The Coven- Part XXIX

 

I stayed in my pew as courtiers arrived for the morning service, and then sang the litany with everyone else. After the service was over, I waited until most of the courtiers had left before standing, but as I did, Monsignor Pius caught sight of me, and motioned for me to stay.

I waited while Monsignor Pius spoke to Lord Taris, and then he approached my pew.

“Good Morning, Lady Frey. I am glad to see you at this morning’s service. I hope your husband is well.”

I smiled and curtsied as I worked out a response. Why would Monsignor Pius point out his fellow witch’s impiety?

“My husband is rarely well this early, but he always recovers before noon.”

Monsignor Pius laughed. “A common affliction! Soon after I am coronated, I plan to add evening services for others who suffer as your husband. In the meantime-”

“Grace! I do hope you aren’t bothering the Monsignor,” my father said, sidling up the aisle to my pew. “He’s a very busy man.”

“The Lady isn’t bothering me at all- quite the contrary,” Monsignor Pius replied. “Your charming daughter and I share a common interest in the sciences, and I was hoping that we could continue our discussion of astronomy.”

Monsignor Pius turned back to me with a slight, gallant bow, and my stomach dropped. Monsignor Pius had already destroyed a treatise I’d written on the motions of planets- a work that had turned out to be both unoriginal and heretical. Monsignor Pius had told me that it was forbidden to suggest the earth went around the sun, and forbade me from discussing my ideas with anyone else.

Had he discovered that I had taken my ideas to the oculist guild, I wondered. Did he know I’d kept my original notes? What would a priest, who was secretly a witch, do with a more common heretic?

My father cleared his throat. “Monsignor, His Royal Highness sends you his  regards, but he is unwell this morning. At this moment, he is in private prayer.”

“May the prince’s recovery be swift, and may he continue in good health. I suspect he will. A mysterious affliction has been going around the court, but everyone seems to recover. Lady Frey and I have just been discussing it.”

I choked.

“Dear Lady Frey, I hope you haven’t caught the affliction, too. Come with me to my office, and join me in my prayer for the health of His Royal Highness.”

My father nodded solemnly, and I continued to cough as Monsignor Pius led me away.

Monsignor Pius lead me to a chamber above the chapel and shut the door. We were in a small but comfortably-furnished room, fitted with the same shining wood as the chapel, but with less ornamentation. There were two full bookshelves, a desk, and two chairs pulled up to the hearth.

Monsignor pius gestured for me to take one of the chairs, and he took the other.

“You are an interesting young woman, Lady Frey- perhaps more interesting than you realize.”

“Everyone is most interested in themselves,” I said.

If Monsignor Pius noticed my obvious evasion, he did not show it. “You are a young woman who has gained the trust and love of Lord Frey, which is no small feat. Experience has made him a guarded man.”

“I did not charm him; I have no such arts. If Hope does trust me, then I hope I have earned his trust.”

Monsignor Pius nodded as though to himself, and then stood, going to his desk and returning with a chart.

“Tell me- what do you make of this?”

I took the chart carefully. It was a star chart, which was neatly done and beautifully illuminated with intricate scrollwork around the perimeter.

“Here is the sun- so this is midwinter?”

“Yes.”

“The last star in the cat’s tail is off by several seconds of arc. I’d have to check Sir Boromir to confirm the positions of the Red Moon and Tigris. What year is this?”

“It is the year of His Royal Highness’s birth. If you corrected the positions of Tigris, the Red Moon, and the Cat’s tail then all three would be in conjunction. I had to make small adjustments to each; the conjunction is an ill omen.”

“If you say- I can’t begin to understand what the stars portend.”

Monsignor Pius lifted a lofty eyebrow. “How strange- you study the stars with an expert’s eye, and yet you ignore their purpose?”

“I’m not wise enough to know the stars’ purpose. I can see many uses. The stars guide mariners, the sun’s procession through the constellations assists farmers in their planting, and -dare I say- a woman is very familiar with the timing of the red-moon’s phases.”

“Then you must see the bigger picture; there is a pattern to all of your observations. It is the stars’ purpose to guide us, and show us what will be.”

“Perhaps. The methods I just mentioned are imperfect, but consistent. When it comes to seeing signs and omens, however, I can’t see any logic. For every example I read in history of an omen fulfilled, I see another not fulfilled.”

Monsignor Pius took his star-chart from me. “Your observation is quite correct, but not everyone is as observant as you. As long as people believe in omens, the omens will have some power over them.

“I have prepared this star chart as a horoscope for the Prince, and I shall present it to him at my coronation. You can see, now, why I’ve altered it.”

