The Coven, Part XLVIII

 

“Last night’s storms must have been a dream,” Celeste called happily, turning her face toward the sun.

“The sky’s so clear that you must be right,” Sister Jubilee replied. “I think we all met in the dream world, last night.”

Celeste laughed and, as though she could not contain herself anymore, broke into a run, kicking up golden sand behind her.

“Stay where we can watch you,” Mercy called after Celeste. Then she sighed and ran after her.

I let Mercy chase Celeste, but the anxiety I might have felt for Celeste the day before was gone. I felt certain that she was safe on the beach so close to del Sol. The sea was calm; the waves pulsed low and soft against the shore. A winter chill still hung in the air, but there was no wind, and the sunlight melted the cold away as it touched my skin. It felt like the light of dawn that melts away a nightmare.

Sister Jubilee and I stood together and watched Celeste and Mercy run along the shore. After a time, Innocence sidled up to us from the dunes.

“It is a pleasant day,” she said, “though the sea’s beauty can’t compare to the gardens at St. Blanc.”

“I cannot agree,” I said. “Even at court, I’ve never seen such jewels. The sea is sapphire, the sun and the sand are gold, and the waves glitter with a thousand diamonds.”

“Your words are wonderfully poetic, but you can’t sell poetry to feed the hungry or fund a war,” Sister Jubilee said. “The beauty of St. Blanc is directly related to its wealth, and real diamonds are worth far more than glittering water.”

“A diamond’s only worth is in its beauty,” I countered. “You cannot eat a diamond, or use it as a weapon. But you can live off of the sea’s bounty and sail warships on its surface. The sea has the advantage in both poetry and utility.”

“Stop- I can hardly keep up with the two of you,” Innocence pleaded. “I was speaking only of pleasure, not economics or politics. Let jewels and poetry remain useless, so I can properly enjoy them.”

“Miss Innocence, you will make an excellent sister once you learn to tolerate daily prayer. Focus on the abstract, elevate your spirit, and leave the mundane business of reality to Lady Frey and me,” Sister Jubilee laughed, linking her arm with mine.

“I wish I could focus on the abstract,” Innocence said. She held her hand out for me to see. “Look- I’ve been doing useful work every day after prayers, and my hands are covered in blisters. I’ve given up my title, and now I don’t even have a Lady’s hands.”

“I can tell you still have a Lady’s heart,” Sister Jubilee said with a slight note of contempt in her voice.

Innocence only sighed in reply. “I do my best.”

Innocence linked her arm with mine, and the three of us walked together- drifting across the sand like a daisy chain flung toward the sea. When we caught up to Celeste and Mercy the two had tumbled to the ground, and were both laughing without restraint.

When Celeste had caught her breath, she stood, brushed the sand from her robes, and took Sister Jubilee’s hand. “Come with Mercy and me. I want to show you an experiment that I’m conducting.”

“An experiment?”

“Yes. Help me gather stones and driftwood, and I will tell you about it.”

“Would you like me to help, too?” I offered.

Celeste shook her head quickly. “You mustn’t see my experiment until I’ve finished, so you can properly judge the results,” she said in a carefully grown-up voice. Then she tugged on Sister Jubilee’s hand again, and the three made their way up the shore.

When we were left alone, Innocence’s smile faded, and she stared down at her blister-covered fingers.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said softly. “I don’t belong.”

“None of us do,” I said. “Del Sol seems to be a place for those who don’t belong.”

“That’s exactly what Sister Purity told me before she left St. Blanc. I’d thought that she wanted me to follow her. That’s why I didn’t stay longer at St. Blanc, I suppose- it’s better to be with a friend who needs you than to watch your own dreams crumble.”

“Do you regret your decision?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t regret it if I knew that Sister Purity truly needed me. When I arrived, she’d already taken her vows, and she is so comfortable that it seems as though she’s lived here for years. She is happy.”

“She may still need you,” I said. “She may be content with your presence.”

“Perhaps.” Innocence picked at the peeling skin around her blisters.

“You should allow Abbess Joy to heal you hands,” I said.

Innocence curled her fingers into fists and dropped them to her sides, like a frightened child hiding a wound. “Why don’t you allow Abbess Joy to heal your bruises?”

“I have. She gave me salve to put on them.”

Innocence furrowed her brow in frustration. “Lady Frey, you know she can do more than apply salve. The fact that you haven’t let her use the litany of healing proves that you feel the same as I- that you have to atone for something.”

Innocence looked up at the dunes, and her smile returned. The sisters were walking single file down to the beach. They were singing, and their song hovered in the still air over the shore.

Sister Jubilee returned to greet the other sisters as Celeste played with Mercy at the water’s edge. Sister Jubilee was the only sister still wearing her veil; all of the others had thrown theirs back as they climbed through the dunes, and were blinking into the afternoon sunshine.

“Good afternoon,” Abbess Joy said as she approached the shore. “You are all welcome to join us for meditation.”

Sister Jubilee readily agreed, and though Innocence seemed about to refuse, she acquiesced when Purity took her arm. Abbess Joy turned to me with a welcoming smile.

“I’m sorry, but I need to go to the pilgrim’s quarters today, before Mr. Sutton leaves,” I said.

Abbess Joy nodded. “That is probably best. Will you be able to find the pilgrim’s quarters on your own?”

“I know where to find it. I passed it with Brother Lux,” I said.

Abbess Joy nodded. “When you have completed your business, go to the nearby infirmary. I’ve made a new batch of salve for your bruises, but I left it in my office. You’ll find it on my desk, in a blue jar.”

“Thank you.”

“Abbess Joy, please help me persuade Lady Frey that the salve isn’t enough,” Innocence said. “She should let you heal her properly, or else quit learning the martial art. A lady in her condition cannot be too careful.”

“Her condition?” Abbess Joy looked back at me sharply.

It took me a few moments to understand what Innocence had meant. “Oh! Miss Innocence, there’s no need…”

“What are you talking about?” Sister Jubilee said.

I looked around at the sisters, who were all looking at me with keen interest, now. I could not control the burning in my cheeks.

“There was a rumor at court, but it was only a rumor,” I said firmly.

“Are you certain? Lady Fairfax said-”

“I’m quite certain.” I said to Innocence. “Lady Fairfax was mistaken. I hoped that the rumor had been put to rest once and for all.”

Abbess Joy pursed her lips in concern.

“Trust me, Abbess Joy, there’s no way that…” I cleared my throat and continued in a stronger voice. “I’m absolutely certain I have no ‘condition’ at present.”

“Very well,” Abbess Joy said. “Still, you should be careful with your health for your own sake, at least.”

“I will be. Mercy only pushes me because I need it. If my health suffers, I will stop practicing.”

“I trust you,” Abbess Joy said. “You were born to be a fighter, and I cannot change that.”

 

#

 

I put up my cowl as I neared the pilgrim’s quarters, letting its loose edge fall far over my face so far that I could hardly see. The main quarters were located in a white, square building lined with a profusion of unadorned columns, and beside it were several low, wooden buildings clustered together.

I walked around the edge of the buildings, watching the groups of pilgrims who walked up and down the paths that led from the cathedral and the carriage house. Abbess Joy had told me that Mr. Sutton was unmistakable- very tall and lean, with a profusion of red hair, and sure enough, I soon spotted pilgrim who appeared to be at least a head taller than any of the others, and whose hair shone like fire in the afternoon sunlight.

I pulled my cowl even further down and approached him. In a swift gesture, I drew Mr. Filius’s card from my sleeve to reveal the picture of the eye.

“Good Afternoon,” Mr Sutton said in a light tone. “It would seem that you and I share secrets.”

“In secrets, there is trust,” I whispered in reply.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “Do you know a place where we may speak privately?”

“Hmmm… I suppose the old lighthouse is out of the question at this time of day. We wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s an interesting place. Let’s go to the Cathedral.”

“The Cathedral?” I asked in surprise as Mr. Sutton started back up the path.

“Of course- everyone already knows that the Cathedral is uninteresting, so it is empty as soon as prayers are done.”

I trotted behind Mr. Sutton, feeling very much like a child trying to keep up with an adult, until we arrived at the Cathedral doors. Mr. Sutton opened one door and gestured for me to enter.

The Cathedral seemed even more massive on the inside than it had on the outside, with the arches all pointing toward the high-vaulted ceilings, yet with wide, open space between the unadorned walls and windows. The floor and the pews were all made from the same unfinished wood, and there was a gleaming metal pipe organ behind the low altar.

“You see, there not even a symbol of order to distract us,” Mr. Sutton said. “We may speak here, undisturbed, until everyone is forced to return for evening prayer. How can I help you, Miss…”

I pulled my cowl back. “My name is Lady Grace Frey, and if you  don’t wish to involve yourself in my troubles, I will understand.”

Mr. Sutton drew a sharp breath. I looked into his face, and saw that he was blinking his grass-green eyes in surprise, and his freckled cheeks were growing red. I was tempted to take his reaction as an answer to the plea I had yet to make. Desperation, however, forced me to stay and attempt to persuade him.

After a few moments, he sighed, and the red splotches faded from his cheeks.

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I’d guessed that you would seek help from the order, at some point. Please forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive- your reaction was natural. You didn’t flee at the sight of me, or call me the ‘devil’s whore,’ which is more than I expected.”

Mr. Sutton shook his head. “I am sorry you have been treated so. I study human behavior, so I’m well acquainted with how quickly people can turn against the innocent- especially when superstition is involved. I hope that one day I will learn how to correct such behavior.”

“I am lucky- I have friends at the abbey who can protect me. However, I cannot leave their protection, so I was hoping that you would agree to help me navigate the outside world.”

I reached into my pocket and drew out the letters I’d written.

“Abbess Joy told me that you have friends in the legal profession. Do you know anyone at all who would be willing to represent my husband at his trial? I am willing to offer double their usual compensation.”

“I know one gentleman who will be willing. His name is Amity St. Roch, and he is one of us.” Mr. Sutton lowered his voice significantly. “He helps me to study human nature, and is as eager as I to correct superstition.”

I let out a deep sigh, as though I’d been holding my breath without realizing it.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve written this letter for him, which includes everything about my husband’s case that may be significant. From what I understand, the inquisition’s primary piece of evidence is a forged blood oath.”

Mr. Sutton nodded, taking the letter. “I believe that I speak for my friend when I say that it won’t be necessary to pay more that his usual rate.”

“But he’s involving himself in such a dangerous case- I really must insist.”

Mr. Sutton smiled wryly. “I will tell him what you say, and see how he replies. Keep in mind that he is an attorney, however, and he has yet to lose a case.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I hate to impose further, but there is another favor I would ask. My husband’s estate is being neglected while my husband is imprisoned. I need to find someone who can forward the servant’s wages to their families and take care of my husband’s beneficiaries. If you will give me a name-”

“My name is Merit Sutton, and I would be happy to undertake your charge.”

My vision blurred then- Mr. Sutton became a red smudge against a brown and white background. I removed my false glasses and wiped away my tears.

“Please forgive me,” I said. “I was not expecting such ready kindness from a stranger.”

“Don’t apologize, Lady Frey. To tell you the truth, we are not exactly strangers. I was present the night you made your ill-fated petition to the oculist guild. I see now what a fool Sir Silas was for calling your courage into question.”

I took a shaky breath to compose myself. “I confess I don’t feel particularly brave at present.”

“People rarely sense the courage that is sustaining them,” he said. “And I must confess that I am helping for selfish reasons. Remember that I study people, and you interest me.”

I opened one of my letters- a letter of authorization to my Verdant City account- and filled in Mr. Sutton’s name. Then I handed him the list of beneficiaries and what was owed to them that Mr. Poe had sent me.

“I doubt I will ever be able to fully repay your kindness to me.”

“I don’t require repayment. Just remember what kindness from a stranger can mean.”

The doors to the Cathedral swung open with a loud clang, and footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous room. Mr. Sutton hastily tucked my letters into his robes, and I put up my cowl.

“Good afternoon, pilgrims,” a man’s voice called.

