The Coven, Part LXIII

Discussions on parallax had so inspired Prudence that when we returned to the calefactory, she found a stack of paper left over from the cathedral decorations, a lump of charcoal, and immediately sat to give Celeste a drawing lesson.

“Draw what you see,” she explained to Celeste, gesturing to a small block of wood on the table. “Don’t draw what you expect to see. What angle do the lines on the side of the block appear to make as they go into the distance?”

Celeste adjusted her spectacles and leaned forward as she examined the wood block. Prudence demonstrated by slowly and deliberately sketching the block on her own paper, making lines with long, elegant strokes, and then deftly filling in the shadows.

I had drawn the cube on my own paper- it was a passable representation, as most of my drawings were, but it possessed none of the subtle depth Prudence had demonstrated in her simple still life.

I pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and began another sketch.

“If I get very good at drawing, I will make some nice ones and give them as Chaosmas presents for everyone,” Celeste said. “Grandmaman had presents and dinner on Chaos night, so it all blended together with my birthday. Will we do my birthday and Chaosmas separately, again?”

“It will be difficult to separate them entirely,” Prudence said. “There is a long service on Chaos night at the cathedral, and the Pilgrims will perform a pageant to mark the final battle of the Ancient War. Then, on Chaosmas, there is a feast in the pilgrim’s quarters. Even so, I promise we will do something special for your birthday.”

I had been sketching the airship from memory. As stark as it had appeared over the horizon, it was almost as simple an object as the block I’d drawn before. I drew the ropes and the ship’s frame, adding complexity to evoke the surprise I’d felt on first viewing the alien object.  But within my drawing the airship seemed to have a natural home on the plain- like a ship on the sea. When I placed Prudence in the foreground, looking up at the ship, she took prominence in the scene.

I sat back to examine her likeness, and let out a sigh of frustration. I had drawn a woman with a round face and wide smile, who otherwise bore very little resemblance to Prudence. I was not able to properly convey the merry crinkles about her eyes, instead creating an effect that made her look fatigued. I was completely unable to express the brilliance of her complexion in the sunlight using nothing but charcoal. I took out another sheet and began again.

“Are you sure that we will be able to celebrate my birthday if the sisters are all so busy?” Celeste was saying in a skeptical voice.

“I’m quite certain,” Prudence said with a knowing smile. “But on Chaosmas day, you will have double lessons to make up for the day of study you missed.”

“Oh! You wouldn’t,” Prudence looked at me, distraught.

“Of course not, Celeste- your mother is teasing, but I do have some bad news. I promise that I will be here to celebrate your birthday, but I will be away on Chaosmas day.”

Prudence put down her charcoal and looked up in surprise.

“Lady Grace- why? Everyone says it will be such fun,” Celeste said.

“There is a very kind woman named Dare who guards the shrine where my mother is buried,” I explained. “Because she is a slave she cannot leave- even to come to the cathedral. She will be alone on Chaosmas unless I go to visit.”

“How sad!” Celeste said. She put down her charcoal and came to put her arms around my neck. “In that case, I’m glad that you are going. Please give Dare and your mother my love.”

“I will,” I promised, glad I needn’t explain further. In truth, I could no longer bear to celebrate the end of the Ancient War, which heralded the slaughter and enslavement of my mother’s people.

“Why must some people be slaves?” Celeste asked as she returned to her seat.

Prudence and I sat in silence for some time, stunned by the sudden question. Then Prudence spoke.

“It is the will of Order,” she said.

“But- why does he will it? It doesn’t seem fair,” Celeste said.

“I don’t know,” Prudence said softly.

“I’m going to pray to Order,” Celeste said resolutely. “I will tell him how nice Trusty and Dare are. If he knows, he might decide to free them.”

“I hope-” I hesitated and took a deep breath. “I hope he hears your prayers.”

Celeste put a finger to her face in thought, smudging her cheek with charcoal. “It makes me wonder- if Order doesn’t listen to my prayer, and if Reverence and Chastity don’t help, should I still pray to them? I stopped talking to Uncle- to Brother Lux because he isn’t helping Uncle Hope.  But Brother Lux is working for Order, just like the people who took Mother away. It makes more sense that Order is really at fault.”

Celeste sighed. “Abbess Joy works for Order, though, and she helps people. She told me that the people who arrest and enslave others aren’t listening to Order properly- that Order just wants everyone to work together for everyone’s happiness. Am I being terribly wicked when I ask questions about the Gods?”

“Never stop asking questions- no matter the subject,” Prudence said. “Sometimes it’s best to ask quietly, because bad people will imprison others just for thinking. If you stop asking questions, though, these same people may take advantage of you and tell you lies.”

“I see,” Celeste said. She turned to me, “what do you think, Lady Grace?”

“I do not know the Gods, like Abbess Joy,” I said. “But I know it’s better for people to cooperate than to be forced to work. I will never condone slavery.”

The calefactory doors opened, and I hid Prudence’s portrait under some other papers.

“I am sick of morning prayers,” Innocence said as she entered the room, followed closely by Miss Taris. “I think I shall skip it with you from now on.”

Miss Taris sat down without a word and picked up a basket of needlework, and the rest of us followed suit- working or drawing quietly until the door opened again. Sister Love burst in on the quiet scene with a merry laugh, bearing a very large crate in her arms. Mercy followed soon after with a smaller crate, which she placed on the floor next to the first.

“What’s all this?” Prudence asked.

“We have an anonymous benefactor,” Sister Love said. “Someone left us a very large donation. Not only did it cover the Abbey’s end -of-year expenses, but there was enough leftover to provide for some of the poor families who live nearby and for the pilgrims who are most in need. We are arranging baskets for them now with medicine, preserves, and small pouches of money.”

“There’s some yellow paper left over from the decorations. May I make terra flowers to put in the baskets?”

“Of course,” Sister Love replied. “Thank you, Miss Celeste.”

“I wonder who the benefactor was,” Prudence said, peeking into the largest crate. “They must have been quite wealthy, to have given so much. Why wouldn’t they say who they are, and gain credit to their name?”

“There was a note with the donation,” Sister Love said. She leaned over and began to unload the largest crate. “But all it said was ‘thank you for everything,’ and there was no signature. Sister Blessing is convinced that the hand is feminine.”

“There was a gentlewoman who came here a few months ago,” Prudence said. “The doctors in Verdant city could do nothing for her infant, but Abbess Joy was able to cure him. Perhaps the gentlewoman is the one who made the donation.”

“That seems likely,” Sister Love agreed. Then she opened the smaller crate, doled out baskets, and we all set to work.

 

#

 

I spent the rest of the day assisting Sister Love as usual, and retired soon after dinner. Miss Taris followed me, and sat reading in her room with the door open once more. I poured the potion Brother Lux had given me into a cup of tea, and then settled in to work on my treatise.

Brother Lux had been correct about the effects of the potion; I remained awake and alert the whole night. In fact, I felt even more focused than usual, and I easily finished plotting the movements of both Lystra and Miriam. The night grew old, but my eyes remained fresh and clear enough to check my fork for errors.

At four o’clock I put my treatise away and extinguished my lamp. I peeked out into the hallway, where it was dark and silent. Miss Taris’s door was still open, but her lamp was extinguished, and when I leaned close enough I could hear her steady, rhythmic breathing. I crept past her door and made my way through the hall and out the dormitory doors.

Outside, the night was still a clear, velvety black. Lystra, which had seemed merely theoretical moments before, shone clear and bright as it hung low in the east, heralding the coming dawn. I took just a moment to admire the stars, and then turned away and rushed to the tower.