The fire crackled as silence stretched between us. A thousand questions I dared not ask fought for precedence as Monsignor Pius regarded me with keen, dark eyes.

After a time, I swallowed and spoke, though hesitantly. “Please forgive my impertinence, but surely as the new high priest you could council the Prince and the people against superstition.”

“You are still young, and you see the world through a lens of idealism. When you are older, you will understand that some people cannot be reasoned with, and must be guided in subtler ways. This horoscope is one of the ways in which I mean to guide the Prince’s conscience.”

Monsignor Pius smiled at me with gentle superiority, and I cast aside subtlety.

“Why have you shown me this?”

Monsignor Pius leaned back, running his fingernail along the velvet cushion on his chair’s arm.

“I wished to see how you would react to the revelation. You may be young and naive, but you also have a good deal of potential. You are surrounded by intrigue here in St. Blanc. Many people wish to use you as their pawn. You seem innocent of it, but I wonder how much you really perceive.”

My blood ran cold. I was certain now that he knew I’d discovered the coven.

My first thought was that Hope and I must tell Monsignor Pius about the blood oath, so he would not perceive me as a danger. And yet, Monsignor Pius still radiated power and danger. Caution stayed my response, and it occurred to me  that Monsignor Pius might have another intrigue in mind.

“My father told me ‘you will serve your purpose in time.’ Do you know what he meant?”

Then, as though on cue, Brother Lux opened the door without ceremony and entered the room, followed closely by Miss Taris.

“I beg your pardon,” Brother Lux said, though his smile did not waiver. “I did not mean to intrude.”

“Nonsense- my door is always open to my dearest brother.”

Brother Lux blushed and bowed.

“Miss Taris,”Monsignor Pius said gently to the girl who stood half-hiding behind Brother Lux. “Do you seek my counsel?”

“I… I do, but…” Miss Taris’s eyes flickered toward me.

“I was just on my way. My husband will be expecting me,” I said.

Miss Taris smiled a little, and mouthed, “thank you.”

I stood, curtsied, and took my leave.

Dear Readers

Instead of part XXIV of The Coven, I am writing to tell you that I’m working on a special project, as well as editing the existing posts in this serial. The project will enhance your enjoyment of the serial, I hope, and clarify everything that has happened so far. I will still update The Coven, but until my project is complete, the updates will not be as frequent. Thank you for your patience and support.

The Coven- Part XXVIII

Hope led me into the adjacent dressing room, and behind the wardrobe where his trunks were stowed. He dragged the bottom trunk forward and undid the latches. When Hope opened the trunk, it appeared empty, but he removed the trunk’s satin lining, and then lifted a false bottom, revealing a hidden compartment.

He took out a large silver locket, embossed with an eagle, and held it out to me by its ornate chain.

“Have you ever seen Prudence’s likeness?”

“No- I have not.”

Hope nodded encouragingly, and I pressed the latch to open the locket. Inside was a miniature of a woman with blue eyes and a wild tumble of red hair crowned with bluebells. She did not sit in the proper posture of a young lady, but leaned forward, seeming almost to laugh.

“She’s beautiful,” I said.

“She was beautiful then,” Hope said, taking the locket back. “When this likeness was taken she was just a girl, and she was still happy. She loved me as I loved her, and that was enough.”

Hope closed the locket and placed it back into the trunk.

“A year after that likeness was drawn, our fathers went to the bishop and sought permission for Prudence and I to marry. The bishop denied our petition. At the same time, my brother came to me with his monsignor to offer me a place in the coven. Prudence and I wished to fight the corrupt forces that had damned our families, and were now keeping us apart, so we both agreed to join. We both believed that we had nothing to lose, but we were wrong. There is always a price for power.”

“The curses,” I said.

Hope put a finder on his chin and looked up in thought. “The curse is one price, but there is another. The costliest price of power is the obligation to wield it.”

Hope sat down heavily beside the trunk and placed his chin in his hands, as though is exhaustion. I knelt beside him, my skirts billowing around me like a cushion.

“Prudence found the price too dear?” I prompted him.

Hope nodded, his chin still in his hands. “When Prudence left me, she was no longer the girl in that picture. The curse stole her beauty, and the price- well, I believe that the burden of power stole her smile.”

           I wished I could have found words of comfort or wisdom, but I had none. I didn’t understand Hope at all when he spoke about power’s price, and I didn’t know how to ask.