I peeked under my cowl to see a group of white-robed pilgrims approaching. The leader lowered his own cowl and bowed in greeting. Mr. Sutton rose and bowed, as well.

“Good Afternoon,” Mr. Sutton said. “It’s rare to see such devotion among the pilgrims. Most don’t arrive for prayer before the bells ring.”

“We’ve come to make a special petition to the Gods,” the man said. “You are welcome to join our prayers, if you wish.”

“I will, thank you,” he said.

The man nodded. “And you, miss-”

“I need to return to the abbey,” I said. “Excuse me.”

I thanked Mr. Sutton and walked around the pilgrims. At the door, I turned back to see the pilgrims kneel at the pews. They made a gesture I did not recognize in place of the sign of order, and bowed their heads.

“Order, Reverence, and Chastity,” the man said in a voice as confident as a priest’s. “We come to you for wisdom

Mr. Sutton raised his head slightly and winked at me. I bowed low to him, and then turned to leave the cathedral.

The Coven, Part XLVII

Author’s note: You may have noticed that I’ve changed the roman numerals on parts 40 and up from the cumbersome XXXX to the proper VL. XXXX was originally chosen for stylistic purposes. However, since it looks like the series will be continuing longer than I’d anticipated, I’ve decided that the proper notation will be more efficient. The chapter order will remain unchanged.

I survived my first week in exile by relying on friends.

Each morning, my chest, head, and limbs were all leaden, keeping me pressed into my rough mattress heavy with despair. The little flame that had kindled within me at St. Blanc was gone.

You don’t need your energy, my aching head echoed my weakness. You can do nothing here.

Without Mercy to drag me from my bed, I might have remained all day. Every morning without fail, she would slam open my door, pull away my blanket and, when I would protest, toss a cup of cold water over me with a curt order to hurry.

Hurry I did, under such treatment. Before long the two of us were in the courtyard, working through forms and sparring without even the pretense of hiding our activities. The sisters stopped to watch us on their way to morning prayer, and as the week passed some began to arrive before the sunlight touched the frosted grass. Mercy would shout at me to ignore the crowd and stay focused, but I couldn’t help but cast the occasional glance at Abbess Joy, who watched me with an enigmatic smile. On third day I puzzled over Abbess Joy’s expression for a second too long, resulting in a particularly brutal hit.

“You’re growing more careless,” Mercy said, circling me like a prowling lioness.

“I’m tired,” I said, dragging myself to my feet. “I haven’t been sleeping well, and-”

“I don’t care, and neither do your enemies,” Mercy said. Before I had a chance to fall back into my stance, she struck again. “Self-pity is weakness.”

By week’s end I was covered in bruises. Some were new, and lingered just under the skin, but some were dark and angry. Abbess Joy dressed my bruises with a worried look, but I was learning to disregard the pain. Each new burden on my physical body lessened the burden on my heart.

Celeste awoke with the church bells, and would come running through the dunes to watch the end of my lesson. At first she watched with disbelieving eyes, but before long she was telling every sister nearby how I had used my skills to fight bandits. I fought better when Celeste arrived; the lead weights in my limbs seemed to fall away when she was near. I could take advantage of the easier movement in my loose-fitting robes,without stays to bind me or crinolines to trip me.

When the sisters departed to attend prayer, which lasted all morning, Celeste and I went to the calefactory. There, we took what lessons we pleased from the treasure trove of books on the massive calefactory shelves.

Celeste was eager to share the lessons she’d learned in my absence, and to learn more. She had a hundred questions about the work in her arithmetic primer, which her governess had been unable to answer. The work was interesting enough to distract Celeste from her questions about life at St. Blanc, which I found I could not answer without some pain.

When prayer was over, Sister Jubilee would come to take Celeste to the cathedral for music lessons. The promise of playing the great cathedral organ was as impossible for me to argue against as a pony ride had once been, so I could not object to the arrangement.

I was not idle while Celeste was gone. Father Pius had told me that everyone at St. Blanc was expected to work for their bread, and I did not get any special treatment in this regard. Sister Love took me in as her assistant. She seemed to understand that I would not fare well at the workhouse, where any pilgrim could see me, but there was plenty of work to be done near the abbey.

Sister Love and I worked in the greenhouses near the kitchen garden, where vegetables, herbs, and yellow Sol Flowers grew. After pruning and watering, I would take the harvested vegetables and herbs to the kitchen while Sister Love carried Sol Flowers to the Pilgrim’s quarters to sell.

When Sister Love returned to the Abbey, we walked together through a narrow dune-path to the bay, where there was a series of nets that trapped comet fish and stone crabs. The nets had to be emptied daily and kept in good repair. Though I fumbled through my task, and almost fell into the water twice, Sister Love taught me with a ready laugh and infinite patience.

The days were growing colder, but I found that physical exertion kept me warmer than my best pelisse. At the end of the day, when I sat down to a dinner of fish and potatoes that I had helped to harvest, I ate with a hearty appetite.

This healthy feeling is unnatural, I thought to myself the evening before week’s end. As I’d forced my way through the week, something had fed the little flame that I thought had died within me- my will to fight. I was beginning to awaken from the dullness of misery into the heat of anger. I wondered why I was not more like Miss Taris who, despite having gained everything she’d wanted, remained as dull and listless as when we’d arrived.

Miss Taris had been my companion all week, acting as the silent avatar of my troubles. Every morning she rose early to watch Mercy and me spar, but while the sisters had made a sport of watching, cheering Mercy and I as we went, Miss Taris watched with a stony expression. Afterward, she answered the cathedral bells’ call to prayer, but as soon as prayers were complete she appeared by my side once more, looking even more pale and drawn than I’d remembered. Sister Love and I would press her to return to the dormitory to rest, but she refused. Instead, she followed us while we worked, though she was unable to assist.

At dinner, Miss Taris picked mournfully at her food until she was called away again for prayer and confession.

Meals at the abbey were quiet. Celeste had been happy to chatter through meals at first, but the Sisters ate silently, and she eventually caught on that dinners at the abbey were meant to be solemn occasions. The evening before week’s end, I noticed that Celeste had slipped a book into her robes and was reading it under the table as she ate. I pretended not to notice, and ate in silence until the refectory doors creaked open and Sister Jubilee entered.

Sister Jubilee never took her meals with the rest of the Sisters, and would often run last-minute errands that Abbess Joy had forgotten during the day. On this evening, she came to me with two letters.

“The post brought these for you, this afternoon,” Sister Jubilee said.

“Thank you.” I took the letters from Sister Jubilee, my stomach tight in anticipation. I sighed in disappointment, however, when I viewed the address on the front of each- neither were from Brother Lux, and likely did not contain news of Hope. I tucked the letters carefully into my pocket and turned back to my meal.

“Aren’t you going to read your letters, Lady Grace?” Celeste asked.

Sister Jubilee spoke before I could answer. “Ladies don’t read at the table, Celeste,”

Celeste blushed and tucked her book back into her robes. “But what if it’s from Uncle Hope?”

“I’m sorry, Celeste, but these are only business letters.”

“Oh- how dull!” she wrinkled her nose, and turned back to her meal.

“I’m afraid so,” I told Celeste, “but it’s best to get dull tasks done at once. Have you finished eating?”

“Yes, Lady Grace.”

“Come along, then. You can finish Sir Simpleton’s Quest in your room while I answer my letters.”

Celeste nodded and jumped down from the bench. She waved goodnight to the Sisters, and then followed Sister Jubilee and me from the refectory.

Outside, cold gusts of salt-sharp air swept up the walkway and through the cloisters. When we’d gone halfway to the dormitories, thunder reverberated through the heavens with a sharp crack, and then raindrops pelted the ground.

Celeste shrieked and covered her head with her hands, darting toward the dormitory doors.

“Mind that you don’t slip,” I called to Celeste.

“Yes, and run between the raindrops, so you stay dry,” Sister Jubilee added.

Celeste turned to glare at Sister Jubilee before she ran into the dormitory.

Sister Jubilee laughed. “Celeste is a good girl, but you do spoil her. I know you saw her reading under the table.”

“I can be fairly indulgent,” I admitted. “My own father was so harsh and demanding that I fear that I will make the same mistakes. I want Celeste to trust me when I tell her right from wrong, and to come to me when she is troubled.”

“You’ve already earned Celeste’s trust.”

When we reached the dormitory, I looked in on Celeste. She was already wearing a dry chemise and was happily settled with her book, so I retired to my own cell to read my letters. Sister Jubilee left to finish her errands.

 

#

 

Thunder echoed more and more fiercely as the night wore on, and inside my cell, my anger roared to life with even more ferocity. The letters had fueled my range, and I lost no time writing a fiercely worded letter of my own, which I subsequently tore and put aside. I produced a clean sheet and began a second, more sober note.

I was so wrapped up in my work that I almost missed a timid knock, barely audible over the storm. I blotted my letter and said, “come in.”

The door opened, revealing Sister Jubilee’s perpetually veiled face. She hesitated at the threshold.

“We can speak in the morning, if this is an inopportune time.”

“Stay. I need someone to hear my frustrations. Do you feel up to the task?”

She closed the door behind her. “Very well, as long as you trust me enough to speak on personal matters-”

“There is nothing personal in these letters, I assure you,” I said. “Everything here is public information, or it ought to be public.”

“Oh?” Sister Jubilee sat on my cot and placed her hands on her knees.

“On my first day here, I sent a letter to Mr. Poe, who is my husband’s steward. I wished particularly to inquire about the staff and the tenants’ wellbeing. Unfortunately, my letter was intercepted. Brother Gaius- a name I promise to remember- sent me a reply,” I picked up the first letter and thrust it toward Sister Jubilee, “telling me that the inquisition is in charge of Rowan Heights, including the staff and tenants, and that my husband’s assets have all been frozen. He told me I had no right to interfere, and ordered me not to write again.”

Sister Jubilee took the letter from me. “He uses very… strong language.”

“He went out of his way to insult me in every line,” I said. “Fortunately, his attempt to silence certain matters has failed. Mr. Poe wrote to me on his own, though how he got a letter out of the estate I’ll never know.”

I took the second letter from my desk as a flash of lightning struck outside. The light seemed to wash the ink away as it bathed the paper in white. In the next second, however, shadows fell and the black words were visible once more.

“Mr Poe’s letter is a plea,” I continued. “The inquisition has no interest in running the estate, and my husband’s tenants have no one to resolve their grievances. What’s worse- many of hill country’s poor relied on my husband for charity, and now they go without.”

“Has Mr. Poe tried to contact Brother Lux?”

“Mr. Poe states that Brother Lux knows everything that is happening at Rowan Heights, but has failed to act.”

“I cannot believe that Brother Lux would allow his family’s estate to remain neglected, whatever his feelings may be toward his brother,” Sister Jubilee said.

“The tenants’ neglect is just the beginning. The staff are being held under suspicion. They have not been arrested, but they are being kept under guard in the downstairs quarters. They are not allowed to contact their families, and though they have been given no wages, they are forced to serve the inquisitors.”

“‘Under suspicion,’ indeed,” Sister Jubilee said with an angry huff. “I call that slavery.”

“As do I.”

“What will you do?”

“I am writing this letter,” I gestured toward my desk, “to Mr. Sutton, the guild member Abbess Joy recommended. I hope that, in addition to a solicitor, he can find a man who is at liberty to administer food and supplies to my husband’s beneficiaries. I intend to forward the staff’s wages to their families, who are no doubt in need.”

“How will you do all this if Lord Frey’s assets are frozen?”

I smiled a little to myself. “Lord Frey kept a promise to me. When I was going through his financial records, I discovered that he’d placed my dowry in a separate account in the Verdant City bank. The account is in my name.”

Sister Jubilee handed the letter back to me. “That was very kind of him. Will it be enough?”

“My father was eager to be rid of me. My dowry is, as my husband once said, enough to grant me an affluent independence. “

“I wish you luck. Even with such wealth, you are up against the forces of ignorance and barbarous superstition.”