The tower was unlit when I arrived, and  I was certain that I would be alone. However, when I entered and the lights turned on, I could hear voices above. A few moments later, Honest appeared on the spiral staircase.

“You’ve escaped!” he said eagerly when he saw me. “Come upstairs quickly- I wish to show you my experiment.”

He beckoned me to follow, and I ran upstairs to keep up. When I arrived in the laboratory, I saw that the table where Prudence usually worked was covered in new equipment. Various glass tubes were lined up on one side of the table, and at the head of the table was another box, where a glass tube had been placed in the center. Across from the box with the glass tube, at the foot of the table, there was a metal box with a slit on one end and a round opening on the other end. Prudence sat on a stool at the back of the room, balancing a notebook on her knees.

“This,” Honest said, proudly gesturing to the metal box, “is my spectroscope. There is a slit here, for the light to enter, and a prism , which splits the light into its component colors.”

“A rainbow-maker,” I said.

“Exactly. It’s my third spectroscope- I’ve had to refine the model several times to get the fine detail my work requires. My first one was built two years ago, and this is what I saw when I viewed sunlight through it.”

He rifled through some papers that sat next to the spectroscope and retrieved a drawing, which he handed to me. I examined the drawing, which showed a strip of watercolors arranged in the familiar pattern of a rainbow, scratched through here and there with dark pencil lines.

“I had never examined the solar spectrum in such detail before, and wondered what in the world the dark lines could be. When I mentioned the phenomena to Mr Filius, I remarked that it seemed a mystery forever beyond my ken.”

“I’d wager that remark irritated him,” Prudence remarked.

“It did. He gave me a dressing down worse than any he’d given me before. I hadn’t even made an attempt to examine the phenomena, not even for ten minutes, and I’d already decided it was impossible.”

“Mr. Filius never went so far as to dress me down, I’ve said much more foolish things,” Prudence laughed. “He’s a gentleman at heart- much kinder to his female apprentices.”

“I would never seek to make the comparison,” Honest protested. “As far as I know, neither of you have made this particular error.”

“My errors are worse,” I said, “because I can’t see them. My mind simply ignores what it considers impossible, and I never mention it- even in passing. By calling the question infinitely beyond your ken, you at least imagined reaching for it.”

“Perhaps you are right,” Honest said, ducking his head. “In any case, I had no idea how to begin exploring the phenomenon, so I simply tried everything. I observed the solar spectrum at different times of day, with and without diffusion, in autumn, spring, summer, and winter. When I found no clues in observing only sunlight, I observed firelight and lamplight, and I burned different substances to see if anything would alter.

“I still had no clues, only more confusing observations. In desperation, I tried viewing light filtered through different mediums- plain glass, colored filters, and finally, containers of various gases. Here I got my first clue- the lines appeared once more, in different, extremely subtle patterns. Then, when studying with Sir Silas one day, he showed me a remarkable contraption- a beautiful colored light created by heating gas with electricity- like the lights above. When I viewed the spectrum of the gas discharge light, here is what I saw.”

He took a glass tube and exchanged it for the one that had been in the box. Then Prudence slipped from her stool and went to extinguish the lights. For a moment we sat in darkness, and then there was a buzz followed by a low hum, and the glass tube started to glow, emitting a soft, yellow light.

“Here- look through the spectroscope.”

I bent to look through the eyepiece on the box, expecting to see the usual gradient of color in a rainbow. What I saw instead were a few bright bands of color against a background of black.

Honest switched off the box, and the yellow light vanished, replaced by the overhead lights. I blinked a few times, readjusting to the brightness as Honest flipped excitedly through a stack of papers beside the apparatus. Then he handed me a paper with a series of colored bars scribbled on the front.

“Here- these are the lines you saw just now- the colors emitted by heated helium.”

“That is the gas Trusty is using to inflate his airship,” Prudence explained.

“And here-” Honest thrust another paper in my hand, “are the dark lines that cross the continuous spectrum when you view light filtered through helium. You see? They correspond.”

I sat down heavily, examining the papers. “So light itself is altered by the substances through which it filters- not just bent or shaped.”

“Exactly,” Honest’s wide lips stretched into a generous smile. “I’ve been compiling as much data as I can-  recording the patterns of as many different gases as I can obtain. I already have my answer with regards to sunlight, though.” He handed me a sheet of paper with the prominent title The Solar Spectrum. Underneath he had intricately recorded the entire rainbow of color, with every subtle shift in color shaded with care. He had drawn brackets on top and bottom, labeling the patterns of black lines that broke through.

“You see- here is helium,” he said, pointing.

“Incredible,” I breathed. I continued to stare, recalling the time I had jokingly wondered what secrets the rainbow might hold as I bathed in a brook. I had laughed, then, considering it nothing more than a happy dream, but now I held one of the secrets in my very hands.

“This is incredible,” I repeated. “You’ve passed your test twice over; not only did you uncover a secret of light, but you’ve found a way to examine what gases surround our sun.”

“Your discovery was just as impressive,” Honest said quickly. “Mr. Filius told me that your current treatise is more complete than Sir Boromir’s was by far- that you have placed the planets on elliptical courses, and are beginning to describe their motion.”

“I am only building on Sir Boromir’s work,” I said. “Everyone in the guild already knew our earth is a planet that goes around the sun.”

Honest sat on a stool across from me, leaning forward as seriously as if we were engaged in a debate. “Everyone already knows the secret I’ve uncovered, as well. I’m certain that Mr. Filius has given me clues along the way.”

“Still- consider the further implications of your work,” I countered. “For instance- how much light does your instrument require? Might we view the spectrum of a very bright star, perhaps when viewed through a telescope with a large aperture?”

“I don’t know- I’ve never tried it on something so dim,” he leaned back again and placed his finder on his chin in thought.

“If you could- we might see if the stars are like our own Sun, or something different. We might even be able to see if the other planets- Lystra and Tigris are the brightest- have air surrounding them like our earth- I mean Terra.”

“Do you think we may find a stable way to mount my spectroscope?” Honest wondered. “We will need to hold it very steady to get a clear view of something so dim.”

“Perhaps we can mount it to an unwanted eyepiece- though it is so heavy that we might need a way to brace it. I’m sure we can contrive something.”

Honest and I stood to climb the observatory steps and Prudence sighed.

“Yes- go do something useful . I’m sick of listening to you two sit around and praise each other.”

“You must come with us,” I said, unable to suppress my grin as I turned back to Prudence. “Abbess Joy will never forgive you if you let us go unsupervised and we damage her instrument.”

 

#

 

Sunlight.

Whole, diffuse- not golden, but white.

Enough to illuminate the world. Enough to illuminate many worlds.

My whole body still tingled with energy as I emerged from the tower into the morning light. I was so filled with energy I could not concentrate on my morning forms. But Terra continued to turn, and soon Mercy’s lesson was over and it was time to begin Celeste’s lessons.Time did not pause for me to wonder at the new discovery; instead it forced me to press forward with my duties.

“I had forgotten how good discovery could feel,” I admitted to Prudence as we walked to the calefactory together with Celeste. “I had resigned myself to unpleasant truth.”

“Discovery is wonderful,” Celeste called over her shoulder as she skipped ahead. “Did I tell you- the sea and the Red Moon are working together, just as you said. I’m glad I can see it for myself.”

“I hope you continue to observe such wonderful things,” Prudence called. Then she turned her veiled face to me and spoke in a lower voice.

“I’m glad you’ve found fresh inspiration, Grace. I’d rather see you run toward adventure than flee danger.”

“I wish you would run with me,” I said.