“We didn’t quarrel before Prudence left,” Hope said. “She withdrew from the world after she gained her powers, even avoiding her fellows in the coven. I brought her to Rowan Heights and promised to marry her, no matter what.  I told her that she would always be beautiful in my eyes, and that I wished to protect her. She seemed content. We made love, and the next day she was gone.

“I don’t know why she left. Perhaps she wanted to hide her face from the world, or perhaps she didn’t believe she could escape her own powers while she remained by my side. I suppose I will never know.”

“I’m sorry-” I began.

“No- Grace, I’m telling you this so that you might understand. This occurred 11 years ago, and even though I still love her- I will always love her- our story has ended. I offered my love to her, but she chose to leave. Of course I wish that we’d been able to marry, and that we could have raised our child together, but I’ve come to terms with what is. Prudence is gone, and I have mourned her.”

Hope leaned forward and took my face in his hands. He kissed me slowly, lips touching lips- wet and soft and real. He broke the kiss and looked into my eyes.

“I’m ready to love again, Grace, if you will allow me.”

I looked down, unable to meet his earnest gaze.

“You once compared me to her. You said I was ugly and spiritless…”

Hope sighed. “Don’t remind me of what I said that day. It was the anniversary of her death. I was grieving and hopelessly drunk. Since that day, I’ve grown to understand who you are. The more I see of you, the more I like.”

Hope was sincere; I could not longer doubt his feelings. There was no artful flattery and no flirtation. He’d laid his heart at my feet. Even so, my habit of flinching away from his honeyed words would not stop.  

“Grace? Please look at me. How do you feel?”

I looked up into Hope’s face, again. His beauty was striking, and I was suddenly very aware that I was just an awkward girl in clownish makeup.

“I don’t know how I feel,” I said. “I must have time to think.”

“You don’t think about love, Grace. You either feel it, or you don’t.”

“But I must- I know nothing of love. I don’t understand how I feel at all.”

Hope didn’t say anything. He took me into his arms, resting his cheek on my head, and we sat together in silence until morning.

 

#

The next morning, I sat alone in prayer.

I didn’t know to whom I prayed. I was in the still-empty chapel, kneeling in front of the ornate, high-backed pew. My eyes were focused on the massive symbol of Order, which dominated the wall before the altar, but Order was not the god I needed. Temperance seemed more appropriate, but still was not right. Chastity was precisely the god I did not need.

I needed a human god- one who could see into my heart and see where it was malformed.

“Why can’t I let myself love him?” I prayed.

I closed my eyes and, as I could think of no god to petition, sought the answer myself.

When I’d first met Hope, I’d feared him. Later, I condemned him as a sinner and a witch. Now, morally, I was no better than he was. I was damned- I had entered into contract with a witch, promising to keep his secrets. Still, some part of myself- a part I wanted to label a hypocrite- could not respect him, even though I desired him.

Hope and I both wished to liberate our world, but I could not ignore the difference in our methods. Hope manipulated people’s minds against their will, he killed, and these were not things I could condone. I wondered if I could continue to go along with his intrigues and still gain the virtues that would make me worthy to join the Oculist Guild.

Courage, curiosity, and equality- were these virtues I saw in Hope? He was not an evil man. I knew that he committed his evil acts to protect those he loved, and to fight a corrupt power.

            I was wise enough to know that if I held out for perfection, I would live a lonely life. The problem was, my happiest moments had all been lonely ones. I realized, with chilling clarity, that I could live alone and be happy in my own way.

I was brought out of my reverie by a creaking door, followed by the sound of footsteps. I sighed, disappointed that my reverie had been interrupted.

“Please,” Miss Taris said in a small, plaintive voice from far behind my pew. “Have you no words of guidance? I depend on you for council.”

The footsteps stopped, and Brother Lux’s warm voice replied.

“Miss Taris, you have no reason for such despair. Sir Montag is a kind-hearted man who can provide you with ample financial support. With your father’s  title and Sir Montag’s wealth, you will be secure for the rest of your life.”

“But-” Miss Taris’s voice faltered, and then she seemed to rally. “Isn’t love more important than security?”

“If love provides you comfort, then yes. Are you distressed because you love another?”

“No- there is no one,” Miss Taris said.

“Then you have every reason for joy. Marry Sir Montag now, and love will come later. If you obey your father, the Gods will bless you.”

“I- I think I understand,” Miss Taris said.

“Good girl.  Now, dry your eyes, and smile for me.”

“Yes, Brother Lux. Thank you for your council.”

I sat, trapped behind the pew. My cheeks were burning from the embarrassment of having heard such a private conversation, and I dare not stand and expose myself. I held my breath as footsteps retreated, and the door creaked open and shut.