“I’m well aware of this; I don’t need your warnings not to get my hopes up.”

Lightning flashed again, and for a moment I thought I saw the outline of a face visible through Sister Jubilee’s gauzy veil. However, the moment was fleeting, and I was left looking at a blank sheet.

“Thank you for listening so patiently to my troubles,” I continued. “You’ve shown me friendship in a trying time.”

“Friendship? That’s a strange thought. Do you wish to be my friend?”

“I do, but… to be honest, it’s still difficult to trust you completely. If I could see your face-”

“Please- no.” Sister Jubilee raised a trembling hand to her veil and fingered the seams around the edge. “Don’t ask me again. If you look behind this veil, you will only see pain. I wear this to spare everyone something I should bear alone.”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“Don’t be. You’ve been through a great deal, and will naturally suspect deception in those around you. Even so, whatever dark secrets you bear, you aren’t entitled to mine.”

“You’re right- I have no claim to your secrets. But if we do become friends, and you learn to trust me, then I hope you will have no scruples against troubling me. You shouldn’t have to bear your pain alone, and I am stronger than I look.

Sister Jubilee gave a dark chuckle, and let her hand fall away from the veil’s edge. “I know you are. You have enough of your own troubles, though. Besides, I’m not really alone.

“I came here tonight to apologize, by the way. I questioned you too harshly when you arrived. I realize that the last thing you needed to hear were accusations of witchcraft.”

“I forgive you. Will you forgive my mistrust?”

I held out my hand, and Sister Jubilee shook it. Her hand was thin and cold, but it no longer trembled.

“I forgive you. Good night, Lady Frey.”

Sister Jubilee stood and opened the door. Lightning flashed, and when the dazzling light had gone, she’d gone with it.

The Coven, Part XLVI

The wind whipped sea-grasses around my ankles as we made our way up the moonless road. The clouds had gathered again and blotted out the stars, and I couldn’t see the path ahead. Even so, Sister Jubilee was able to lead me, sure-footed, up the western slope of the cliffs. She pulled me along so swiftly that I didn’t have time to stumble. As we neared the crest, I looked up and saw a pale, white dome looming in the darkness above.

“To prove my sincerity, you shall have a key to the watchtower,” Sister Jubilee said.

I stopped walking and dropped Sister Jubilee’s hand, staring up at the building. It stood about three stories tall and was painted all in white except for a black mark on the side. As I gazed at the mark, my eyes slowly adjusted and an image coalesced until I could see a black eye staring back at me.

“Sister Jubilee, please- what is this?”

Shhh… wait until we are inside,” Sister Jubilee whispered. She reached into her robes and pulled out a key that, despite the lack of light, glinted silver as it swung on the end of a long chain. She held the end of the chain out to me.

“Open the door,” she said.

I reached out to take the key, and then snatched my hand back.

“You were correct about the advantage of the unexpected. I simply can’t keep up with you. To make matters worse, I cannot even read your expression for clues about your intentions.”

“Trust me- the veil is your asset, not mine. You wouldn’t want to be dazzled by my beauty.”

“I know I shall regret this, but if I don’t do it my curiosity will drive me mad.” I took the key from Sister Jubilee’s hand.

Sister Jubilee only laughed.

On the dark wood door there was a glint of silver- a lock that shone like the key. I turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door, and was almost blinded by the brilliant white light on the other side.

I stepped inside, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, each feature of the room was unveiled. I was standing in a bare entryway, and beyond it there was a circular room with a spiral staircase in the center. The white light shone from a series of glass baubles that circled the ceiling.

I stepped backward. My mind flashed back to the tunnel under bluebell hill, and the baubles that had like lit the way.

“Is something wrong?” Sister Jubilee asked. She closed the door behind us, trapping me inside.

“The lights,” I said.

“Don’t let them scare you. I know that they seem very bright, but they are lit by natural-”

“They are unnatural. Whom do you serve?”

“I’m a free woman who is allied with the oculist guild. I’m not allied with any coven, and, despite how I dress, I do not serve the church.”

I spun to look at her. “What evidence can you offer to assure me of this?”

“Very good,” Sister Jubilee said. “You’re much more clearheaded than you were at the oculist guild meeting. You made a poor impression that night, which was one reason I voted against you.”

“You were present?”

“I certainly was. I was wearing pilgrim robes, and my cowl covered my face, so you wouldn’t recognize me even if I lifted my veil. Still, I remember what happened. Sir Silas was an ass as usual- he voted against me, too- but I think he had a point. There’s no reason women shouldn’t join, but you’re too green. I love Mr. Filius, but he rushed you into initiation before you were ready.”

“You know Mr. Filius?”

Sister Jubilee nodded. “He’s one of my oldest and dearest friends.”

“Who spoke for me, aside from Mr. Filius?” I quizzed.

“Abbess Joy, of course, and if I recall correctly, Trusty did, too.”

I heaved a great sigh and walked further into the library. “That’s enough. I’m sorry to question you, but I’m not in a position to trust easily.”

“You should always question things, no matter your situation,” Sister Jubilee said. “I will probably question you, soon, and far more harshly. I will wait for Abbess Joy to arrive before I do.”

I took a turn about the room, staring up at the baubles. “If the lights are natural, then how to they work? Do they burn oil?”

“They are light-emitting diodes powered by electricity- by lightning,” she stated.

I looked at her, and was again frustrated by the presence of her veil. I could not tell if her expression was serious, or if she grinned.

“Perhaps we are using different definitions of the word ‘natural,’” I said.

Sister Jubilee laughed again. “I’m starting to like you very much, against my will. Lightning is a natural phenomenon- not something flung to the earth by the Gods as the litany states. I’ve seen machines that can generate lightning. We use strands of wire to transfer electricity- lightning- from one place to another, even though these,” she pointed upward, “don’t use wires. Abbess Joy won’t tell me how these lights work, but I know they’re electric.”

“How do you know all this?”

“If you’re initiated into the oculist guild, you’ll learn about the forbidden technologies. We are doing experiments to fill the gaps in our knowledge, but the truth is that we stole most of our knowledge from a prior age- the golden age before the Ancient War.” Sister Jubilee sighed. “There are a lot of gaps, I’m afraid. We only have a tiny summary of what mankind used to know. The church and the angels destroyed most of mankind’s knowledge so we would be dependent on the Gods.”

I could not question Sister Jubilee further. I was interrupted by the loud creaking of the tower door. My heart skipped a beat, but then steadied again when I saw Abbess Joy emerge from the entryway.

“Good evening,” she said serenely, as though we’d met in the refectory instead of a library full of forbidden technology. “I do hope you haven’t been quizzing Lady Frey, Sister Jubilee.”

“Quite the opposite,” Sister Jubilee said. “She’s been demanding all of the order secrets from me, and I’m afraid I’ve spilled most of them.”

Abbess Joy turned to me with an affectionate grin. “Some things never change. You were

always so curious as a child that we could not keep a closed cupboard or basket around you. How often I had to answer your questions, only to have them repeated!”

“How old was I when I came to del Sol?” I asked, and then laughed at the amused look on Abbess Joy’s face. “I still ask questions, I’m afraid, but my memories from that time are very faint.”

Abbes Joy nodded. “Of course- I understand. You were born in the abbey. Your mother’s health went into a sharp decline soon after she married, and your father allowed her to come here so I could nurse her back to health. Unfortunately, none of my healing arts-”

Abbess Joy stopped speaking and looked down her hands.There was a distant look in her eye, as though she were looking into the past.

“My healing arts could not help her. She slipped away from me shortly after she gave birth. But you- you were alive and healthy and beautiful. Before she died, your mother made me promise to care for you, so I kept you at the abbey until the High Priest demanded that you return to your father. You were only four years old.

“I did not trust your father to care for you, especially when you were so young. I tried to persuade your father that you would be in good hands at the abbey, and that you would be protected and well-educated, but he would not allow it. I persuade the High Priest, but he would not be swayed. All the time, I invented illnesses you did not have, and excuses why you could not travel. Soon, my lies gave way to outright rebellion.

“I fought the High Priest- it was my right to protect my sanctuary- but the Gods intervened, and you were taken from me when you were five years old. That was just one of the sins I committed as part of my fall, and for which I now pay penance.”

Abbess Joy looked back up, a wry smile tugging the corner of her mouth. “You can see how well I’m performing my penance, but this-” she gestured around at the well-lit library, “is still within my rights as the sanctuary’s guardian. I am allowed to keep secrets safe, including the forbidden technologies. In the wider world, however, I’ve lost all of my rights and my powers.”

“So that is why the oculists make pilgrimages here,” I said.

“It’s easy for the guild to hide among those looking for healing or spiritual guidance,” Abbes Joy said. “And the guild does find guidance, of a sort.”

“Did I ever return?”

“No. The Gods allowed me to go to your home a year later so I could… examine you,” Abbess Joy said. “I was able to use magic then, with the Gods’ blessings. Afterward, I was sent back to my sanctuary, and I was forbidden from interfering with you again.”

“I get the feeling that you did not obey,” I said.

Abbess Joy smiled- a sad smile that did not reach her wistful eyes.

“I am bound to obey. The Gods have laid a geas on me, and a geas cannot be directly broken. However…”

“You can circumvent a geas by acting indirectly,” Sister Jubilee added.

Abbess Joy looked sharply up at Sister Jubilee, as though she’d forgotten her presence.

Sister Jubilee shrunk back. “This is a rather personal conversation,” she demurred. “I will take my leave.”

“You have not yet questioned me,” I reminded Sister Jubilee. “It’s not fair that I should ask all the questions.”

Sister Jubilee nodded. “I’m afraid you won’t like what I have to ask.”

“She’s only just arrived,” Abbess Joy protested. “She’s been through so much.”

“I must question her as soon as I can because of what’s happened,” Sister Jubilee said firmly.

Abbess Joy nodded. “Very well. Lady Frey, I have some letters from your mother that I would like to give you. I will go through my things and find them. In the meantime, Sister Jubilee will question you on the guild’s behalf.”

 

#

 

The three of us climbed the spiral staircase past a room filled with strange instruments, some of which remained still, and some of which whirred and spun with no hand to move them. There was also a table covered with glass tubes and cups.

We could did not stop so I could examine the instruments, however. Abbess Joy opened a trapdoor on the ceiling and pulled down a ladder that led to the top story. We climbed up, and I found myself in a circular room with a segmented, domed roof. In the center of the room, on a platform attached to a series of levers, was a massive telescope.

I rushed to get a closer look, but I refrained from touching the metallic surface, however smooth and cool it looked. I walked all around the instrument, estimating the size of the aperture and the focal length, and I examined the eyepiece, which jutted from the side of the tube at one end.

“Does the instrument use mirrors to reflect light into the eyepiece?” I asked. “Mine used glass to refract the light- I was eventually able to persuade Mr. Filius to tell me how it worked. But this instrument seems-”

“No!” Sister Jubilee objected. “I’m sorry, but no more distractions. You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you, Abbess?”

Abbess Joy did not reply, but she went to the side of the dome and turned a crank. The segmented ceiling opened up, revealing the infinite black sky beyond. The clouds had thinned just enough to reveal the waning moon, which left wispy shadows in their wake.

“I feel safe here,” Abbess Joy said in a reverent whisper. “When I stand under heaven and look up at that lovely orb, I feel as though there were no sin to mar my past, and no fear to cloud the future.”

There is only the infinity of now,” I recited. “Lord Aston- though I feel the same.”

Abbess Joy turned back to me. Her skin was pale pink in the moonlight, as though she blushed. “I thought you would.”

Sister Jubilee turned her veiled face toward the red moon.

“I always feel a little afraid when I look at the night sky. I feel insignificant. Even so, I always come back to view the heavens again. I must face my own impotence, if I can ever hope to master myself.”

We stood together for a few moments, silent as though in prayer, and then Sister Jubilee turned back to me.

“I have to ask you before I tell you anything more; are you a witch? Have you formed any sort of contract with a coven?”

“I am not a witch.” I said, “and I am not bound by any contract.”