Prudence paused for a moment and turned away from me. She took a deep breath and threw her head back as though she longed to toss the veil from her face.

“I’ve decided- I will run with you,” she said. “Perhaps it’s the longer days and the abundance of sunlight, or maybe it’s the early scent of green, growing things in the air, but I can feel spring creeping into my veins, and I long to stretch my limbs. It occurs to me that you and I will do much better if, instead of trying to keep up with our enemies, we strive to surpass them. Do you think the stars will be far enough?”

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The Coven, Part LXII

“Let the dreams come…”

If I’d stopped fighting for Hope, I might have been able to follow Abbess Joy’s advice. I might have imagined Hope’s face smiling, instead of contorted in agony. I might have heard his voice whispering sweetly in my ear, instead of crying out in torment.

“Grace- where are you? Why don’t you save me? Why won’t you come?”

And so, instead, I got out of bed and wandered, not caring where I went. I walked along the shore a little ways, until the sharp sea wind stung my ears and cheeks, and then I turned into an unfamiliar path that wound its way through the dunes.

I could not ponder my next move without thinking of Prudence. The previous evening, I had asked Prudence to be my adversary, and I should have foreseen that this would lead to a quarrel. I’d been prepared for any criticism that she could find in my plans, but not for the objections I would have for hers.

There is a magic mirror hidden in the tower, she had written. It is considered a holy relic. No one but Abbess Joy and her most trusted sisters may approach it, and then only under strict orders. We may be able to use this mirror to contact Raven.

Abbess Joy would not allow us to do such a thing, I’d countered.

I didn’t plan on asking.

No- Abbess Joy allows us free reign in the tower, she keeps our secrets and gives us safety- how can we violate her trust? I’d written.

I normally wouldn’t, she replied, but the situation is so dire, and your accusations so serious, that we have no other choice.

It’s not just disrespect or disobedience- we risk exposing Abbess Joy to danger. She has to protect so many, and her situation is precarious. We can’t risk angering the gods against her further if they discover the mirror has been misused.

We wrote back and forth furiously, scratching and blotting the paper as we went.

The risk of doing nothing is much worse. If you are right, Hope is at the center of a revolution and a schism. I won’t sit by and do nothing just because you are too cowardly to take a risk.

I lost my temper and spoke aloud.

“You are a hypocrite. You call me impulsive, yet this is how you act.”

Prudence stood, threw her pen onto the table and left the room, closing the door so hard that it rattled the pieces from our unfinished game. I tossed the papers into the grate and watched them burn with satisfaction.

My anger faded soon after, and I wondered if there had been truth to Prudence’s accusations of cowardice. I did not want to make too rash a move, or expose those I loved to more danger, but with so much at stake, it was foolish to think I could act without risk. How could I be certain I was taking the correct risks?

The path had wound up through the dunes and onto a gravel path that led to the cathedral, the tower of which was beginning to shine in the pre-dawn light. I was going to turn back when I heard a voice.

“Lady Frey- is it you?”

I turned toward the voice and saw a man walking toward me with long, slow strides, his dark hair rippling slightly against plain brown robes. Without his red inquisitor’s mantle, Brother Lux seemed less imposing- almost like the friend he had once been.                                                  

“I went to the dormitories to wake you,” he said, “but you weren’t there. I worried I wouldn’t see you before I left.”

“You are leaving this morning?” I said in surprise.

“Yes- sudden, isn’t it? I’m only two weeks past schedule.” Brother Lux chuckled a little, and then grew more sober, as though suddenly remembering to whom he was speaking.

“I wish to leave without attracting notice,” he continued, gesturing to his plain robes. “I plan to be off before sunrise, so I will need your letters.”

I nodded curtly, and we returned to the dormitory together. Inside, a few of the sisters had already awakened and were shuffling, barefoot and barefaced, to the lavatory, but they took no notice of the man who had brazenly come among them. I took the letters from my desk, and Brother Lux tucked them into his robes.

“My time at del Sol has been enlightening,” Brother Lux said as we left. “I did not anticipate that you would adjust to the environment so well. You labor alongside the sisters, and add your daily duties to your personal duties. I suspect that you still apply yourself to your studies, as well. “

“I am behind in my studies,” I said. “A day is too short to do half of what I intend.”

“So you stay up late, get fatigued, and then fall further behind,” Brother Lux said. “There is only so much you can do for my brother. Do you have another goal, or are you merely distracting yourself from your troubles?”

He spoke gently, but his words seemed a cruel taunt in my current frame of mind.

“Never mind- here,” Brother Lux reached into a leather satchel, that was half-hidden and half camouflaged by his voluminous robes. “I know it is futile to ask you to rest, so I will give you energy to match your drive. As long as you sleep once a week, you won’t be so exhausted.”

He handed me a wooden box, which I opened to reveal a set of glass vials filled with a familiar green liquid.

“Hope’s wakefulness potion,” I said. “But-”

“It is only a type of medicine- a concoction of stimulating herbs. I asked Father Pius, and he confirmed that your physiology is similar enough to an ordinary human that it will still help you. I need you to remain well and focused; take it.”

I hesitated, almost afraid that all of the moves I was planning to make were not unexpected at all, or worse- were so unexpected that they would upset the delicate balance Lux and Pius had arranged around Hope.

“I’d rather Hope had the medicine,” was all I said.

“You forget that I am a physician,” Lux said. “I have been a very poor one of late, but at least I can administer medicine when it is needed.”

“Oh!” I closed the box gingerly and then clutched his hand. “Do you mean it?”

Lux shook my hand away. “Don’t thank me- it is a very small mercy, considering the earthly hell my brother has to endure.”

Our steps had taken us to the front of the cathedral, where a one horse chaise- the one in which he’d taken me to Rowan Heights- awaited.

“Help Prudence care for Celeste, continue to look after the affairs of the estate, and guard every piece of correspondence you receive,” he advised, stowing his satchel in the back of the chaise. “Also-”

Brother Lux hesitated, and then turned back

“I never dreamed Miss Taris would try to learn to fight like you and Mercy. Thank you for encouraging her,” Brother Lux said earnestly. “She has a weak nature, but she really is full of promise.”

“Miss Taris is stronger than anyone thinks- including herself. She doesn’t need my encouragement, and I daresay she doesn’t want it. But I like her- I will do anything I can for her own sake.”

Lux sighed deeply and smiled, as though my words had lifted another burden from him. Then he climbed onto the box and drove away.

 

#

 

Mr. Filius and Honest were walking through the Abbey- away from the Cathedral where prayers would soon commence- when they spotted Mercy’s morning lesson. Mr. Filius stopped in his tracks to watch us work through forms with an expression of great interest, but Honest stepped forward immediately and, without asking leave from Mr. Filius or Mercy, joined the class.

I smiled a little at Honest’s enthusiasm, but Mercy took no notice of him until we finished our forms and broke into groups of two to spar. I went toward Mercy, who was my usual partner, but she turned away from me to speak to Honest.

“You’ve studied martial arts,” she stated baldly.

“I have, a little,” Honest admitted. “My father wished for me to be a soldier like him. I am out of practice, though.”

“Why didn’t you join the army?” Mercy pressed. “No stomach for battle?”

“I thought I could serve humanity better if I used my talents elsewhere,” he replied.

Mercy looked Honest over appraisingly, and then said, “spar with Lady Frey; I’m sick of dealing with her. I warn you, though- if you go easy on her because she is a lady, she will make you hurt.”

I tried and failed to suppress a grin of amusement at Honest’s surprised expression, and then I took a fighting stance.