“Thank you for your council,” Miss Taris, still in the cathedral, said in a stronger voice. “But I will never marry Sir Montag.”

 

The Coven, Part XXVII

The Grand Duchess’s chamber was so vast that, even filled with women of the court, it still felt airy and open. The Grand Duchess sat on the edge of her bed as though it were a stage, and allowed her servants to dress her while the rest of us stood in attendance like spectators in the audience below. Periodically she would call on one of her favorites, sending them to fetch things for her. Each lady she called upon breathlessly answered, as if her simple commands were an honor beyond anything.

I had stayed up all night reading, and was feeling too exhausted for the choreography of favors and positioning that was going on around me. It was far too complex for me to follow, as unschooled as I was. Hope had not returned to our rooms all night, and it took a great deal of mental effort to keep myself from thinking of the implications.

“…do you not agree, Lady Frey?” Lady Fairfax asked, holding a necklace against her dress.

“Oh yes, certainly,” I said automatically.

“Indeed.” Lady Fairfax handed the necklace to her maid, and then said, “Miss Taris, as you happen to be in the back of the room, can you fetch me that hat box? Yes- the one on top. There’s a good girl.”

My cheeks burned on Miss Taris’s behalf as she fumbled to reach the hatbox and then scurried past the court ladies toward Lady Fairfax. I knew that Lady Fairfax was trying to overcome Miss Taris’s shyness, but calling her to public attention only made things worse.  Miss Taris’s unofficial rank, being the heiress of a duke, afforded her some protection at court, but it did not stop the ladies from laughing at her behind their fans.

I turned and gazed at the other ladies, marking those who had laughed.

After the Grand Duchess was dressed, she invited Lady Renoir to join her for a tete a tete. The rest of the ladies curtsied to the Grand Duchess and turned to leave.

I turned toward the back of the room, seeking Miss Taris, but I felt someone link their arm with mine and lead me to the door.

Lady Innocence, who had taken my arm, walked with me as though in affection, leading me down a seldom-used hallway and into a small alcove. Then she turned to me, revealing teary, red-rimmed eyes.

“Nothing happened between them, Lady Frey. It was only flirtation, so please tell the Prince that you were mistaken, and bring Lady Purity back.”

“Bring her back? Back from where?”

The Prince sent her to del Sol, last night, after he found out about her indiscretion with Lord Frey. He’s even hinted that she may lose her rank- everyone was talking about it this morning. Please, if you were the one who complained to the Prince, tell him that you were mistaken.”

“Lady, I am as surprised at this news as you. I haven’t complained to the Prince. Indeed, I haven’t spoken to him since I was presented.”

Lady Innocence fell against the wall and began to sob, letting fat tears streak her powdered face.

“Then tell your father- he must have spoken for you. I’m begging you, Lady Frey.”

“I haven’t sent my father, or anyone else, to speak to the Prince. I don’t know what happened between Lady Purity and Lord Frey, but I am not jealous of my husband.”

Lady Innocence’s sobs began to subside. She sniffed and blotted her tears with a handkerchief.

“If what you say is true, then why did the Prince send Lady Purity away?”

“I don’t know.”

Lady Innocence stood a little taller, and tucked her handkerchief into her sleeve. “Very well. If you won’t help me, I will get her back on my own.”

Lady Innocence exited the alcove and walked away, her silken skirts rustling with each determined step.

 

#

 

“How could you be so careless?”

I couldn’t stop the sharp words from escaping my lips. I’d spent the day trying to dodge malicious gossip, and the pomp at dinner had gone longer than usual. Now, back in my apartments, the sickeningly pervasive scent of roses filled my head until it ached.

Hope threw himself onto his favorite sofa and regarded me with a sour expression. “What have I done, now?”

“Thanks to your intrigue with Lady Purity, we are subject to all manner of vicious slander. Lady Innocence came to me this morning, convinced that I had asked the Prince to send Lady Purity away. Despite my denials, nothing has stemmed the rumors of your dissatisfaction and my jealousy.”

Hope lay back on the sofa and put up his feet. “You knew that this would be difficult, Grace. I need to take advantage of my proximity of the Prince, and use my influence before he begins another war. Lady Purity is the Prince’s mistress, so when she came to me I was obliged to take advantage of the opportunity.”

I dropped onto a chair and put my hand to my head. “She was the Prince’s mistress- so of course he sent her away.”

“I just need to rally. Lady Purity isn’t the only one with the Prince’s ear. Of course, if I anger him enough, perhaps he will call me in to berate me.”

“Do you know who told him about the tryst?”