“What evidence can you offer to assure me of this?” She flung my words back at me.

I hesitated. There was one way I could prove myself incapable of witchcraft, but…

“Will you show me your face, first?” I asked.

“No.”

Abbess Joy sighed. “I won’t tell you how, Sister- not until Lady Frey gives me leave- but I can assure you that it’s impossible for Lady Frey to be a witch. I do have evidence for this- not just faith.”

“That will have to do, I suppose,” Sister Jubilee said. “Don’t think I missed your wording, Lady Frey, that you are not bound by any contract.”

I kept my expression neutral and said nothing.

“You must have your reasons for trying to protect those who betrayed your husband, but-”

“Protect them? No- why would you say such a thing? I wish that I could fight everyone who is persecuting my husband, but I have no evidence I can use against them, and no power to use against them. I only have a mad story that no one would listen to, especially when told by a desperate woman.”

“I cannot take you at your word, given Lord Frey’s situation. If you’re consorting with witches you endanger the guild and, more importantly, you endanger Celeste,” Sister Jubilee said in a voice so fierce that I took an involuntary step back. I rallied, however, and raised my own voice.

“For someone so concerned with evidence,” I said, “you are very eager to condemn my husband before he’s had his trial.”

Sister Jubilee stepped back as well, putting a hand on her veil. “I don’t condemn him- I’m not in a position to condemn anyone. But Lady Frey, I’ve seen the devastation that witchcraft can bring. It’s a force that’s wielded blindly by the cowardly and the desperate, who are nearly always taken advantage of by those they contract with. My own family was torn apart by a coven.”

“I understand.” I looked up at the moon again. The clouds had shifted just enough to create a little hole for it to shine through, bright and clear.

“Sister Jubilee, I’m afraid I may bring the danger you fear. I’m not a witch, but I am a target. Father Pius is powerful, he hates me, and I can’t promise I won’t provoke him. I’ve hatched plan after plan to free my husband, and it’s only a matter of time before I go mad enough to try one.”

“All questions of his guilt aside- you really love Lord Frey, don’t you?”

“I love him as he is, sins and virtues alike.”

“I cannot interfere directly,” Abbess Joy said. “But is there any way I can assist you?”

I closed my eyes and thought for a moment. “I cannot leave the abbey, and that presents me with a great challenge. I need to hire an attorney for my husband, someone absolutely trustworthy, and someone who can examine contracts with a skilled eye. My husband’s case may hang upon a forged blood oath.”

“There is a pilgrim staying with us now who is in the guild,” Abbess Joy said, “and he has some contacts among the legal profession in the city. He can find someone for us, I’m sure.”

I nodded. “It will be difficult to coordinate our efforts, but this will have to do. I’m certain that Father Pius expects me to hire an attorney. I can’t neglect to help my husband’s case, but I know this won’t be enough.”

“It never is, in a case involving witchcraft,” Sister Jubilee said.

A shadow fell over us, and when I looked back at the red moon, I saw it was fully hidden behind a veil of clouds.

Part XLVII

The Coven, Part XLV

I went to sleep, and when I opened my eyes again, I was standing on a hill.

There were drifts of snow piled all around me, and when I looked down the hill toward the rolling valley below, everything was blanketed in white. Snow was still falling, but when I looked up, the sky was a clear, endless blue.

I immediately recognized the hills and the valley underneath the snow. I turned around slowly, and behind me I saw bluebell hill cottage, crowned with snow and decked with glittering icicles all around the low eaves.

The cottage door creaked open, and Hope stepped through. He smiled and waved, and then walked toward me as though nothing had ever been wrong.

I couldn’t move- I daren’t even breathe, lest I break the spell. When I’d left Hope behind in the dungeon, he’d been bruised, beaten, and shorn. Now, however, his unblemished skin glowed with health and his eyes glowed with happiness. Snowflakes were tangled up in his long, wavy hair.

“Grace,” he said. “Why do you weep? We are home now- happy and safe together. Nothing can ever separate us again.”

“Is this real?” I asked.

“Come with me, Grace,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let me show you what it means to have a soul. Do you trust me?”

“I do,” I said without hesitation, and I reached out.

In a flash, I was being held in Hope’s arms as we soared effortlessly together through the snow-filled air. Far below, the river was a frosted ribbon that looped through the valley, and the snow-covered hills were empty of flowers and sheep. Everything seemed strangely silent. Even though we were flying, I could hear no wind whistling in my ears. I couldn’t feel the bite of winter in the air, or even the snowflakes that should have blown into my eyes.

I was warm, comfortable, and safe in Hope’s arms.

After a few moments, the sound of church bells echoed over the hills, growing louder by the moment. The bells played a melodic and whimsical tune- it should have been soothing, but instead the sound shook me to my core.

Something wasn’t right. When I looked down, I could see the snow begin to melt, and as the chimes grew louder, the hills themselves seemed to melt away. I felt Hope release me, and when I looked up again I saw that Hope was drifting away from me into the endless blue sky.

I tried to reach out to him, but my arm would not reach. I was falling further and further toward the valley until I could not see him any more.

Then I opened my eyes and the sky, the hills, and the snow were gone.

I was in a small stone cell at the Abbey del Sol, where I’d been sent after Hope was arrested for witchcraft. The cathedral bells from my dream continued; they were the bells of the Cathedral del Sol, calling the pilgrims and the Sisters to prayer.

I looked up at the small portal that was carved into the stone wall over my bed. Outside, the sky was soft pink and purple, and the sun hovered over the strip of blue sea in the west- so the bells I’d heard must be the evening bells. I had slept all day after taking my ill-advised journey with Brother Lux.

I was fully awake, but I could not stir myself. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the beautiful dream I’d had- tried to imagine Hope and myself flying through the air- but I could not. Loss settled like a stone on my chest, and I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed, let alone soar through the sky.

“I want to see if Lady Grace will come, too,” a high voice called outside my door.

“She is sleeping,” another, deeper voice replied.

The door to my cell creaked open, and Celeste crept up to my bed.

“Lady Grace! Lady Grace!” Celeste sang in time to the chiming bells. “Time to wake up! Time to wake up!”

As though Celeste’s simple, childlike song had been a powerful spell, the heavy stone on my chest lightened and I had the strength to push myself up. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“Good morning, Celeste.”

Celeste was standing close to me, wearing a small, white pilgrim’s robe. Her wavy, brown hair was loose around her shoulders, making her look like a minature version of Hope. A veiled sister, whom I guessed to be Sister Jubilee, stood in the doorway behind her.

“It’s not morning,” Celeste protested.

“Celeste, don’t bother Lady Frey,” Sister Jubilee sighed.

“But she’s been asleep all day,” Celeste said, and turned back to me. “Lady Grace, you’re supposed to be the sensible one.”

“You’re quite right,” I said, getting out of bed. “Does this mean that you’re ready to recite your lessons?”

“Not now- it’s time for prayer, and you aren’t even dressed yet.” Celeste took my hand and dragged me to the end of the bed, where a white robe lay folded on top of my trunk.

“Look- Abbess Joy gave you one, too. Hurry and dress, so you can hear Abbess Joy sing. Just wait- she’s wonderful.”

“I will hurry, but I have already heard Abbess Joy sing.”

Celeste frowned. “You have? When?”

I knelt by Celeste and whispered. “She’s sung to me since I was little. You see, Abbess Joy is my guardian angel.”

 

#

 

Celeste’s efforts turned out to be for naught; I had awakened and dressed too late to go to evening prayer. I took Celeste to the refectory where we dined together, and afterward I took her to her room, where she told me everything she had learned under Miss Marin. As she recited her times tables her voice drew low and heavy, her eyelids fluttered, and she finally sighed;

“Nine times six is 54, nine times seven is …63, nine times… nine…”

The ever-present Sister Jubilee pulled up Celeste’s blanket, and I extinguished the light.

After we shut the door, Sister Jubilee gestured for me to follow, and led then me to the center of the abbey’s starburst, where the calefactory lay.

“I must say,” Sister Jubilee said, “you have a peculiar way of putting a child to bed.”

“Do I? I used to recite the times tables to fall asleep when I was her age.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, of course,” Sister Jubilee continued. “I generally mean ‘peculiar’ to be a compliment.”

“I was not offended,” I said. “I don’t consider the term to be either a condemnation or a compliment. The best among us are outliers, as are the worst.”

“True, but there’s always some advantage to be had in defying expectations.”

We had come to the calefactory entrance, where Sister Jubilee paused to open the door and gestured for me to go inside.

The calefactory was a circular room that gave the impression of snugness despite its great size. Like the refectory, there was a huge stone fireplace at each side of the room, but in the calefactory, comfortable, threadbare chairs were crowded around each fireplace. A circular stone table stacked with odds and ends stood in the middle of the room. On the back wall, there was a set of bookshelves that reached so high a rolling ladder was attached to reach the upper shelves.

“The other sisters make confessions to Abbess Joy after prayer. They will be finished, soon.”

“Am I keeping you from confession?” I asked. “If so, there’s no need to-”

Sister Jubilee interrupted me with a wave of her hand. “I never confess. I’ve already achieved perfection, you see, so there’s no point.”

I could not think of a rejoinder to such a remark, so I held my tongue. Sister Jubilee seemed content with no reply. She busied herself by stoking the fire and placing the kettle on the hob.

“There’s still water- good. I don’t want to go to the pump, and you don’t know where it is. Fetch me some cups and the blue teapot from the table- oh- and the red tin, too.”

I fetched the things from the table, and then Sister Jubilee measured some tea from the tin into the teapot.

“You aren’t wearing a veil,” Sister Jubilee remarked as she worked. “I saw Abbess Joy leave one for you.”

“I am not a sister; I didn’t think it would be appropriate.”

“Don’t you worry that a pilgrim or a sister will recognize you?”

“I didn’t come to del Sol to hide from the world,” I said. “I came because Father Pius sent me into exile.”

Sister Jubilee shrugged. “Lord Frey’s arrest has been published- every priest, plebeian, and prince will know his sin and your connection. Abbess Joy can protect you from harm, but not from slander and hate.”

“I can withstand both,” I said, “but if my presence at the cathedral becomes disruptive, I will avoid it.”

Sister Jubilee laughed. “That’s a fine excuse to avoid church. I suspect that you are like me- already perfect.”

A sharp whistle cut through our conversation as the kettle boiled, and at the same time the Calefactory doors opened. Veiled sisters filed inside, one by one throwing back their veils and revealing the faces of Sister Blessing, Sister Love, Purity and Innocence, and four more sisters whom I did not recognize. Mercy followed a few moments later, already bare-faced.

“Have you been to confession, too?” Sister Jubilee asked Mercy, handing her a cup.

Mercy stared down at her teacup for a moment, as though checking it for poison, and then she took a tentative sip.

“If you must know,” Mercy said, “I’ve been scouting the perimeter of the abbey. There’s a clear view of the harbor from the cliffs, and I can see the road that leads into the lowlands, but the road into the hill country is well-hidden. I suggest that Abbess Joy find an opportune place to launch her fireballs from, should the need arise.”

I nearly choked on my own tea. “Fireballs?”

Mercy arched one elegant eyebrow. “You can’t have forgotten the fireballs that Abbess Joy cast at the bandits, last night. She scared me almost to death- I had nightmares about them.”

I thought back to the previous evening, when we had fled a group of bandits on our way to del Sol. Abbess Joy had met us on the road, raised her staff, and everyone had started as though terrified of something. The enemy horses had turned and fled. This, I thought, must have been when Mercy saw the fireballs.

Abbess Joy was a practitioner of holy magic, and my father had used her to test my magical resistance as a child. I was a half-blooded ancient, which meant I was both soulless and immune to the effects of magic. If Abbess Joy’s fireballs had been an illusion, it would stand to reason that I wouldn’t see them.

“Of course I remember,” I said quickly, “but I’m sure that Abbess Joy is familiar with all of the sanctuary’s weaknesses, and can defend them appropriately.”

“She can,” Sister Jubilee confirmed.