I had expected that Honest would easily best me, but the longer we sparred, the more apparent it became that we were evenly matched. He was stronger, and had a longer reach, but Mercy has already taught me how to use power and reach against an opponent. We were evenly matched in speed, but his footwork was somewhat sloppy, and he had a tendency to react to feints in his enthusiasm.

We continued to spar long after the sisters departed for prayer. Only Mr. Filius, Prudence, Celeste and Mercy stayed behind to watch. Finally, I spotted an opening presented by Honests’s weak stance and swept his legs. It was a similar move to the one I’d used when I’d fought Dare, but this time Honest fell and I remained standing.

I blinked down at Honest, feeling an unusual sensation steal over me. I managed to overcome my surprise in time to offer Honest my hand.

“Well done,” he said as he stood. He ducked his head and looked down at his feet with a nervous laugh. “It is more difficult to spar in these robes than breeches.”

“The robes are much better than stays and crinolines,” I retorted.

When Honest looked back up his cheeks were deep red, but he laughed good-naturedly with the others.

“I’m sure you will win next time,” I added nervously. I was slowly recognizing the strange feeling for what it was- my first taste of victory.

“You earned the win,” Mercy said.

I could feel my face grow so hot that I was sure that I was as red as Honest. Then Mercy cured my embarrassment by continuing; “someday you might learn from your mistakes, Lady Frey, and keep up your guard after a sweep.”

“Are you finished?” Celeste burst forth as though she could contain herself no longer. “May we go?”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Mr. Filius is going to show us something wonderful- only he says it is a surprise, so do hurry.” Celeste took my hand and tugged me down the path.

“It’s the other way,” Mr. Filius said. “We’re going to the north field. The east hills hide the project from westward looking eyes, and from the south, it might appear to be a ship on the horizon.”

“A ship in the north field?” Prudence said in surprise.

“Don’t fall behind,” Honest called, running ahead. Celeste dropped my hand and raced after him.

Mr. Filius turned to follow, and Prudence and I fell into step behind them.

Prudence moved her hand as though to block me, and I slowed my pace. When we were outside of the abbey courtyard, Prudence turned to me and spoke.

“Grace,” she began, and then hesitated. Then, just as I began to speak she spoke again, and we said “I’m sorry,” in unison.

“You shouldn’t be sorry,” Prudence said. “I’m the one who provoked you. I’ve been wretched all morning, thinking about it. You were right- I was acting impulsively.  What worse, I’ve shown Abbess Joy, who has protected me for so many years, profound disrespect.”

“I know you didn’t mean what you said. You were only cross and worried, and so was I,” I replied. “I’ve been trying to discern which actions would give us the advantage against, and which would be too dangerous to attempt, but it’s no use. I’m paralyzed by uncertainty. Perhaps I am a coward.”

“I was being ridiculous when I called you a coward,” Prudence said. “You fled the sanctuary of del Sol with Lux to pursue a small chance to help save Hope. You’ve worked tirelessly to aid Hope since the moment you arrived. You’ve worked yourself to exhaustion in order to increase your strength. All this time, what have I done? I’ve sat by and watched your activity with envious eyes. Perhaps that is why I jumped at the first opportunity to contribute without considering the risk. When you tried to dissuade me, I almost hated you for it.”

I stopped walking and gazed into the shroud that covered Prudence’s face. My heart was twisting itself into strange knots, and I spoke as though the words were wrung out.

“Prudence- If you really believe in your path, then I won’t try to stop you from acting. I’ll help you in whatever way I can, only please, please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you- I couldn’t,” Prudence whispered. “I am only old, tired, and bitter. You’re so close to me that you feel the lash of my bitterness.”

“You couldn’t be more than 28- hardly what I would consider old.” I said.  Then I stepped closer to her. “I am not afraid to be close to you. Let me bear the lash.”

“If I’m not old, then you are a child,” Prudence said. “You don’t understand what you are saying.”

“Perhaps I don’t, but I mean it with all of my heart.”

Prudence closed the small gap that remained between us to fold me into her embrace. She whispered in my ear, “I believe you.” Then she released me and ran to catch up with the others.

 

#

 

As we ran up the slope to the north field, something strange seemed to rise over the horizon. It looked like a sail filled with wind or a pavilion without poles, huge and white against the blue sky.

“Mr. Filius turned all of his canvas into a giant bubble,” Celeste called. “Look at those ropes- he said that if they weren’t pegged to the ground, it would fly away.”

The inflated canvas was, indeed, held to the ground by a series of ropes pegged to the ground on all sides. Underneath the canvas there was metallic device that was attached to a long wooden structure. Upon closer examination, the structure appeared to be the frame for a large boat with an odd, and two four-bladed devices in place of a rudder.

“What is all of this?” Prudence called.

“An excellent question, my former apprentice,” Mr Filius said with a laugh. “Trusty- come out and explain; you will do so much better than I.”

At Mr. Filius’s words a familiar, dark-haired young man stepped out from behind one of the ship’s beams.

“My Ladies,” he said, bowing low before he approached.

“There’s no need for that,” Prudence said. “At del Sol there are no class distinctions.”

Trusty colored a little and looked down at his pilgrim’s robes. “We all dress the same, but a slave must always be guarded- even at del Sol. Abbess joy cannot be there to protect me all of the time.”

“Still, you know me, and you’ve met Lady Frey.”

“I remember how you spoke for me,” I added. “Thank you.”

Trusty ducked his head further. “I did not say much, really- you spoke for yourself. I wish you luck in your second attempt.”

I thanked Trusty again and he looked up with a shy smile.

Prudence, in the meantime, had thrown her veil back and was looking up at the canvas bubble with an expression of awe on her pale, sunlit face.  She squinted in the bright light, creating merry crinkles around her eyes, and her lips stretched into the widest smile I’d ever seen her wear.

“This is incredible, Trusty. Is it your own design?”

“Yes- with a little input from Sir Silas,” Trusty said. “It’s an airship- or it will be when it’s completed.”

“Mr. Filius was telling the truth?” Celeste said. “It really will float away?”

“If it works as intended- when the weather permits,” Trusty said. “I built a small balloon on Sir Silas’s land, and it worked as intended, but it could not travel very great distances”

“How far can this one go?” Celeste asked. “Could it go all the way up to the stars?”

The others laughed at Celeste’s innocent question, but I answered. “No Celeste- would take a great deal of time, perhaps longer than a human life, to ever go to the stars- even in the fastest ship.”

Prudence shielded her eyes with her hand and turned to me. “How do you know?”

“The stars must be a very vast distance from our world if our earth goes around the sun,” I answered, “because we cannot observe any parallax.”

“What is parallax?”  Celeste asked.

“I will show you- hold up one finger- here in front of your face, and line it up with this rope. Close your right eye.”

Celeste followed my instructions, screwing up her face in concentration. “Like this?”

“Yes- exactly. Now, close your left eye and open your right eye.”

“Oh! My finger jumped.” Celeste exclaimed. “Why did it do that?”

“There is a little distance between your eyes, so each eye is viewing your finger from a different perspective. The distance between your eyes is less in relation to the distance to the rope, when compared to the distance of your finger, so the finger appears to jump more when you switch eyes. If the stars were close, they would do the same thing- they would all shift in the sky when we look in the summer as opposed to the winter, moving in a parabola.”

“But they don’t do that?”

“Exactly.”

“Then- if the ship cannot go to the stars, where will it go? Over the sea?”

Trusty’s face drained of color, and he looked away. “This is only an experiment now, of course.”

The wind rose, and the airship’s canvas rippled in the breeze. It bobbed and danced against the ropes as though it was eager to begin its journey before it had even been completed.