Hope mouth stretched into a maddening smirk. “I would hardly call our encounter a tryst. I took her behind the library, at the edge of an empty field, and mesmerised her. The only people in the library were you and Miss Taris.”

I opened my mouth to protest my innocence, but Hope waved his hand to silence me.

“I trust you, Grace, and I know you aren’t so petty. I know nothing about Miss Taris.”

“Miss Taris couldn’t have seen you, though. She was in the back of the library, hiding behind the tall shelves.”

“She could hear Lady Purity and me, just as I could hear her cries.”

I stood and began to pace, trying to clear my head. My headache lingered, and as the scent of roses grew ever stronger, I  felt almost dizzy.

“I have been presented to the Prince, so why must I remain? Why can’t I leave you to your intrigues?”

“The Prince wishes for you to remain. He and your father want something from you.”

I turned back to Hope, but I spun too fast. My knees bucked, but Hope rose and caught me before I hit the floor.

“Grace- are you unwell?”

Hope’s words were muffled, and everything seemed strangely soft- his soft brown eyes, his soft waves of dark hair, his soft skin, his lips…

Hope helped me stand, and led me to bed, but I turned and pushed him, and we tumbled onto the bed together. I pressed my lips against his again and again, running my hands through his soft hair, and drinking in the sensation. Hope responded, raising his own hand and touching my hair.

At that moment, the world seemed to right itself again, and I pushed away from him.

“Forgive me,” I gasped. “I am unwell- I forget myself.”

“Don’t beg my forgiveness. I’ve been longing to feel your kiss again. Look at me.” He gestured to his own figure, prone on the bed. “I am yours. Do as you will.”

“No- you aren’t mine,” I said. “You never will be mine. Your heart still-”

“Ah- I see.” Hope slid off of the bed. “Unreasonable girl, I thought you weren’t jealous.”

“Not of Lady Purity,” I said quickly. “I know you don’t love her.”

“I know.” Hope stood and took my hand in his gentle, familiar grip. “Come with me. I wish to show you something.”

 

The Coven, Part XXVI

Before my arrival, I had heard that there was a vast library at the palace that the courtiers were free to visit. The library, however, was not housed in the palace proper. Instead, it was housed in a building annex that lay at the end of a long gravel path, which wound behind the shrubberies to the west of the main building.

The last stretch of path was lined with free-standing white columns, and ended in a set of square concrete steps that led to a square granite building. Two spear-shaped feather trees stood on each side of the library door, but the building was otherwise unadorned.

Inside was none of the splendor I had expected of the palace library. Instead, dusty tomes were stacked on simple wooden shelves, which were shoved against bare stone walls. My heels clicked against the stone floor and echoed through the building.

Hope, who sat at a center table, looked up at the sound of my footsteps. He let the letter he’d been reading fall to the table, and smiled at me in greeting.

“She’s safe,” he said as I sat beside him. “For now she is safe, and she’s trying to stay cheerful. I suppose I should be content with that.”

“It’s only natural that-” I cut myself off before finishing my statement, that a father should miss his daughter. My own father’s words seemed to echo in my ears.

Hope leaned his cheek against his palm and regarded me with heavy-lidded eyes.

“You seem cross. Have I offended you, somehow?”

“No. I’ve just had a disagreeable interview with my father.”

Hope frowned. “What did he say?”

“Nothing important. We quarreled about my mother. He seems to think that I have no reason to miss her at all.”

I looked down at my hands, which were twisted together. “I’m sorry. None of this interests you.”

“Feel free to vent your frustrations,” Hope said. “I daresay I’ve burdened you with enough of my troubles.”

I sighed. “Well, he doesn’t matter to me anymore. He seems happy enough that I belong to you, now. He wasn’t even angry that I failed to answer his letter.”

“Your father spoke to me in passing last night. He called you his ‘gift’ to me. Does this strike you as odd?”

“No. When have women ever been anything other than chattel?”

At that moment, a faint cry echoed through the library. I sat up and looked around, but saw no one else around.

“Did you hear…” I said.

“Yes?”

“- Nothing. I came here to find Bannon’s Western History, so I’ll leave you to your letter.

I left Hope and wandered among the bookshelves, walking in the direction where I thought the cry had originated.

I peeked around the edge of a narrow row and spied Miss Taris, who sat alone beside one of the few windows. She turned her head toward the sound of my footfalls, so I quickly shifted my gaze back to the bookshelves.

I saw a jumble of history and apologetics, piled in no particular order. I ran my finger along the spines, searching for Bannon’s history, and saw a titleless book with a picture of an eye printed on the spine.