The doors opened again, and Abbess Joy entered, followed by Miss Taris.

Miss Taris was wearing the same white robes as the other sisters, but she was barefaced. Her long blonde hair was unbound, and she looked almost as pale and unwell as she had when she had gained her powers. She followed Abbess Joy over to our little cluster of chairs and sank down into a seat, closing her eyes as though in relief.

“Please, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said gently. “Have some tea.”

Miss Taris kept her eyes shut, and for a few moments I thought she must have fallen asleep, but then she heaved another deep sigh.

“It’s quiet here,” she said. “My headache is going away. I think I can manage some tea.”

“I’m sorry to see you are unwell, Miss Taris,” Sister Jubilee said, handing Miss Taris a cup. “Your journey must have been very trying.”

“I hope you didn’t catch a cold,” Mercy said. “I’m feeling perfectly well. How are you, Lady Frey?”

Miss Taris opened her eyes to glare at Mercy, who smiled back.

“Thank you for the tea, Sister Jubilee,” I said, ignoring Mercy’s remark. “I have a letter to write, so I will retire. Miss Mercy, is there anything you would like to include?”

“Just say-” Mercy looked around, and then leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Tell him that I miss him, and that I swear I’ll protect you and Celeste.”

I nodded, stood, and turned to go.

 

#

 

I spent well over an hour composing my letter to Hope. I didn’t know if this letter would be my last opportunity to send him a message, or even if he would receive it at all. I knew that I must be careful not to write anything incriminating, for no doubt the inquisition would read all of his correspondence. My biggest problem, however, was to convey how much I loved and missed him without causing him any pain on my account. I assured him that Celeste and I were safe, but I could not honestly assure him that we were happy.

After wasting too many sheets of paper, I finally settled upon a letter worthy to send. I folded it carefully, but did not bother to seal it. I tucked the letter into my sleeve and went to find Brother Lux.

I hoped I wouldn’t need to go far to find him, but I put up the cowl on my robe in case I had to venture as far as the pilgrim’s quarters. It was a measure that proved unnecessary, as Brother Lux was waiting for me under the cloisters, leaning against one of the white columns.

“I need to return to Rowan Heights tonight,” he said, “but I have a promise to fulfil. I already have Celeste’s letters- all I lack is yours.”

I reached into my sleeve and handed him the letter.

“Lady Frey, I am in your debt. I will do what I can to alleviate your pain-”

“Please don’t,” I said. “Don’t make such promises when it’s in your power to free him. He’s your own brother, and he is no more guilty than you.”

“Lady, it’s not in my power to free him, now. Everything is already in motion, and all I can do is ease his way. I will allow you to correspond with him, but be mindful that the inquisition will read all of his letters. Also…”

Brother Lux paused and gazed over my shoulder, as though distracted.

“What is it?”

“I thought I felt- no, it’s nothing. I wanted to warn you that Abbess Joy is in no position to help you. She can keep you safe as long as you remain at St. Blanc, but she has no authority in the church. Even the Gods will not answer her prayers. She must remain here in penance for her sins. What’s more, if you tell her anything incrementing, she will be obligated to inform the church elders.”

“She wouldn’t-”

“She would, my Lady. I must go now, but I will send a courier with a reply to your note. Until we meet again.”

Brother Lux bowed slightly, and then turned to go.

When he was gone, I heard Sister Jubilee behind me. “He’s only half-lying about Abbess Joy. She can keep your secrets safe, just as she can keep you safe, but she cannot do much more.”

I spun to regard Sister Jubilee, who was striding toward me from the other side of the cloisters.

“How much did you hear?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear anything incriminating, but I already know a great deal about your situation. Don’t worry- your secrets are safe with me. In secrets, there is trust.”

Sister Jubilee laughed at my shocked expression- a sound that seemed too warm and alive for a woman in a shroudlike veil. Then, before I could protest, she took my hand and led me away from the cloisters.

“You don’t trust me at all, do you? Come- I’ll give you one of my secrets.”

Part XLVI

The Coven, Part XLIV

 

 

I reached out and touched the mirror.

In response to my touch, the colored lights shifted and coalesced into an array of different shapes and sigils against a light blue background. I tried touching the mirror again, and this time my finger brushed against one of the sigils- an elaborately scrolled letter R. The image on the mirror changed again, this time showing an unfamiliar room.

A white, overstuffed chair stood at the center of the room facing the mirror, and behind it was a beige sofa and a white wall covered in simple but colorful artwork. The art was drawn with bold lines and bold colors, depicting a girl in a floral dress, a bear holding an apple, and a ship with its white sail spread wide against a blue sky.

I looked behind me, and saw that the white room remained unaltered.

“I’m coming- hold on.” A young woman’s voice rang out from the mirror. “I’ll be right there.”

A few moments later, a woman dressed in nothing but a pair of loose breeches and a tight blue chemise ran into view, and threw herself into the overstuffed chair. She had been carrying a cup, which she stowed somewhere below the mirror’s frame, and then she brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and blinked out at me with an expression of surprise that I thought must mirror my own.

She was a beautiful girl, with neat features, wide brown eyes, and hair of an unnaturally bright red hue, which fell in feathery layers to her shoulders. Her skin was so clear that it seemed to almost glow and her lips were such a deep red I thought they must have been painted with rouge.

The girl shook her hair out of her face, and seemed to regain her composure. “Um- hi. Who are you?”

My mouth went dry as I tried to think of how to respond. Was this girl friendly, or hostile? Could she help, or would she hurt me? I considered fleeing the room, but my legs would not move.

“My name is Raven,” she said in a gentler voice. “It’s ok- I won’t hurt you. I’m so far away that I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted. You’re only looking at a picture-”

“How far? Are you on another world? Are you on the red moon?” The words tumbled from my lips before I could think better of it.

“How do you know about that? Who are you?”

I swallowed hard, cursing myself for my foolishness. I felt as though I were trapped by both fear and ignorance, and I could not think of a useful or convincing lie.

“My name is Grace Ainsworth Frey; I am the wife of Lord Hope Uriel Frey,” I said, curtseying deeply.

“There’s no need to bow or anything,” the girl protested. She ducked her head as though in embarrassment and picked up her cup again.

“So, where is Hope?” she continued. “Sorry- I mean Lord Frey. I sometimes forget how formal you are down there.”

“He’s-” I hesitated. Hope was already in enough trouble with the inquisition- if this girl was a demon, could she make things worse for him? Would she curse him for his betrayal, as well?

“It’s ok,” Raven’s voice took on a more soothing cadence, as though she were speaking to a frightened child. “Just breathe. I won’t hurt you- I swear. Lord Frey is my friend.”

“If you are his friend, would you be willing to help him? If you can, I will take any oath, make any promise, do anything to appease your anger.”

“I’m not angry- why would I be? Tell me what happened to Lord Frey.”

“He’s been arrested,” I said. “He’s being held on charges of witchcraft.”

Raven put her cup down again with a loud clatter. “Holy crap. How did this happen? Shouldn’t Pius and Lux be in charge of the inquisition, now? I’ve been trying to contact Pius for days, but-”

“Father Pius is the one behind it. He said that Lord Frey violated coven law when I-”

“You didn’t reveal our secret, did you?”

“I didn’t. I made a promise never to tell. But I kept my discovery a secret from Pius because I was afraid of him.”

“I don’t blame you for that,” Raven said. She stood up and began to pace back and forth  across the room.

Crap- I can’t do anything from here, and there aren’t many of us on Terra that I can contact. What is that idiot doing?”

“Are you the demon with whom Lord Frey formed his contract?”

Raven stopped pacing and looked out of the mirror once more.

“How do you know so much? Even Lord Frey doesn’t know where I am.”

“I’m an astronomer; I was able to deduce your location.”

Raven smirked. “You know, Pius was worried about you, and now I understand why. The damage is already done, though.

“Listen, Lady Frey- you need to be careful of Pius. He’s more powerful than you know, and he’s cut himself off from his friends, which means he’s betrayed us, and we can’t predict what he will do next.”

“He’s already demonstrated his power to me,” I said, “but as long as he has my husband-”

“You don’t get it; he’s not an ordinary witch. He’s a demon, like me, only much, much stronger. If what you say is true, and he had Lord Frey arrested-”

“Not just Lord Frey- Father Pius had everyone in the coven arrested except for Brother Lux and Mrs. Auber.”

Raven put a hand to her forehead. “Damn. He wouldn’t have cut himself off from everyone unless he didn’t think he needed us anymore.”

“But why would he do such a thing?”

“I wish I knew. Lady Frey, the political situation on Terra is nothing compared to the chaos on the Red Moon. On Terra, you are living with the threat of war, but here war has been waging for centuries between the Angels and Demons. In fact, most of the problems on Terra can be traced to our war. We use the humans as our pawns, I’m sorry to say. I don’t think that Pius wants to join the Angels, because he’s never shown any sympathy to their cause, but I know he wants power. He might even try to take your world from the Gods.””

“Can he do it?”

“Who knows? He’s certainly strong enough to cause chaos. I think that you should lay low. Pius already had his eye on you, so whatever you do, don’t piss him off.”

“If Pius is as dangerous as you say, then I must try to fight him- not only to save my husband and his friends, but to stop him from seizing even more power. This is partially my fault. I must take responsibility.”

“Stop it,” Raven said. “I’ve been helping him from the beginning, so I’m the one who should take responsibility. I wanted to weaken the Gods’ power and loosen their grip on Terra, and I assumed that Pius had the same goals. You seem very brave, Lady Frey, but you need to let me and the other demons handle Pius. I swear that I’ll do what I can to stop him and save your husband.”

I did not trust her words, but all I could say was, “thank you.”

The combination of fatigue and fear had produced a strange state of mind. As I spoke to the girl through the magic mirror, a feat as strange as it was impossible, I felt as though I had drifted into a dream.

Wake up, Grace, I urged myself. Remember why you are here.

“I cannot destroy the mirror,” I said. “If the inquisitors find it, they may use it as evidence against my husband.”

Raven nodded. “I’ll deactivate it from this side. Have the inquisitors found anything else?”

“I don’t think so. Lord Frey’s library was destroyed.”

Raven sighed. “That’s something, at least. Thank you for telling me what happened, Lady Frey. I’ll contact you again if I can find a way.”

“But if you destroy the mirror…”

“There are other points of contact with Terra. But-” Raven paused and gave a small, sad smile. “If I can’t contact you again, tell Lord Frey that I’m sorry, and that it’s been an honor to work with him.”

I nodded. “Goodbye.”

And then the image in the mirror vanished, but I could not see my reflection. The mirror was now a lifeless piece of glass, as black as slate.

 

 

 

#

 

 

Had it all been a dream?

I walked back through the tunnel with only candlelight to guide me. The magic baubles

still hung overhead, but now they were useless glass balls that only reflected the weak light of my candle as I passed.

Speaking to a demon who dwelt on the red moon, learning that Father Pius was a demon, and using magic devices crafted by the demons themselves- how many more strange things would I encounter before I no longer trusted my own senses? Hope’s witchcraft had been difficult to accept at first, but Hope and his friends had eventually confirmed what I saw. Reality was something I could share with others. Now I was alone, and I was certain I had gone mad.

The more I tried to unravel the mysteries around me, the stranger and more mysterious the world appeared.

I paused to compose myself before ascending the ladder to the cottage. I knew that I must not let Brother Lux see that anything strange had occurred, but my resolve to hand him the Frey family writ was wavering.

Before Brother Lux had asked me to help him retrieve the writ, I had predicted that it  would be able to save Hope’s life. Brother Lux and Father Pius were many steps ahead of me in the game, though, and I realized that the writ may have implications I hadn’t anticipated. However, Brother Lux already knew everything about the writ, so I was giving him no new information by handing it to him.

A new thought occurred to me; Raven had warned me not to underestimate Father Pius’s powers. Only the power of a God could break the High Priest’s seal, as far as I knew, but a demon’s power was something beyond my knowledge. If Father Pius could break the seal, he might destroy whatever protection the writ gave Hope.