Part LXIII

The Coven, Part LXI

Abbess Joy’s office was a very pretty room despite, or perhaps because, of the lack of ornaments to adorn it. The most interesting object in the room was the stone hearth, which was well built, large, and shone with orange light from the dancing flames. On the opposite side of the room was an rough wooden bookcase filled with handsome books, and in the center was a wood table to match. Abbess Joy cleared books and papers from the table with her own hands to make way for tea.

Prudence volunteered to fetch the tea things, and when she’d gone Abbess Joy bid me sit near the fire, in a stuffed chair covered in brown canvas.

“You have slept,” Abbess Joy said in an appraising voice. “I can tell- your eyes are clear.”

“Yes, and I feel better for the sleep, though it was a mixed indulgence.”

“Mixed? How so?” Abbess Joy asked, sitting next to me.

“I dream of him,” I admitted. “While they last, the dreams are beautiful, but when I awake and they melt away, I am alone. I used to hold his as he slept; now, when I wake, my hands feel empty.”

“Let the dreams come, even if they are only dreams,” Abbess Joy advised. “You’re not really empty as long as the love remains.”

“You are right, of course…” I trailed off and looked back into the flames.

“You still have that puzzled look in your eyes,” Abbess Joy said. “Is there anything I might answer?”

“There is something I’d meant to ask you-”

I hesitated, but Abbess Joy gave me an encouraging smile.

“I have Mother’s contract,” I said. “I wish to free her- even if the freedom is only posthumous. Is there any way in which the High Preist’s seal can be broken or reversed?”

Abbess Joy’s smile faded, and she turned to look into the hearth. For a moment she sat in silent thought, and then she turned back to me and sighed.

“You’ve asked me about a very secret matter- one which the Gods forbade me to reveal. However-” she paused again, as though struggling for words. “Believe me when I say that, if there were a way to free Harmony, I would have already done so. She’s already gained freedom; her contract is only paper now. It was only ever paper…”

Then Abbess Joy started and laughed. “Oh! I’ve said more than I meant to say. I thought that a geas only affected the person it bound, but you’re still able to break it. Magic cannot sense you, so the geas doesn’t react when I speak. How wonderful!”

I recognized the light in her eyes- the light of discovery and the unfolding of possibility. I waited for the light to fade a little before I asked my next question.

“So Mother’s contract didn’t have any power, even with the High Priests’s seal affixed?”

Abbess Joy nodded. “The paper the contract is written on probably seems magical, but it isn’t. Have you ever tried to tear or destroy it?”

“Yes. It wouldn’t tear at all.”

Abbess Joy nodded. “If the seal were a holy sigil, you would be able to destroy it. The contract was made from a special, rare material that is not easily damaged. The High Priest’s seal is only the church’s stamp of approval. People believe the contracts are magical, however, and that gives them power.”

“Then- does this mean that the Frey and Goode families are not really condemned?”

Abbess Joy shook her head sadly, and the bud of hope died within my chest before it could bloom.

“I am sorry to say that while the seal does not bind them, they are condemned by the will of Order. I have made many supplications on behalf of the condemned, but Order will not heed me.”

“I see. Thank you for your honesty.”

“I wish I could provide more comfort. There is one thing I have always wished to tell Prudence, but the geas prevented me. Damnation is not quite what one would imagine from reading the liturgy.”

“How so?”

“Damnation is not a state of eternal and infinite pain. Instead-”

But the office door opened, and we were interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Filius, who opened the door for Prudence to push a tea cart inside.

Abess Joy made a strangling sound, as though she’d suddenly been gagged, and said no more.

By the time Prudence pushed the tea cart through the narrow door, Abbess Joy had regained her composure and rose to greet her guests.

“How good it is to be back!” Mr Filius said, shaking Abbess Joy’s hand warmly. “This is the only place where liberty exists in all of Aeterna, though a few of your guests at present make me feel somewhat restrained.”

“Brother Lux has outstayed his welcome,” Prudence said.  “He’s stayed much longer than the three days he promised. I wonder what keeps him here?”

Prudence began to lay the tea things on the table as she spoke, and I went to help her.

“I’ve seen him conversing with some of the pilgrims, and making note of their grievances,” Abbess Joy said. “Father Pius has expressed his desire to better understand the struggles of his people.”

“I don’t trust it- spying more likely what he’s doing,” Mr. Filius said. “Inquisitors are out in force, and everywhere people are speculating who will be arrested next.”

Mr. Filus turned to Prudence, who was taking her seat, and pressed her hand.

“I’m impressed by your courage, my dear. You are bearing this with more dignity than anyone would expect. ”

“Necessity and powerlessness often look like courage,” Prudence said. “I do what I must.”

“Courage is useless to those without need,” Mr. Filius said. He turned to me and pressed my hand as well. “Anyone who has questioned your courage in the past should be eating their words.”

“I don’t expect them to,” I said. “If not for my friends here, you would have found me in a very different state. Thank you, Mr. Filius, for leading me here.”

Mr. Filius smiled sadly. “I’d hoped you would not need my hints- but I guessed you might when I learned you were going to court at a time like this.”

“What do you mean, ‘a time like this?’” I asked.

“There are whispers of discontent all over the country, and they grow worse by the day. Even within the church, the clergy are dividing into factions.”

Mr. Filius turned to Abbess Joy’s pile of papers and ink, took a clean sheet, and scratched something onto the surface. Then he tossed it onto the center of the table.

“Have any of you seen this symbol, before?”

“Yes,” I answered immediately. “A man in the Cathedral showed me that symbol, today. He pledged to support my Husband and me.”

Abbess Joy leaned over to examine the symbol.

“Curious- seen at a distance, I might have mistaken this for the symbol of Order.”

“This symbol belongs to a cult who, according to rumor, worship a new god.”

Stunned silence was the only reply to this statement. For just a moment, I questioned the truth of Mr. Filius’s claim. Then I remembered Miss Taris wore the same symbol, and the answer became obvious. As if I’d tugged on a string, the entire plot unraveled before my eyes.

I stood and began to pace the room.

“Grace?” Prudence said softly.

“Mr. Filius, do you know the name of the god they follow?” I asked.

“I know nothing- it is only a rumor,” he said. “I’ve heard the name ‘Wisdom,’ spoken in whispers, though.”

“I’ve heard ‘wisdom’ repeated fairly often, myself,” Prudence said. She threw back her veil and gave me a significant glance before taking a sip of tea.

I sat and took my own cup in hand, breathing in the vapors and allowing the sweet, earthy aroma to clear my mind.

“You have told me that this is the nature of superstition,” Prudence said to Mr. Filius. “It fractures into sects, because it is easily bent to anyone’s agenda. I daresay this cult has as much evidence to support its claims as any other.”

“Too right,” Mr. Filius said. “Politicians often find stories and superstitions useful, but truth is a harder forged weapon. Even so, the official church will crush this little cult soon enough.”

Mr. Filius turned to Abbess Joy, as though seeking confirmation of his statement, but she only shrugged.

“I won’t know until there is an investigation. Some cults are allowed to continue as a form of special devotion, as long as they are theologically sound and do not threaten the current order. My abbey is a cult, in its own way. But if the cult really worships a new God, it will not be allowed to continue.”

I let the conversation continue around me, and closed my eyes in thought. The sweet scent of tea and the warmth of the fire could do little to lull me, but it put me in a frame of mind to focus on my new ideas instead of letting them form a mad tangle.

When the chatter slowed I opened my eyes, composed and ready to join the conversation as though nothing had changed.