I peeked at Miss Taris, but she had turned back to her book, so I reached out and took the book with the eye, grabbing two other random books to carry on top of it.

A high-pitched laugh caught my attention, then, so I hoised my books and moved back toward the sound. I peeked around the edge of the bookshelf toward Hope’s table and saw him standing with Lady Purity.

Lady Purity laughed and simpered and fluttered her fan, and Hope leaned forward and whispered something into her ear. Lady Purity fluttered her fan a little faster, and then took Hope’s arm.

The two walked toward the Library door. Hope turned his head as he walked and spotted me by the bookshelf. He winked, put his finger to his lips, and left.

My grip on the books tightened, and I rushed forward and dropped them on the table with a loud thump. I sat down and resolutely opened my book. After all, I had no reason to think about Hope’s exploits, just as he had no reason to think of mine.

I flipped a few pages, and began to read.

 

The Tale of the Brothers Smith

There once lived two brothers, Service and Fervor Smith. One brother, Fervor, was a hunter, and the other, Service, was a carpenter. One day, while hunting, Fervor came across a magic circle, inside of which was a book. Fervor, overcome with greed, stole the book.  He could not read the book himself, so he took it to his beloved brother, Service.

Fervor and Service read the book, uncovering arcane secrets previously lost to time. They used these secrets to gain great wealth, and buy power and influence beyond their station. Fervor, true to his name, craved more money the more he obtained. However, as his Service read the book, and used the dark magic contained within to feed his brother’s greed, he began to change.

Fervor, distracted by the women and wine his new wealth could afford him, did not notice Service growing sickly and wan. Service aged at an unnatural rate, growing wrinkled and grey before his time. He grew thin and hungry, and yet could not eat. One day, when Fervor went to seek his brother’s help, he only found a pile of his brother’s clothes sitting where his brother had once sat. Service was no more.

Fervor sought frantically for the magic book he’d entrusted to his brother, but it was nowhere to be found. Having eaten away at Service, it, too, vanished. So Fervor, without Service to help him, lost his wealth, his health, and his loved ones. He died alone, wishing he had never reached beyond his station, and wishing he had acknowledged the value of his brother, Service.

The Coven, Part XXV

Dear Lady Frey,

You’ll be glad to know that Miss Milton isnt a terrible dragin. She doesnt know much about maths, and she makes me practis music an hour and ½ every single day, but she never yells and she never uses the strap.

I still miss you. She can’t explane the realy hard books like you. Even thogh she’s nice, she’s still like other grown ups. She dosn’t always understand.

I’m glad Unkle Just is here, to. He takes me riding every day, just like Unkle Hope. Please write to Unkle Just and tell him that I’m not a soljer. Riding is always fun with Unkle Hope, but Unkle Just wants me to ride perfect.

Miss Chastity is always around. I don’t mind. She’s not as nice as Miss Mersy, but she’s always honest. I like that.

Tell me all about the palis when you rite. Is it grand? Is the Prince hansom?

Love,

Celeste

“Reading a letter on such a fine day? It must be from a beaux.”

I looked up from the letter to see Lady Innocence and Lady Purity, who were never far from each other’s company. They’d been catching butterflies in the garden, but had paused to take note of me.

“Not at all- this is a letter from Lord Frey’s ward,” I said. “I’ve been managing her education.”

“How kind of you,” Lady Purity said, absentmindedly toying with her net. She opened the net, and blue butterflies billowed up in a cloud around her before flying free.

“Oh yes, very kind,” Lady Innocence said. “I wouldn’t have any patience with a ward. I would have sent the girl away to school.”

“And there have been such rumors flying about. With Lord Frey being so handsome, well, you must worry about his past,” Lady Purity said in a harsh whisper, leaning forward conspiratorially.

“I don’t worry,” I said, folding the letter. “Lord Frey’s past is past.”

“You must love him a great deal, to trust him so,” Lady Innocence said.

“Don’t quiz poor Lady Frey,” Lady Fairfax said, sidling up to us with her fashionable, swaying walk. “She’s still a newlywed.”

The three of us curtsied to Lady Fairfax.

“Lord Ainsworth has been searching for you,” Lady Fairfax said to me. “Lord Fitzwilliam told him that you were in the gardens, so I took the short route to warn you.”

“I- I see.” Terror had risen into my throat and frozen there as a lump, but I tried to swallow it back.

“You might still avoid him, if you walk back with me by the fountains.”

Lady Innocence and Lady Purity were listening with keen expressions, and some of Hope’s advice came to me. “Never let them see your fears.