But if he breaks the seal, it will save Celeste’s soul. Hope would gladly give his life for that.

I took a deep breath and ascended the ladder.

Brother Lux was sitting in a wicker chair by the window. The heavy curtains were pulled back, but Brother Lux was sitting in a shadow beside the patch of soft, pink morning light that filtered inside.

When he saw me, he stood. “Did you get the writ?”

“Yes.” I held it out to him.

Brother Lux stepped into the patch of light and snatched the paper from me. He examined it for so long that I could see the light grow brighter around him as the sun rose. He even tried to tear the corner of the page, as though trying to detect a forgery.

“Thank you, Lady Frey,” he finally said. He clutched the document to his chest and raised his eyes toward the ceiling. “I hope that you will soon know how much good you’ve done. Come- the sun is rising, and we must leave before we are spotted. Take the candle with you; I don’t want to leave any evidence we’ve been here.

Brother Lux carefully closed and locked the cellar door, rolled back the rug, and we departed.

 

 

#

 

 

Abbess Joy met us on the road as we approached del Sol. She took my hand and helped me down from the chaise so we could walk to the abbey together.

“You’re weary and half-frozen,” she said, rubbing my hands. “Please come rest, and promise me you won’t have any adventures for a long while.

“I promise,” I said, too weary to protest.

We walked past the cathedral just as the sisters exited from their morning prayers. Three veiled sisters accompanied by Mercy, Miss Taris, and Celeste, stepped onto our path.

“Aunt Grace! You came back,” Celeste cried.

“A promise is a promise,” I said.

“What in the world are you wearing, Lady Frey?” the second sister said, throwing back her veil.

“Lady Dupuy! You made it here safely.”

“I told you to call me Innocence,” she chided. “And yes, I’m safe. I’m glad that you’re here. When I heard what had happened-”

“Don’t speak of it,” the third veiled sister said in Sister Purity’s high, sweet voice.

“Well, I’m sorry for what happened,” Innocence said, and then smiled more cheerfully. “I found Purity, and here is Miss Taris, even. It looks like all of the ladies are safe, now.”

“Not all,” I said, remembering Lady Willoughby and Chastity. “I wish they were. I wish everyone were safe.”

“Please, Lady Frey,” Abbess Joy said gently. “Excuse us, but Lady Frey really must rest.”

“Of course.” Innocence put her veil back down. “I have to wear this veil if I’m to stay hidden, but I wanted to let you see I am well.”

The other sisters turned to go, but the first, whom I guessed was sister Jubilee, stepped forward.

“Thank you, Lady Frey. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Leave her alone- she needs to sleep,” Mercy said. She stepped forward and took her quarterstaff from my hands. “Go rest, Lady Frey, and welcome back.”

Abbess Joy smiled, took my hand, and led me away from my friends.

 

Abbess Joy and I walked through the gently rolling dunes in silence. I stumbled once or twice from exhaustion, but each time Abbess Joy helped me back to my feet, and waited for me to regain my balance before we continued.

She led me up to the abbey, and we took a shortcut between two buildings and through the stately, white cloisters to the dormitory. Even so, the walk seemed miles further than it had the previous night. As I walked down the dormitory hallway, toward the cell where I’d stowed my things the night before, time almost seemed to slow.

When we finally arrived, I opened the door and approached the cot. I could not lie down, however. Something seemed, though. The bed was too small, and the room too empty. I did not have a hand to hold while I slept.

“Lady Frey? Are you alright?”

“He cannot-” I started to speak, but my voice broke, and I had to begin again. “He cannot sleep without me.”

And finally, too weary to stand any longer, I collapsed to my knees by the bed. Abbess Joy reached out to hold me as tears escaped from my eyes.

“Let yourself cry,” she soothed. “You’ve held your feelings inside for too long.”

A sob broke through, and I felt as though a dam burst in my heart. I wept and wept; I thought I would weep forever. My face grew slick with tears, and my throat was sore from sobbing, but still the weeping continued. Abbess Joy continued to hold me.

After a few minutes, my sobs subsided a little so that I could breathe, but then I saw Hope’s bruised and beaten face in my mind’s eye, and the sobs continued again.

Abbess Joy rocked me in her arms a little as though I were a child, and started to sing a gentle, hauntingly familiar tune.

 

Steady burn the evening stars,

Brilliant as the noonday sun,

Be we near or be we far,

We are one. We are one.

 

When I recognized the song, I was overcome by a fresh wave of tears. It was a song she had sung me as a child- the litany of peace. Abbess Joy’s holy magic failed to calm me, but within the tears, the song, and Abbess Joy’s tenderness, I felt something begin to knit and heal inside of me.

 

Steady fly the birds above,

Here, below, our worries cease,

Listen to my words of love:

Give us peace. Give us peace.

 

Part XLV

The Coven, Part XLIII

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Abbess Joy asked me for the third time.

I had first gone to the dormitory to see Celeste to bed. After the stories, songs, hugs, and promises I would return the next day, Celeste fell asleep. Then I’d gone to my own cell, where my trunk had already been stowed, to prepare for my journey.

Mercy, Abbess Joy, and even Sister Jubilee had followed me, and after I’d refused to tell them where Brother Lux and I were going, they’d crowded into my already cramped cell to try to dissuade me.

“I’m not sure about this, but I must act,” I said to Abbess Joy. I knelt beside the trunk, opened it, and started sifting through clothes.

“I have a better question,” Mercy said. “Have you gone mad?”

“Yes- I possibly have.” I removed one of Hope’s shirts and a woolen waistcoat.

“Why would you go with the man who imprisoned your husband on some mysterious adventure?”

“It may be a fool’s errand, but it may be my husband’s only salvation,” I said. “Given his current chances, this is a move I must make.”

“I can’t protect you if you leave del Sol,” Abbess Joy said quietly. “My magic is bound to this place. If I go into the world without the Gods’ blessings, I am powerless.”

I paused, clutching a pair of breeches. “Thank you, Abbess, but please don’t worry about me. Brother Lux and I are taking a back-road from the cathedral, in the opposite direction from where we met the bandits. As for Brother Lux- if he’d wanted to harm me personally, he’s already had ample opportunity to do so. We will return as soon as we can.”

“I think you should go, Lady Frey.”

Abbess Joy, Mercy and I turned to Sister Jubilee in surprise. I’d begun to see Sister Jubilee as an extension of Abbess Joy, and until now Sister Jubilee had followed her mistress in silence. But when Sister Jubilee spoke, it was in a warm, confident voice almost as surprising as the words themselves.

“You promised Celeste that you would fight to free Lord Frey. I’m glad those weren’t just pretty words.”

“I fail to see how this is any of your concern,” Mercy spat. Then she turned back to me. “Lady Frey, we should discuss this alone.”

“I don’t have time, Mercy. We can talk when I return.”

“There’s no point in talking after you return. At least let me go with you. I promised Lord Frey that I would protect you.”

“Stay here to fulfill your promise. Protect Celeste for him.”

Mercy groaned and left the room as I continued to dress. In a moment, she returned with her quarterstaff, which she thrust into my hands.

“At least take a weapon.”

“I don’t know how to use it,” I protested.

Mercy adjusted my hands, demonstrating the proper grip. “It’s simple-  strike your enemy with it. Aim for the stomach, head, or knees.”

I nodded. “Thank you.”

“No- don’t thank me. I’d rather you didn’t go on any foolish adventures without at least a month’s worth of training- or a year at the rate you’ve been progressing.”

Abbess Joy stepped forward. “Celeste is safe here- I promise. Please reconsider taking Mercy with you.”

I sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but after everything that’s happened, it’s difficult to leave her again.”

Abbess Joy placed her hands over mine. “May the Gods bless you, Lady Frey. Please return unharmed.”

“I will,” I promised.

 

 

#

 

 

I found Brother Lux outside, readying a small, two-person chaise.

“Lady Frey, I hope you are ready to-” he turned and stopped speaking as soon as he saw me.

I was wearing Hope’s clothes- shirt, waistcoat, and breeches, with a wool greatcoat over them. The shirtsleeves had to be rolled back, and the breeches cuffed, but otherwise they fit well enough. I’d tied my hair back with a black ribbon in the dragoon style, completing the effect.

“I trust we won’t meet the bandits again, but they seemed most interested in kidnapping ladies. Hopefully, in the darkness, this will disguise me well enough.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then I will be able to fight more easily than I would in crinolines and stays.”

We climbed into the chaise, and Brother Lux took the reins.

“I thought a small horsecart would attract less attention than a coach-and-four,” Brother Lux explained. “Plus, I dare not bring the coachman along. It will be very cold, I’m afraid.”

“I understand,” I said. “My husband’s coat is very warm.”

We set forth down the pink, moonlit road together. We rode in silence for a time, and then I spoke.

“I’m sorry to ask questions of such a personal nature,” I ventured, “but I am curious about the nature of your relationship with Father Pius.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. How long have you been…”

“For a very long time,” Brother Lux said, “though not long enough. I hope we may have an eternity together.”

“You must share a very strong bond.”

“Our bond is unbreakable,” Brother Lux said. “We are united in our purpose. If you are looking for his weakness, you will not find it in me.”

“If that’s so, then you must know that he hates me, and why,” I said.

The road dipped down slightly, and the path twisted until we came upon a lush, marshy riverbank, where water glittered in the faint moonlight among the shadows of heavy trees. Soon afterward, we turned down a crossroad that ran parallel to the river.

Brother Lux sighed, and then spoke. “Pius doesn’t hate you personally, Lady Frey.”

“He does hate the Ancients,” I said, “and that is enough to affect his feelings toward me.”

“Yes,” Brother Lux admitted. “When did you discover your ancestry?”

“My father told me just before he left court,” I said.

“No wonder you were so shaken that night. It must have come as a great shock.”

“When did you and Father Pius find out?” I asked.

The horses hooves clattered as road grew harder and sloped sharply upward. Brother Lux and I began our ascent into the hill country.

“This river leads us into the valley,” Brother Lux explained. ‘To answer your question- Pius  suspected your Ancient blood when we learned of your magical resistance. After he was coronated, he gained access to the breeding records and was able to confirm his suspicions.I didn’t believe him until he showed me your mother’s record. I should have- he has seen much of the world and its secrets.

“Even so, I found it difficult to believe that you don’t have a soul. I saw fear in your eyes the night you discovered us at the full moon. I heard you crying as I lead you back to the manor, though you’d tried to hide your tears and I’d pretended not to hear. I saw you blush at my brother’s advances, and I watched as the two of you fell in love. Father Pius calls all of this an imitation of life.”

“I saw my mother’s contract,” I said. “I tested the High Priest’s seal, and it was genuine. Plus, as Father Pius guessed, my magical resistance is evidence of my ancestry. Perhaps feelings can exist without the presence of a soul, or perhaps I have a soul, but it is different than yours. How can I explain any of it when I don’t even know what a soul really is, or what it does?”

“You love my brother enough to put yourself at risk; that is not an imitation.”

“I have no point of comparison. I know I feel love, but I can’t feel how you experience the same emotion. I only know that if the pain I feel now is only an imitation, then I couldn’t survive the agony of true pain.”

As I spoke, my fear and my longing for Hope flared to life again- like I’d been prodding an open wound. I fell silent and took a deep breath to steady myself.

The silence stretched on and on as we rode. Marshes gave way to rough grasses, and then the shadows of sharp stones all along the riverbank. Hills rose over the horizon before us.

The red moon was starting to dip a little lower in the sky. I gazed at it, tracing every well-known detail with my eyes, and my mind filled in the features I’d found with my telescope- light-colored mountainous regions near the white streaks known as chastity’s tears, and a dark, heart-shaped area toward the south. I could see the shadow of the moon’s full disk past the gibbous curve of light. The red moon truly was another world.

I should have studied the red moon more while I had my telescope, I thought. After all, it was a world closely tied to magic, and it was the closest world to my earth- a world that Mr. Filius had once called Terra. The Coven’s abilities were tied to the moon’s phases, and even the stolen book had hinted that the moon was connected to magic.

