this as painless as possible.”

“I am always ready to do my duty,” Mrs. Auber replied with a humble bow of her head. “What will be, will be.”

“How long have you known the accused?” Benedict continued, this time in a voice loud enough to carry though the courtroom.

“I’ve known Lord Frey for a long time- ever since my dear departed husband brought me to Hill Country Village some twenty-five years ago,” Mrs. Auber answered. “The Freys were the most prominent family in the whole country, but they were always kind to my husband, though he was only a country doctor. In those days, the two boys were very young, and Lady Frey would ask my husband’s advice for dealing with the usual childhood ailments. They would often invite us to dine at Rowan Heights, and it was there we met the Goode family and their children.”

“What was your impression of the children as they grew?” Bishop Septimus asked.

“Young Hope- now Lord Frey- was a healthy, vigorous young man. His brother, now named Brother Lux, was a more quiet, sensitive boy. As far as the Goode children are concerned, young Justice was respectful and well behaved, but Prudence was tomboyish and wild, always speaking out of turn and questioning her elders.”

I smiled a little, in spite of myself, at the mental picture of the four friends.

“I did not see any signs of danger, however, until the former Lady Frey died and the former Lord Frey retired, leaving young Hope in charge of the estate. I began to hear grumblings among the young people- discontent with perceived injustices of slavery and inequality. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and the whispers stopped when the poor girl, Prudence Goode, went crazy and ran away.”

“You believed that Prudence Goode had merely gone mad?”

“Everyone thought Miss Goode was mad. She was secretive, paranoid, delusional- half of what she uttered made no sense at all. I am certain she fled because she thought her friends were persecuting her in some way, even though we only wanted to help her. For a decade we searched for her, and then one day we received word she’d been caught by the inquisition and had died in prison.”

“What effect did this news have on her family?”

“I did not have the chance to speak to Mrs. Goode, but her brother, Captain Goode, seemed enraged. He and Lord Frey spent a lot of time together afterward, shutting themselves away in so secretive a matter that it seemed more than grief- it seemed that they were plotting.”

“Other than their secretiveness, did you notice anything else odd?”

“Oh- yes,” Mrs. Auber said. “Lord Frey and Captain Goode, despite their grief, seemed to flourish at this time. I thought it strange, but they met more and more often with the Willoughbys, attending parties and dinners, making connections with the wealthy and powerful, and finding success in almost everything they did. Young Mr. Goode was promoted to Captain. Lord Frey’s Father, who had long since retired, died suddenly, and Lord Frey used his newfound wealth to great advantage- he made several very good investments that gave such returns that he was able to make many improvements to his properties.

“Lord Frey was able to raise his staff’s wages, and Miss Chastity was promoted to head maid after only a couple of years of service. She was in Lord Frey’s confidence more than Mr. Poe, the steward, so of course everyone in the village whispered about the relationship.”

Her only lies have been lies of omission, I thought. Everything she saw happened, but when it comes to witchcraft she only speaks of rumors.

      Bishop Benedict held up his hand, halting Mrs. Auber’s soliloquy. “When did you first see evidence of witchcraft?” he asked.

“I’d say that was the night of the dumb supper that was held the night of the full moon- the one-year anniversary of poor Prudence’s death.”

Mrs. Auber paused and took a deep breath, as though steeling herself for something, before she continued. “I did not think it unseemly to hold a dinner in Miss Goode’s honor. After all, everyone had loved her before she went mad. However, strange things happened that night I could not ignore.”

“Such as?”

“At dinner, Lord Frey very obviously plied his young wife with wine until the girl became ill and had to go to her room. It seemed the act of a cad, but then what young man would want his bride present while he mourned his mistress?”

“When Lady Frey became ill, did someone escort her up the stairs?”

“Yes- she was much too ill to walk. Lord Frey took her upstairs.”

“Lord Frey- but…” Bishop Septimus rifled through some papers, peering closely at them through his spectacles. “In your statement, you said that Brother Lux accompanied Lady Frey, and when Brother Lux had left Lord Frey swore vengeance on Father Sauris.”

“Oh?” Mrs. Auber’s eyes grew unfocused, and she looked up at Father Pius for a few moments with a dazed expression.

“Do your best to remember,” Father Pius said gently.

“I- I think that Lord Frey said something later- or…” Mrs. Auber patted absently at her silver hair, and looked around the courtroom as though in confusion.

“Mrs. Auber?” Bishop Benedict prodded.

“Brother Lux went to attend Lady Frey at some point in the evening- it must have been then…” Mrs. Auber shut her eyes and clutched her hands together as though trying to remember.

“The old Lady is dotty,” someone behind me whispered.

Mrs. Auber’s eyes opened, and she looked in my direction. Her eyes were filled with the same pain I’d seen last night in Prudence’s eyes, as though there were a struggle between the lies that the litany prevented her from telling and the spell that still bound her to the coven.

After a time, Bishop Benedict went to her and placed a hand on her arm. “It’s alright, Ma’am; let’s continue, and we may come back to this incident later.”

“Of course.” Mrs. Auber stood straight and smoothed her clothes.

“Did you see anything else strange- perhaps later in the evening?”

“Later that night, I saw a bonfire on the crest of bluebell hill, which is the second highest point in all of the hill country- I’m sure the light could be seen all over the country. Seeing it made me think of the stories my nurse told me as a girl.” She put her arms around herself and shivered.

“What stories were those?” Bishop Benedict asked.

“Stories of the witches’ sabbath, of course. In the tales the witches would gather around bonfires, under the full moon.”

There was some muttering throughout the courtroom, which faded when Bishop Septimus stood and spoke.

“Mrs. Auber, I have in my possession a document you submitted.” Bishop Septimus lifted a sheet of paper for everyone to see. “It is a blood oath, entered into by the accused, swearing vengeance against Father Sauris for the life of Prudence Goode, whom he had ordered arrested for witchcraft. On this document each of defendants swear, in blood, to take vengeance by whatever means necessary- even by dark magic. How did this document come to your possession?”

“That was the strangest occurrence of all,” Mrs. Auber said. “One day, when I came home from church, it was waiting on my desk. There was no note, no envelope, and no card to indicate who might have left it. When I questioned my staff, no one had any idea where it had come from.”

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

XC