I straightened my back and shook my head. “I have no reason to avoid him. He is as welcome to speak to me as anyone.”

Lady Fairfax let out a great huff and fluttered her fan. “I should think that man’s tediousness enough reason to avoid him- but he is your father. Oh- here he comes. Away, ladies, before he bores us all with talk of exports and tariffs.”

Lady Fairfax swept the other Ladies up the garden path, and soon I could see my own father, limping on his gouty leg up the opposite path.

“Ah! Grace. There you are,” he said. “I’ve searched the whole palace for you. I wish to have a word with you, as soon as I can catch my breath. “

He plopped down on a wicker chair opposite me, and drew a handkerchief from his pocket. He wiped some sweat from under his wig, coughed a few times, and then leaned back to regard me through his spectacles.

“A word regarding what?” I asked.

“Regarding what? I miss my daughter. After all, I haven’t had a single letter from you since you left Willowbrook. Did you receive my letter?”

“Yes, I did.” Somehow, the courage the Ladies had left me with remained. My back stayed straight as I answered the red, panting man across from me. “I didn’t realize your concern for me was genuine.”

My father leaned forward, steepling his hands and smiling. “Ah- I see what has happened. You are truly under your husband’s control, now. Your obedience is to him, instead of me.”

“Believe what you like,” I said. I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of tearing up my father’s letter, and the look of shock on Hope’s face.

“I don’t mean to discourage you,” My father continued. “He is your husband now, and it is natural that he should be your master.”

“If that’s the case, then why did you ask me report on my husband?”

My father shrugged, and then shooed a butterfly away from his face. “I’d think that you would welcome any change to speak on your husband’s behalf. Malicious rumors are circulating, and I gave you the opportunity to contradict them.”

“Since I did not reply, you may assume there is nothing to report,” I said. “That should be contradiction enough.”

“And what about the rumors that aren’t so easily dismissed? I’ve heard about his little ward. They say that her mother was worse than a fallen women, and that your husband was intimately involved with her.”

“I’ve heard the rumors about Celeste’s mother, but rumors mean nothing. As to Lord Frey- his past is not my business.”

My father laughed out loud- a rough laugh that quickly devolved into coughs.

“Oh yes- I should have remembered.  Jealousy can’t touch an insensible girl like you. Don’t worry about the matter any further. As you said, none of this is your business. Obey your husband, occupy yourself with your books, and you’ll serve your purpose in time.”

My father brushed away the butterfly again, and it flew over to me, landing on my finger. It’s tiny feet clung to me with surprising strength, and I left it undisturbed.

“Well, I would be remiss in my filial duties if I didn’t look after you- husband or no. Is there anything that you need or want?” My father said, rising to his feet.

“I want-” my voice faltered, but I swallowed and stood to look him in the eye. The butterfly still clung to my finger as it fell to my side.

“Since my marriage, I’ve missed a mother’s help and advice. Might I have something that belonged to her? Anything small will suffice- her likeness, perhaps, or a personal item.”

Father’s jovial expression melted away, and his voice rang out like a crack of thunder.

Why would you ask a stupid thing like that?”

“It’s only natural-”

“There’s nothing natural about it. Your mother died when you were born, and you’ve never even seen her. You have no reason to think of her now.”

Father turned away and walked away swiftly. His gouty limp seemed to have vanished with his fury.

The butterfly let go of my finger, and flew up into the blue morning sky.

The Coven- Part XXIV

My first evening at the Palace did not end until well after midnight.

Dinner began at 8:00 in a great hall that was almost as large as the sanctuary at Cathedral Lux. Long after everyone had finished their own repast, the Prince did not seem inclined to retire, and no one dare leave the great hall before him. My party sat over half-eaten jellies as the  Prince drank, told incoherent stories that were hardly audible in the front third of the hall, and sometimes called for music from the minstrel’s gallery.

The gallery was in a velvet-draped box at the back of the hall, and the musicians played with both talent and taste. The Prince, however, seemed a patron without any real appreciation for the art, because just after one or two verses, the Prince would begin another story, and the minstrels were forced to stop playing so as to not drown out his feeble voice.

After his second bottle of wine, the Prince stood, and the courtiers followed suit. I expected that we would be allowed to retire, but instead the Prince gestured toward my table.

“Our new High Priest has arrived at St. Blanc for his coronation,” the Prince said, raising his glass. “A toast to the man who will crown me King.”

The courtiers all raised the glasses and cheered. Hope raised his own glass a second behind the rest, gritting his teeth as he smiled.