If the red moon really is a world like my own, I wondered, then what sort of creatures populate it? Is it populated by the demons themselves?

It was a fleeting thought- silly, even- but as soon as it crossed my mind, something clicked into place like the missing piece of a puzzle. I remembered a question I’d asked myself in Father Pius’s office- why had Father Pius really destroyed my treatise?

To hide the truth that Terra is one world among others.

Father Pius was the High Priest of a coven, and possibly the most powerful witch in the world. I realized that he must hold magic secrets unknown to the others, such as why the red moon controls magic, and where the demons they contract with dwell. If the new moon was a point of weakness, he might wish to hide it, and if he had contracted with a demon, he must be bound to protect its home.

My heart started to pound, and I looked away from the red moon to the dark scenery around me. My idea was mad, but it fit all of my evidence so well that I could not dismiss it. If it was true, it was the most dangerous secret I’d ever uncovered.

I turned my face away from Brother Lux, afraid he might see the light of discovery in my eyes.

 

 

#

 

 

When we reached the base of bluebell hill, Brother Lux stopped and tied the horse to a nearby tree. Then we ascended the hill on foot.

There were no bluebells growing on the hill, now. The slope was covered by a thin layer of frost, which glistened like fresh blood in the moonlight. The frost was so slick that I was obliged to brace myself with Mercy’s quarterstaff as I climbed.  

When we reached the crest of the hill, Brother Lux led me down a shadowed path underneath the eaves of the cottage- the same path I’d walked the night I’d discovered the coven. He motioned for me to wait for him under the eaves as he went forward to unlock the door alone. Then he gestured for me to follow him inside, and I moved under the shadow of the eaves until I reached the door.

I went inside, shut the cottage door, and placed Mercy’s staff against the wall while Brother Lux rolled back a braided rug from over the cellar door. Then he took a key ring from his pocket and undid all of the locks along the door’s edge.

“As you can see,” Brother Lux said, opening the cellar door and gesturing to the door’s underside, “my brother has covered the wood in magic sigils. I’ve tried to remove them, but they don’t seem to be written in ordinary ink. While they remain, there’s no way into the tunnel.”

I looked carefully at the door’s underside, but even in the sparse pink moonlight that filtered through the muslin curtains, it was plain to see that the wood was unblemished. Underneath, I could see the rough wood ladder that led into the tunnel.

“Brother Lux, I’m growing tired of your games,” I said.

He looked up sharply. “Do you refuse to help me?”

“How can I help you? There’s nothing on the door. The ladder into the tunnel is intact, and though it’s too dark for me to see very far, there don’t seem to be any blockages.”

“What- you can actually see a tunnel?”

“Of course I can- it’s right here.”

“All I see is a flat stone floor underneath a trap door, Lady Frey.”

I sighed in frustration. “Watch me.”

I swung my legs onto the ladder and climbed down into the tunnel. Brother Lux cried out in astonishment and stumbled back, his eyes searching all around as though he could no longer see me.

“Just put your arm through- you will feel the ladder,” I said.

Brother Lux continued to stare, but did not reply.

I climbed back up, and Brother Lux stumbled backward again as I emerged from the tunnel.

“Lady Frey,” he said, straightening his robes as though to regain his composure, “please warn me the next time you decide to pass through a stone floor.”

“I spoke to you before I ascended, but you didn’t hear.”

Brother Lux crawled forward and placed his hand over the tunnel’s entrance, waving it back and forth as though brushing a flat surface.

“It’s all in your mind,” I said. I took his hand and tried to force it through the tunnel entrance, but his hand would not budge.

“The seal is very well done- it blocks light and sound, and it cannot be forced.”

I dropped Brother Lux’s hand and sat back. “I don’t think I can actually break the seal; it simply doesn’t affect me. I will have to go through the tunnel alone.”

Brother Lux nodded grimly. He went to the window and drew a heavy curtain across the muslin, and then went to the shelves that were built into the back wall. When he returned he was carrying a candle, carefully shielding its light with his hand.

“Do you know where to find the writ? Will you be alright?”

“I can find the writ; only time can tell if I will be alright.”

 

 

#

 

 

I climbed back into the tunnel and began the lonely walk to the hidden room.

I was shocked to find that, after a few steps, the tunnel flooded with light. I looked up and saw that the magic baubles that hung overhead had lit themselves, as though to welcome me.

A shiver ran down my spine. The last time I’d gone into the tunnel with Hope, he’d promised me that the demons could not hurt me. But, I thought, if their magic could react to my presence, then he might be wrong.

I took a deep breath and continued, undeterred.

My own fears were the only things that accosted me on my walk down the tunnel. The lights occasionally flickered, and my footsteps echoed through the cavern, but no demon appeared, and no one awaited me when I reached the white room.

The room had altered very little since the last time I’d seen it. It was still bare of architectural embellishment, and still sparsely furnished. The most prominent object in the room was the magic mirror, where colored light shifted and danced in mesmerizing patterns.

I had expected the room to be ice cold, but a rush of warm air greeted me as I stepped over the threshold, though I could see no hearth and no fire. I took off Hope’s coat and draped it over a white chair, and then placed the candlestick on the floor. Hope’s silver trunk, embossed with the strange circle, was still in the corner, but next to it was a new object; a black trunk embossed with the initials G.A.F.

Before Hope and I had left for St. Blanc, I’d asked Hope to find a secure place for my telescope, and he had secured it well, indeed.

I opened the silver trunk and found two documents, the writ of condemnation and the blood oath I’d made with Hope. I stuffed the blood oath into my pocket, thankful for Hope’s foresight in hiding it, and examined the writ.

The ink still glittered black and fresh against white parchment, and the High Priest’s seal remained intact. I hesitated for a moment. Though I had already agreed to help, it was proving difficult to take the writ back to Brother Lux now that I had it in my possession. What if he used it against Hope- to prove that Hope had every reason to defy the church?

But Brother Lux is a Frey, too,  I thought. If the writ can be used against Hope, it can be used against Brother Lux.

Reason held little sway with me in my present state of mind. The anxiety that had been building as I’d walked through the tunnel alone had reached its peak, and now dangerous possibilities flared to life in my mind, refusing to be snuffed out.

What if I had destroyed Hope’s seal by coming into this cavern? What if the inquisitors bypassed Hope’s seal altogether, and dug their way in? The inquisitors, lacking my ancient blood, would at least be able to see the sigils Hope had drawn on the cellar door. If they knew that the sigils were magical in nature…

“Don’t give in to despair,” I told myself aloud. “Do what you can.”

I looked around me, wondering how I could hide or destroy evidence of magic in case the inquisitors did force their way in. My telescope, while not magic, was a heretical object, so I removed it from the black trunk and placed it in the silver one. If there was a magic seal on the silver trunk, the inquisitors might not be able to open it.

I looked up at the most damning object in the room- the magic mirror with its dancing lights. I hesitated, for it seemed a shame to destroy something so beautiful, but I knew it must be done.

I reached out and touched the mirror.

 

Part XLIV

The Coven, Part XLII

Abbess Joy and her attendants led our carriage to the end of the moonlit road, where the cathedral stood stark and white against the black sky.

“The abbey is behind the cathedral, near the dunes,” Abbess Joy said, pointing into the dark distance. “The path through the dunes is narrow, so we must go by foot.”

“I’ve never been as far as the abbey,” Brother Lux said. “Is the walk difficult? Miss Taris is unwell.”

“I’m well,” Miss Taris contradicted. Brother Lux had helped her out of the carriage, but as soon as she was on the ground she had snatched her hand back and stood on her own.

Mercy jumped down from the box and stood beside me, and coachman turned away from the conversation to tend to his horses. Abbess Joy gazed at our party with a calculating light in her bright eyes.

“I would usually call it an easy walk- pleasant, even, as there is a lovely view and a sea breeze that sweeps up from the bay. However, it’s dark now, and the wind is very cold. Sister Blessing,” she turned to the tallest of her attendants, who stepped forward. “Please help Miss Taris. Sister Love can lead the way.”

Miss Taris heaved a heavy sigh, but allowed Sister Blessing to take her arm while Sister Love lifted a lantern to light the way. Brother Lux and Mercy fell into step behind them, and Abbess Joy and I followed.

We walked on a gravel path around the side of the cathedral, past a row of stained glass that glittered on the cathedral wall. Behind the cathedral there was a small courtyard, where I could hear a fountain tinkling in the darkness. There were no lamps in the courtyard, but the gibbous moon lit the dying shrubs and dry grasses.

We passed through a creaking courtyard gate and onto a sandy path that wound through a tangle of grass and brambles. As we walked, there were fewer and fewer brambles and more and more sand, and soon the path took us between mounds of sand crowned in pink moonlight. Beyond the dunes I could see the churning, dark sea that seemed to stretch out forever.

“Have you ever seen the ocean?” Abbess Joy asked in a low voice.

Abbess Joy and I slowed our steps, allowing the party to go ahead of us a little as we talked.

“No- well, yes. I think I saw it, long ago, but it may have been a dream.”

“You did see it,” she whispered. “Try to remember.”

“It was warm,” I said. I pulled my pelisse tighter around me against the frigid salt air. “I was running my fingers through the sand. Someone was with me.”

I looked up to Abbess Joy, who was watching me intently through the darkness.

“I have many dim memories from my early childhood,” I said carefully. “I may need help to bring them into harmony with one another.”

Abbess Joy smiled and nodded. ”I will help in any way I can.”

We fell silent and quickened our steps to catch up to the others.

“The abbey is close,” Sister Love said, her voice slightly muffled by her veil. She pointed to a set of low buildings that were clustered together behind the dune’s soft shadows.

The path sloped back uphill, and soft sand gave way to gravel that crunched underfoot. The buildings jutted out at odd angles from each other, like sunrays that led to a central point.

“Sisters, please take Miss Taris and Miss Mercy to the dormitory so they can get settled. Lady Frey, Brother Lux, and I will meet you in the refectory soon.”

“I’m staying with Lady Frey until I’m certain she’s safe,” Mercy said firmly.

“Very well. Please follow me.”

The party separated, and Abbess Joy led Brother Lux, Mercy and me up a short set of steps to the first building in the starburst.

“This is the Abbot’s hall, and if you follow the buildings clockwise you will find the kitchen, refectory, library, dormitory, and infirmary. The calefactory is in the center. The work house and stables are at the pilgrim’s cloister on the other side of the cathedral.”

Abbess Joy opened the door to the first building, and then led us down a hallway lined with lamps that glared off of the black and white tiled floor. At the end of the hallway was a door, where Abbess Joy stopped and knocked.

In a few moments, a veiled sister opened the door.

“Good evening, Sister Jubilee,” Abbess Joy said. “Lady Frey and Brother Lux have arrived.”

The sister started back, and then turned her veiled face toward me in silence. After a few moments, she stood aside to let us in.

As soon as my feet hit the threshold, I saw Celeste. She was sitting on a stone hearth at the back of the room, clutching her golden-haired doll to her chest. She looked up, and when she saw me she dropped the doll to the ground and ran to me. I knelt down, and she threw herself into my waiting arms.

“Aunt Grace- you’re here at last,” she said, squeezing my neck with her skinny arms. “Miss Milton told me the most awful things. She said that Uncle Hope and Uncle Just and all of their friends have been taken away, just like Mother was. Soldiers came to Rowan Heights, and I had to go away. Miss Morton said that Uncle Hope would probably-”

Celeste let out a choked sob, and said nothing more.

“You’re safe, darling,” I said, holding her tighter. “I’m here, now. Listen, I spoke to your Uncle Hope just before I left.”

She sniffed and leaned back to look at me. “You saw him?”

“Yes, I did. He is strong, and we’re doing everything we can to free him.” I took a handkerchief from my pocket, removed Celeste’s spectacles, and dried her eyes. “He wanted me to tell you that he loves you very much, and that he wants you to be brave. Can you be brave for him?”