“I was glad to receive one piece of good news, today,” I said. “Honest told me that he’d completed his test, and will soon be initiated into the guild.

“He has,” Mr Filius said with a note of pride in his voice. “He will spend his time here polishing his treatise, and then we will all go to the crossroads. I suggest you re-work your own treatise in the meantime. I am certain that you will be accepted this time around.”

“You were certain I would be accepted the last time around, and yet here I sit.”

Mr. Filius leaned forward earnestly. “Who could doubt your courage after all that you’ve faced? Who could doubt your integrity?”

“Mr Filius- you cannot be deaf to the slander. You must have heard the accusations that I am a witch.”

“You are not guilty to those who look with the eye of reason.”

“Mr. Filius,” Abbess Joy interrupted gently. “Even a scientist may be blinded by bias. The guild is democratic, and therefore subject to human errors.”

“Such errors hold less sway with those who have trained their minds to think scientifically. We are still subject to bias, certainly, and the intelligent will always be able to augment their errors with sophistry- Sir Silas comes to mind. However, we have at least gained the knowledge necessary to do away with something as base as superstition.”

“We are not discussing country charms and old wives tales,” Abbess Joy countered. “The Prince and church are conducting public investigations into matters that run straight to the heart of what people fear most. The guild has cast off what you call superstition, and has even rejected the ultimate authority of the church, but many guild members have seen strong evidence supporting the existence of a soul, and may fear their ultimate fate.”

“We will not let our fear rule us. Look how many of our base feelings we’ve already overcome. Take these two young women, for example,” Mr Filius said, gesturing to Prudence and me as we sat side by side. “It is obvious that they are suited by both nature and situation to be friends, and they have not let a shade of resentment or jealousy to come between them. I knew it would be so-”

Mr. Filius turned to us with a smile. “The Abbess did not believe me, but I knew that you would both let reason guide your actions.”

“Feelings are not necessarily opposed to reason,” Abbess Joy objected.

“Indeed- justice is the union between reason and feeling. I trust my friends to act justly.”

Abbess Joy countenance relaxed, and she laughed. “That is not the definition of justice you used the last time we argued. I do believe you are using sophistry now.”

Mr. Filius fired back a rapid reply, and Abbess Joy replied in a similarly rapid way until their words seemed to blend together with the clatter of teacups. As they continued their verbal spar, Prudence leaned close to whisper in my ear.

“When I start to believe I’m clever, I listen to these two converse and am soon cured of that notion.”

As I watched the verbal sparring, I considered speaking my idea aloud and benefitting from Abbess Joy and Mr. Filius’s wisdom. But to present my case I would have to give evidence that may indict Hope. Mr. Filius would likely reject everything I said as nonsense if he still doubted the existence of magic or souls, even after he’d seen Prudence’s evidence for magic.

Furthermore, I was certain that Abbess Joy would honor the sanctity of del Sol and keep my secrets, but it might cause her pain if I asked her to help me when she could not. I needed to warn Abbess Joy about Father Pius, but it would have to be when I had more evidence, and after I’d decided my next move.

I contented myself with listening in silence until I could be alone with Prudence.

 

#

 

I was unable to slip away to the tower that night. After dinner, Brother Lux went straight to the pilgrims’ quarters to sleep, and Miss Taris followed me past the calefactory and into the dormitory. I sat in my room for  few moments, trying to hear Miss Taris through the adjacent wall, but everything was silent.

I stood and ventured outside to see if Miss Taris was asleep. Her door was still open, though, and she sat on a chair very near the door, reading.

“Are you going back to the calefactory, Lady Frey?” she asked without looking up.

“I only worried that my lamp was bothering you.”

“There’s no need for your concern. I will likely be up very late tonight, studying.”

“Of course,” I muttered. “Good night.”

I turned and went back into my own room. I spent some time reviewing my treatise notes, and made a small list of things to check once I had access to Sir Boromir’s lost treatise from the tower, again. Then I opened Sir Boromir’s observations and began to check the paths I’d plotted for the planets in haste.

I could not concentrate on my work. My eyes ran over Sir Boromir’s charts without really seeing them, and when I looked at my own notes, they were nothing more than incoherent scribbles. I looked into the hall, and I could still see the light from Miss Taris’s lamp.

“Oh good,” I heard Prudence call down the hall. “You are both awake.”

I leaned out again to peek outside. Prudence, who was walking down the corridor hand in hand with Celeste, waved at me.

“May I stay up, as well?” Celeste asked. “Sister Mercy gave me a game board- I would like it very much if you would play ringo with me.”

“One game, and then you must go to sleep,” Prudence ordered. Celeste readily agreed, and I closed my own book and went to Celeste’s room to watch the game.

“You see, Lady Frey, I’m trying to get one of my horses,” Celeste gestured to three white pieces,” to the other side of the board. My horse can’t move because Mother’s moles are tearing up the road in front of me,” she gestured to a cluster of brown pieces, “but since none of her eagles threaten me, my eagle is free to eat one of the moles.”

Celeste took one of the brown pieces off of the board and moved her red one into its place.

“We can move up to three squares at a time in any direction,” Prudence said, moving one of her eagles into position. “Beyond this, there is only strategy.”

Prudence spent the majority of the game moving her pieces into tactical formations while Celeste plowed forward with the help of her eagles. Then Celeste fell into a trap and lost all of her eagles and two of her horses. Afterward, Prudence systematically removed all of Celeste’s moles and cleared a path to victory.

Celeste sighed heavily at her loss, but she reached out to shake her mother’s hand and thank her for the game, nonetheless.

“You may borrow the game, Lady Frey,” Celeste said as she climbed into bed. “You’ve never played games, have you?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said. “Thank you for remembering.”

Celeste smiled and closed her eyes, and Prudence extinguished the lamp.

“Miss Taris,” Prudence called down the hall as I shut Celeste’s door. “Won’t you join us for a game of ringo?”

“Ringo is a two person game,” Miss Taris replied, “and I am too busy to join you, thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” Prudence said. She tucked the game board under her arm and followed me into my room.

“So,” Prudence muttered as I took the board from her and placed it on my table. “As long as your guard is here…”

I put my finger to my lips and pulled a stool up to the table. Then I took a stack of old papers and put them behind the board, away from the doorway. I gestured for Prudence to watch and wrote.

The walls are thin. I’ve made a discovery so important I must tell you now, and so horrible that I need you to tell me I am wrong.

I let Prudence read the paper, and then tossed it into my small grate, where the glowing coals set it aflame. It danced for a moment, like a bright salamander, before it crumpled and died.

Prudence nodded curtly and began laying out the game pieces. “Since this is your first time to play, I will give you the first move,” she said in a voice slightly louder than usual.

I moved one of my horses forward, and then wrote.

Pius is the cult leader. He seeks to become a God.

Prudence dropped several game pieces on the floor with a clatter, and then stooped to pick them up.

“Well,” she said in the same bright voice, “I certainly enjoy an opponent who makes a bold opening move.”

She  sat again and moved one of her moles into position to block my horse. Then she wrote beneath my note.

Your evidence?

“Hmm…” I said aloud, as though thinking of my next move, and then I wrote again.

First, I’ve seen Miss Taris wearing the cultists’ symbol. When I asked her what it was, she was evasive.

“I would advise you consider your moves carefully- think head to what my next move may be,” Prudence said aloud.

I moved an eagle to threaten her mole while she wrote.

Miss Taris’s behavior is suspicious, but she may only be disloyal to Pius, or she may be trying to infiltrate the cult for him. Anything else?