Monsignor Pius, however, took the attention in stride. “You do me great honor, my prince. I am but a servant to the Gods’ will.”

 

#

 

“Unbelieveable!” Hope ejaculated as he paced our inner-court apartment. “‘The man who will crown me king?’ The Prince acts as though we have already declared war against his mother. We seemed so close to our goals- close enough to taste! I begin to think that we arrived here too late.”

I put my finger to my lips. I was searching the room- behind the heavy velvet curtains, behind the wall portraits, and in the closet. Hope paused in his pacing to watch me.

“I believe that I’ve made you paranoid,” he said.

“Miss Taris has an apartment in the outer court, and she’s the sole heir of Duke Taris. Our rank alone cannot explain us being quartered so close to the Prince.”

Hope started, and then rushed to examine every place in the room that I had, as well as a few I’d neglected.

“Damn my stupidity,” he said when he was done, sinking onto a sofa. “I didn’t question such an honored position, and I should have. Fortunately, there are no peepholes or trap-doors that I can see. Still, we should keep our voices low.”

“Perhaps we’re here because of my father,” I said. “He seemed surprisingly close to the Prince.”

“Yes- a Viscount has the Prince’s ear. I wondered what he’s given the prince to earn his favor.”

Hope and I silently thought this over, and then I said, “I wish I hadn’t been so cowed by my father when I lived at Willowbrook. I wish I’d paid attention to his business dealings, instead of hiding from him in my library nook.”

“Your curiosity has awakened, since then,” Hope said. “Even Miss Taris’s situation is not beneath your notice.”

“She’s not an unimportant woman. She’s the only heir to a Duke, after all. Besides, she interests me.”

Hope raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? Among all of the roses of the court, Miss Taris has captured your interest?”

I smiled a little to myself, and sat beside him. “It is precisely because she is not a flower of the court that she interests me. I suspect that, when I first arrived at Rowan Heights, I resembled Miss Taris very much.”

“You?” Hope scoffed. “You did have many awkward and skittish manners when you arrived, I grant you, but Miss Taris lacks the beauty and intelligence you possess to compensate.”

“I wonder if we are speaking of the same Miss Taris. She is tall, and underneath her ill-fitting clothes I perceive a graceful figure. She doesn’t have someone clever to manage her wardrobe, as I did before I came to Rowan Heights. I am too short and fat to really be considered pretty.”

Hope seemed about to object, but I cut him off.

“She speaks so little that I doubt you’ve had the opportunity to judge her intelligence.” I laughed. “Perhaps her silence is why you think she is unintelligent. Once you told me that you couldn’t tell if I was shy or stupid.”

“I don’t recall ever saying such a thing.”

“I’m not surprised. You were drunk at the time.”

Hope groaned and put his head to his forehead. “Oh- yes. Well, perhaps what Miss Taris needs is a gentleman to provoke her anger. You’ve blossomed a good deal since our row.”

I felt a stab of resentment run through me. I wanted to tell Hope that my affection and love for Celeste, my freedom to stargaze and conduct research, and the terrifying secrets of my new home had all driven me to change myself. Before I could speak, however, Hope sighed deeply.

“We won’t have much opportunity to sleep, here,” he said. “There is much we must do, so we should rest while we can.

 

#

 

In daylight or lamplight, a room in the inner court seemed a great honor. My apartment was much bigger than would ever be necessary for the comfort of Hope and me alone. The carpets were thick and deep, and the bed was dressed in the finest silks. A chain of golden angels danced around the crown molding above the intricately printed wallpaper.

When the lamps were extinguished, however, all of these delights disappeared into darkness, and I was left in a vast empty cavern. Faint shadows flickered on the walls, cast by the light that leaked from under the distant door. The crystal mantle clock, that I had admired in the light, now seemed to tick so loudly that it echoed in my ears.

Beside me, Hope was still and silent, asleep for the first time since we stayed the night in the crossroads village. He clung to my hand as he slept, taking peace from my presence asn I lay sleepless beside him.

Try as I might, I could not keep my eyes shut for more than a few moments. They would always open, and my vision was drawn to the sliver of light under the door. After a while, the light seemed to flicker, as though a candle were disturbed, and behind the loud ticking of the clock, I thought I heard the sound of footsteps.

Then the footsteps quieted and the light grew steady. The room was filled with the strong scent of roses.

I sat up, determined to investigate further, but as soon as I slipped my hand from Hope’s  he began to toss in his sleep.

I took his hand again to prevent him from making any noise, and listened. The room remained silent, and soon the heavy scent of roses made me feel drowsy.

I lay back, and surrendered to the urge to sleep.