“Yes. I love him, too.” She pulled away from me and turned to Brother Lux. “Are you going to help, too? Can you tell Uncle Hope and Uncle Just that I love them?”

Brother Lux hesitated, shrinking a little from his niece’s innocent, pleading gaze. Then he smiled and nodded.

“Lady Frey means to send a letter back to Lord Frey. so if you wish to include letters to your Uncle and Godfather, then I will convey them all personally.”

“Thank you,” Celeste said with a small curtsey.

Brother Lux bowed in return, and then spun and quickly left the room.

Celeste gestured to me, and I cleaned closer. She cupped her hand over my ear and whispered. “I can be brave because I’ve just learned that miracles are for real.”

Celeste stood straight and put her finger to her lips before I could ask what she meant.

“Lady Grace,” she said. “I’m glad you are still wearing your spectacles.” She took her own spectacles from me and put them back on, and then turned to Sister Jubilee.

“I told you she would remember, didn’t I, Sister Jubilee?”

“I wouldn’t forget,” I said. “A promise is a promise.”

Celeste threw her arms around my neck, again. “If only Uncle Hope could have come with you! I miss him so much.”

Tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away before Celeste could see. “He misses you too, darling,” I said thickly.

I held Celeste for a moment in silence, and then Abbess Joy stepped forward.

“Miss Celeste, I’m sure you must be tired and hungry. Let’s all go to the refectory together.”

Celeste nodded and took my hand, and then she turned and offered her other hand to Sister Jubilee. Sister Jubilee stepped forward at once and took her hand.

“I couldn’t go without her,” Celeste explained. “Sister Jubilee is like my guardian angel.”

 

 

#

 

 

A simple repast of bread, cheese, and vegetable stew awaited us in the refectory, which proved far more satisfying than the cakes and jellies I had eaten at the palace. For the first time in days, I had an appetite- possibly from the physical exertion of fighting the bandits.

The refectory was largely empty, since most of the sisters had already retired. Our small party sat at one end of a massive wood table that took up most of the room. There were fires blazing in the two great fireplaces set into the rough stone wall, filling the room with warmth and comfort.

Sister Love, Sister Blessing, and Abbess Joy removed their veils to eat. Sister Jubilee, who sat on the other side of Celeste, kept her veil on and refused all offers of food. Miss Taris barely touched her own food, though Abbess Joy pressed her.

“Just drink the broth, Miss Taris. It will help.”

“No- I just want to sleep,” Miss Taris said.

“You’ve had too much excitement today,” said Brother Lux, who had been awaiting us in the refectory when we’d arrived.“I wouldn’t advise that you take any tea- just water mixed with a little wine so you can sleep.”

“I’m glad to hear you speak like a physician,” Abbess Joy said. “I was under the impression that you had given up the vocation.”

“I will always be a healer,” Brother Lux replied. “But right now, the High Priest has another use for me.”

“And you would never refuse him?”

“No- never,” Brother Lux said resolutely.

“Please excuse me,” Miss Taris said, standing. “I shan’t have any more. Goodnight, and thank you, Abbess Joy.”

Miss Taris curtsied and turned to go, almost colliding with another sister on her way.

“I beg your pardon,” the sister said in a soft voice, and then bowed to Miss Taris as she departed. The sister turned to Abbess Joy and removed a folded paper from the sleeve of her robe.

“Abbess, we’ve received a message from Father Pius. It’s for Brother Lux. May I…”

“Of course,” Abbess Joy said.

The Sister turned to Brother Lux, bowed, and held out the paper, which Brother Lux took.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” the Sister said.

Something in the sweet, high tone of the voice spurred my memory. “Lady St. Croix, is it you?”

“I am Sister Purity,” she corrected before departing.

Brother Lux broke the seal on his letter and read.

“Abbess, would it be possible for me to be quartered near Lady Frey and Miss Celeste?” Mercy asked.

“Certainly,” Abbess Joy said. “I’ve prepared the cells in the dormitory’s new wing for your arrival. There is plenty of room.”

“How did you know to prepare the rooms?” Mercy asked. “We didn’t know we would come until two days ago, and there was no time to send word ahead of us.”

“To be honest, I had prepared a place for Lady Frey when I learned she was going to St. Blanc.” Abbess Joy turned to me. “I know your father, Lady Frey, and I feared that, in his ambition, he would seek to exploit you in some way. I-”

Abbess Joy’s voice hitched, but she took a deep breath and smiled, regaining her composure.

“I’m glad you’ve found your way to del Sol, Lady Frey.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” I replied, “for helping us on the road, and for giving us a place here-”

“Please do not thank me. This is a sanctuary open to all who are troubled, and you- you must think of this as your home.”

“Lady Frey,” Brother Lux interrupted. “Before you settle here, I have a favor to ask.”

“A favor?” I repeated, taken aback.

“This is a delicate matter; may we discuss it in private?”

For a moment no one spoke. Celeste dropped her spoon and looked back and forth between the adults, as though sensing the tension.

Finally, Abbess Joy spoke. “Can it wait until morning?”

“I’m afraid not,” Brother Lux said. “This is of vital importance.”

“If Lady Frey agrees to speak with you, I will give you the use of my private study. I will be close by, however,” Abbess Joy added with a severe look at Brother Lux.

“Mercy, will you stay with Celeste? I won’t be long,” I said.

“Be careful,” Mercy said, and then she held out her hand to Celeste.

“Come Celeste- If you get ready for bed, I will tell you about the bandits we fought on the road.”

“Mercy! No,” I protested.

Celeste’s attention, however, was already captured. “Bandits? What bandits?”

“There were six of them, just up the road,” Mercy said. “Lady Grace fought two of them at once.”

“Don’t tease me. I’m too old to fall for silly stories,” Celeste said. She held her free hand out to Sister Jubilee, who took it and followed Celeste and Mercy from the table.

“It’s the truth…”

“Don’t worry,” Abbess Joy said gently as I watched the three of them go. “Celeste could not be in safer hands than Sister Jubilee’s. She has been my assistant for almost two years, and even before that I had intimate knowledge of her character.”

“I trust you,” I said.

 

 

 

#

 

 

Abbess Joy escorted Brother Lux and I back to the Abbott’s hall, to the same office where I’d been reunited with Celeste.

“I will wait here, outside the door,” she said with a warning glance toward Brother Lux.

“I’m sure I needn’t remind you of your obligation to remain neutral,” Brother Lux said, meeting her gaze.

“I have the right to protect my sanctuary and everyone within,” she replied.

Abbess Joy left the room and shut the door behind her. Brother Lux turned toward the door and raised his hand.

“Silence,” he said. Then he turned away from the door and paced toward the great stone fireplace.

“You need only touch the door to break my spell,” he said, warming his hands. Then he turned to me and took a packet of paper from inside his robes. “I need your help, Lady Frey. Our plans have hit a roadblock, and your assistance is vital to Lord Frey’s safety.”

“His safety?” I said incredulously.

“Yes. As an act of good faith, I will tell you two secrets before I ask my favor. First, the deductions you have made are correct- I do not intend for my brother to die. I won’t tell you how or why, but Father Pius and I are manipulating the trial.”

“This is madness,” I said. “If you wish him to live, then set him free.”

“Everything has already been set in motion, Lady Frey. Even so, everything Father Pius and I are doing is for the greater good. I don’t expect you to understand, but please believe that I love my brother, and I wouldn’t sentence him to death for anything.”

“How can I believe you, after what you’ve done?”

The papers in Brother Lux’s hands were tied with a leather strap, and Brother Lux’s fingers fumbled a bit as he untied the knot. He handed me a letter from the top of the stack.

“If I’m lying, then you may use this weapon to destroy me.”

I took the letter and opened it. It was written in an unfamiliar, spidery script.

“My Dearest Lux,” I read. “It has been too long since we’ve been alone together. I long to feel your arms around me, to feel your lips against mine, to feel your-”

My face grew hot, and I was unable to read the next words aloud.

“I am sorry to show a letter of such a personal nature to a Lady,” Brother Lux said, “but it is the best evidence to use against us.”

I skimmed the letter, and at the bottom I saw the signature.

 

Forever Yours,

Pius

 

My cheeks still burned, and for a time I didn’t know what to say. I had only skimmed the letter, but that was enough.

“You and Father Pius-”

“-are lovers, yes. We’re even more than lovers, truth be told.”

“But you are both men.”

Brother Lux put a hand to his face, trembling. He was silent for a moment, and then he let out a short bark of laughter, followed by another, and another. He dropped his hand, and I understood he had not been trembling at all, but shaking with laughter.

“How could you laugh at a time like this?” I demanded. “If you just came here to laugh at me, then I will go.”

“No wait- please. I don’t mean to jest. This is nervous laughter, more than anything. I had prepared myself for your disgust and condemnation. I was ready to counter your threats and negotiate our next move. I forgot how young you are, and how sheltered you have been.

“You see, Lady Frey, common sins are shouted down from the pulpit, but some sins are only whispered about behind closed doors, and never spoken of in polite company. My sin with Father Pius is one of the latter.”

“Why?”

“Who can explain the Gods’ laws?” Brother Lux said with a shrug. “They are absolute. The fact that I’ve broken my vows to take a lover is bad enough, but the fact that my lover is a man is a sin worthy of death.”

I folded the letter. “If your sin is so grave, then why did you give this to me? I could use this evidence to blackmail or destroy you.”

“That’s more like it,” Brother Lux said with a lopsided grin so reminiscent of Hope’s that I had to turn away. “I gave you this letter to force a stalemate. If you use this letter to remove Pius and I from power now, then the inquisition will kill your husband without so much as a trial, like they have acted under prior High Priests. If I fail and allow your husband to die, then you will have nothing to stop you from using that letter to destroy me.”

I closed my eyes to block out distractions, but it only reminded me of how tired and sore my eyes were. I was too exhausted to think clearly, but I knew Brother Lux wouldn’t grant me the luxury of a night’s sleep before we continued. Despite his gentleness, Brother Lux was proving to be as difficult an opponent as Father Pius.

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“There is a document that my inquisitors were searching for at Rowan Heights- a document that might save your husband’s life- but they were unable to find it. I suspect that it may be hidden in a tunnel under bluebell hill, but it’s a tunnel the inquisitors must not find. Unfortunately, my brother placed a magic seal on the tunnel’s entrance, and I don’t know how to break it.”

“You want me to break the seal for you,” I said. “The document you’re searching for is the Frey writ of condemnation, isn’t it?”

“Yes. My brother told you about our curse?”

“He showed me the writ himself. He’d thought that I might be able to break the High Priest’s seal, but I couldn’t. I may not be able to break the seal on the tunnel.”

“You can- it’s not like the High Priest’s seal. It’s only an advanced magic sigil.”

“I need to think,” I said. I turned and began to pace the room.

“This must be done soon- before the inquisitors venture to the cottage. We must not be seen.”

I closed my eyes again and thought.

Father Pius’s love note might have been a forgery, and yet I had noticed before a strong affection between Father Pius and Brother Lux that seemed beyond friendship. I remembered that I had seen them dance together the night of the coven’s revelry.

“Show me where it is written that your love is worthy of death,” I said.

I turned back to Brother Lux, who nodded. He went to a heavy, giantwood bookcase that stood beside the fireplace and removed a large leather tome.

“Volume 2 of the unabridged Litany,” he said, handing me the book. “It’s in the book of natural order, cadence 3, verse 12.”

I opened the book, flipped to the verse, and read aloud.

 

Beyond man’s hubris are other sins,

Against the nature bound within,

Eros between women, between men,

The stain of death shall lie therein.

 

I closed the book. “If I go with you, then how long will we be away?”

“It’s only a few hours by carriage to the hill country from here. I know a shortcut that runs through the valley. If all goes well, we should be back by noon tomorrow.”

I sighed deeply, and then turned to hand the book back to Brother Lux.

“I have a bad habit of overestimating my own abilities, and I regret all of the clever plans I’ve made so far. But you have forced my hand. Please don’t make me regret helping you.”

Part XLIII