Prudence sat back to ponder her next move, and I wrote.

Second, two people have indicated to me that Pius may seek a God’s power. The second was Raven, but the first I haven’t mentioned to you.

Prudence moved another mole into place, and then nodded for me to continue.

Hope believed that the only way to break the High Priest’s seal was the power of a God. When I protested the impossibility of such a thing he laughed- he was certain that the coven would soon possess that scale of power.

Prudence pressed her lips together as she read- the two soft petals becoming a tight red line. I moved a mole into place, and she took one of my other moles with her eagle.

“It is a cold night,” she said.  “Perhaps you should get some fuel for the fire.”

I nodded and went to the wood pile, and when I returned she had written underneath my last note.

How much did Hope know about Pius’s aspirations?

I wrote, not enough, I fear. He trusted Pius and believed his promises, but he never questioned Pius’s motives. I don’t believe Hope foresaw his own betrayal, even though Mrs. Aubert gave him a cryptic warning. However, now that I consider the matter, he may have have only acted confident to soothe my misgivings.

Prudence read the note, and all was silent except for the sound of the wind wuthering in the distance. Then Prudence spoke.

“Don’t forget- it is still your move.”

I moved my horse forward again as Prudence wrote.

It is possible that Pius only promised Hope godlike power to ensnare him.

Prudence moved an eagle, taking one of my moles and trapping my horse.

“Excellent move,” I said, and then wrote.

That is possible. Hope was desperate to break his family’s condemnation, and even with a God’s power, he would not have been able to break the High Priests’s seal. Abbess Joy broke her geas today to tell me that the seal is only a token of authority with no real power. Unfortunately, your families are condemned because Order wills it.

I have two reasons to trust Abbess Joy’s words- aside from my love. First, I am unable to break the seal, which indicates it not magical in nature. Second, when I asked Abbess Joy about the seal, I inquired whether my mother might be posthumously freed. Abbess Joy loved my mother deeply, and has never stopped grieving her loss. I know that Abbess Joy would do anything to free  my mother, or grant her a soul.

Prudence’s eyes shimmered in the lamplight as she read. She pressed her fingers to her lips, and then wrote.

I trust Abbess Joy. Thank you for telling me the truth.

Abbess Joy had another message that the geas had prevented her from telling you. Unfortunately, we were interrupted before she could tell me the whole, but she said that damnation is not the infinite torture described in the liturgy.

A single tear fell down Prudence’s cheek, and she absentmindedly moved her eagle to take my horse, even though it was still my turn.

The silence continued to stretch, and I realized that I must speak, in case Miss Taris was still listening.

“I believe you will win,” I said. “I am far too inexperienced.”

“No doubt,” Prudence said shakily, and then she sat straighter and said in a stronger voice, “no doubt I will win, but you are providing a better challenge than I’d anticipated.”

Just then the dim light in the hallway faded, and Prudence crept to the door and peeked out.

“Miss Taris has gone to sleep,” Prudence whispered. “Do you dare venture out?”

“I don’t believe we will find such solitude anywhere else,” I said.

Prudence sighed, and then put the board aside and pulled the paper to herself.

We can’t risk this being heard, even at the tower by friends. I hate passing notes, though. It makes me feel like a disobedient schoolgirl. I almost wish I’d been powerful enough to learn the spell of silence.

I have one objection to your theory. If Pius controls the cult, then why would a cult member pledge his support to you and Hope?

I took the paper, read, and then wrote.

I’m only speculating, but I believe that this is the key to Pius’s next move. If he truly wishes to take power, he won’t be content to serve as High Priest under a God he opposes. Instead, he will use his new followers to overthrow the existing order.

How could you possibly know that?  Prudence added underneath.

My evidence is very weak, I wrote. If you recall, Celeste thought that Hope’s letter was a reference to King Uriel’s legend, but my first thought was quite different. I originally believed that Hope had written a folk tale about his own brother’s betrayal, and his desperate situation. What if Celeste and I were both correct? What if his letter was a clue?

Prudence put her head in her hands and groaned aloud. “Oh Grace- really.”

I took the paper back and continued to write. Hope’s middle name is Uriel. The crest on his locket was an eagle- that is a family crest, isn’t it? But my biggest clue was Lux’s insistence that the we obtain the original copy of the Frey writ of condemnation. The document links Hope’s family to the fallen six, and since the trial will be public, those who believe the legends may think he is the rightful King.

Prudence took the paper and wrote quickly enough to break the pen’s nib. She took a deep breath, drew a penknife from her robes, and trimmed the quill.

You cannot possibly believe that Hope is heir to a legendary king. This is utter madness.

I don’t believe it,  I replied, but that doesn’t matter, as long as others do. If Pius really wishes to be a God, then he must wish to establish a King by his divine providence. The Prince is loyal to the old order, after all, and his mind has been completely crushed.

Prudence sucked the end of her pen, and then wrote.

Each piece of evidence is weak, but together-

I took the pen from her hands. Tell me why I’m wrong.

You are being impulsive again- she wrote. You are running away with ideas so quickly that I can’t articulate why the whole story is wrong, except to say that your story requires too many improbable things to be true.

We don’t have much time. How do we verify this?

Prudence tapped her fingers on the table in thought a while.

We must try to get more information from the cultists, we must learn everything we can about theurgy- the magic of Gods and angels- from Abbess Joy, and we must question Raven.

I blinked several times, unsure I’d read the last words correctly. How can we possibly question Raven?

I know where to find a magic mirror, Prudence replied.

 

Part LXII

 

Author’s note: Does anyone else dread January and the extra workload that it brings? Thank you for being patient with my lack of adherence to to usual upload schedule, and I hope you will accept this extra-long post as an apology.

 

The Coven, Part LX

Conversation and laughter swelled around me, and the Cathedral del Sol was alive with color. Red and white streamers were hung from the stately pipe organ, festoons of green and gold were hung from the previously unadorned balcony, and tapestries of blue, violet, silver and gold were hung on the white walls.

The cathedral already seemed full when Mercy, Sister Love and I arrived with large boxes of decorations. The men from the pilgrim’s quarters had volunteered to bring them, but the boxes had been stored in a shed that lay too near the tower for Abbess Joy to allow general admission, so the men had to content themselves with meeting us at the door to help us bear the boxes inside.

I had never seen the cathedral so full of people. I generally avoided prayer services, and would only approach the cathedral when I was certain few pilgrims would be present, such as a choir practice or to hear Celeste play the organ. Even though there was no service planned, many pilgrims had come to watch the decorations go up, and some were helping the sisters.

When I walked inside, a muscular young man detached himself from his party and came toward me, holding out his hands as though to take the heavy box. Then he paused abruptly- his eyes fixed on my uncovered face.

“It’s alright,” I said quietly. “I’m not a sister. I haven’t taken any vows to veil myself.”

“They say- they say that you are…” His face went red and his voice seemed to fail him. He turned and fled into the crowd without another word.

A tall bearded man had been watching this exchange, his eyebrows raised in interest. When the young man fled, the bearded man stepped forward and took his place.

“Well met, my Lady,” he said with a gallant bow. As he stooped forward, a silver pendant slipped from under his collar and swung freely to his chest, bearing the same symbol Miss Taris had worn. He took hold of the pendant and held it up for me to see, placing a finger to the side of his nose. Then he slipped it back into his robes.

I tried in vain to shield the surprise from my face. The bearded man’s pale eyes twinkled with laughter.

“Please accept my apologies on behalf of that cowardly young man,” the bearded man said. “Not all of us pay heed to the rumors.”

“I am not at all surprised that people are whispering about me,” I said as the man took the box from me. “Thank you, Mr-”

“I beg your pardon- I have you at a disadvantage. I am Resolve Wilcox, at your service.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wilcox.”

Mr. Wilcox tried to bow again, but made an awkward job of it as he was still carrying the box. I reached out to steady the box, and we continued.

“Where do you want this box, my Lady?”

“The Abbess said it should be placed near the altar. I believe it contains the large candelabras.”

“I can well believe it, considering the weight of this box. I am surprised a lady such as yourself was able to carry it so far.”

“I am stronger than I look,” I said.

“I daresay you are. Still, you should not have to bear so much.” He place the box down near the altar, and then turned to bow low to me, again.

“We stand behind you and your excellent husband, my Lady. If you need any assistance in the future, ask for me, or look for this symbol,” he tapped his chest, where the pendant was hidden. “It is an honor to bear your burden.”

I blinked, unable to think of what to say to such a declaration.

He smiled, his eyes twinkling again. “May the light of wisdom guide you through the chaos, my Lady.”

Then he turned and walked back into the crowd.

“I’ve never heard it said that way,” I heard Celeste say. I turned to see that she was sitting nearby, tying colored ribbons around white candles. “It’s usually ‘may light guide you through the chaos.”

“Indeed it is. People seem to be discussing wisdom very often, lately.”

“Wisdom is a good thing.” Celeste paused and bit her lip in concentration as she straightened a bow. “Miss Taris says that there is not enough wisdom in the world, and that most people are fools.”

Prudence climbed up to the altar with her arms full of unadorned candles, laughing under her veil.

“Please don’t listen to Miss Taris. I do not look forward to your adolescence if you allow yourself to become so cynical at almost eleven.”

Celeste ignored the remark and turned to me. “My birthday is on Chaosmas eve. I thought everyone in the world celebrated my birthday, when I was a child.”

“When you were a child?” Prudence dropped the candles in a heap near Celeste with a sigh. “I give up; it’s already begun.”

Celeste shot Prudence a glare that showed she was not amused, and then pressed a basket of decorated candles into her mother’s hands.

“These are ready- you need to place one in the sconce at the end of each pew.”

“Yes ma’am,” Prudence said with a mock bow as she took the basket.

Prudence turned away with her candles, accidentally hitting another sister in the process.

“I beg your pardon, Sis-” Prudence began, but the Sister ran past without a word, and Prudence was left staring after her in astonishment.

“Finish with the candles- I will see what is wrong,” I said, and turned to follow the Sister.

The Sister moved so quickly that I almost lost her in the crowd, but everyone who saw me moved aside quickly to let me pass. As soon as I was outside, I spotted her running back toward the Abbey.

“Wait- please slow down,” I called.

The sister paused on the road, and then turned back to me. She threw back her veil, revealing Innocence’s face.

“Well,” she said, “what do you want?”

“You ran through the Cathedral without even noticing Sister Jubilee,” I said. “What is the

matter?”

“You may keep your concerns to yourself. I have recently learned a hard lesson; friendship is false,” she sneered.

“What happened?” I persisted.

Innocence turned away and walked a few paces before turning back to me, as though unsure of what to do next.

“I thought I would hide myself away from the Pilgrims as you usually do,” Innocence said. “You are wiser than I am.”

“Have the pilgrims recognized you? If you are being harassed-”

“No- no one would care who I was even if I removed my veil in the cathedral and shouted my name aloud. I’ve lost all of my importance since I left St. Blanc. I’m nothing extraordinary. There are other pilgrims here who are in my position- some of the Prince’s former favorites who have fled. They bring tales about the Prince’s madness and worse- evil omens.”

“Evil omens?” I said. “Of what nature?”

“According to the rumors, the horoscope that Father Pius drew for the Prince’s coronation contains a sign of war and destruction. It’s all superstition and nonsense, of course, but I would rather not hear such stories, anymore. I’ve thrown my life away because of stories.”

Innocence turned again and walked away. I began to follow, but was distracted by a clatter on the road behind me. The sound grew louder, and  I turned to see a huge, canvas-covered caravan approaching, followed by a small wagon.

I stepped forward, drawn to the caravan by curiosity. Soon it was close enough for me to recognize the person who drove it.

“Mr. Filius!”

I waved at him, and then ran to meet him as the caravan clattered to a stop.

“Well, this is a welcome sight!” Mr. Filius called. He jumped down from the box and

shook my hand warmly. “I am relieved, Lady Frey, to find you looking so well.”

“I owe that to my friends,” I said, “and I’m glad to meet another friend here.”

The small wagon rolled to a stop behind Mr. Filius’s carriage, and a familiar young man descended from the box.

“I believe you’ve met my other apprentice, Honest,” Mr. Filius said, gesturing to the young man, who bowed cordially. “Of course, he will soon be a journeyman.”

“Is that so?” I turned to Honest, who wore a sheepish grin. “Congratulations.”

Mr. Filius turned to wave at a small crowd of pilgrims that were gathering at the cathedral door to gape at the strange sight of the caravan. Honest drew me behind the mound of canvas, away from their eyes.

“I haven’t polished my work,” he said in a low voice, “and I still have to present my findings to the guild, but I’ve completed the task Mr. Filius set for me.”

“I wish you luck with all of my heart, and if you need any assistance-”

Honest laughed a little. “Mr. Filius hasn’t let me forget that your admittance depends on my work. But I am as glad to accept your help as you are to give it, I imagine.” His smile faded a little as he regarded me with his wide, ernest eyes. “Lady Frey, is there any way I can assist you?”

“You have not turned away from me. You have not called me a witch or the devil’s whore. It is help enough that you shake my hand and meet me as a friend.”

“Lady Frey! Lady Frey!” I heard Celeste call from the other side of the caravan without restraint. “Do look at the caravan. What could be inside?”

Honest and I went to see that Celeste already being scolded away from the caravan by Prudence. Mr. Filius, however,  knelt by Celeste with a good natured chuckle.

“You aren’t the only one who is curious about my cargo. I was stopped on the road three times on the way from the hill country.”

“Oh!” Celeste said excitedly. “Did you have to fight bandits?”

“No no- my girl. The roads are much safer lately for uninteresting travelers. Inquisitors stopped us, instead”

“Inquisitors?” Prudence stepped forward.

“Oh yes. They had a mind to search the whole caravan, but each time they grew tired of searching after the first five layers of canvas.”

Abbess Joy came through the gathering crowd. “It’s so good to see you here again, Mr. 

Filius,” she said warmly.

“It is good to be here, Abbess,” Mr. Filius said with a nod of respect.

“There is still room in the stables. Where did you mean to take the…” she gestured to the mound of canvas on the caravan.

“To the field behind the abbey, if that is alright.”

Abbess Joy nodded her consent. “If you will excuse us- we have had a hard day’s work. Lady Frey and Sister Jubilee, please join me in my office for tea.” She gave Mr. Filius with a significant look. “I trust I will see you soon.”

Mr. Filius nodded again, and then climbed back onto the box. He drove the caravan away, taking a crowd of curious onlookers with him, as Abbess Joy led the way back to the abbey.

 

The Coven, Part LXI

The Coven, Part LIX

Once upon a time, a Prince ruled an enchanted kingdom of eternal summer.

This Prince lived in a beautiful palace, and he had everything his heart desired. Not only did he have the best food and drink, the most devoted servants, and the finest clothes, but he was married to the cleverest and most beautiful Princess in the kingdom. The Princess bore the Prince  a beloved daughter, and it seemed as though this family’s happiness was complete.

The Prince had a brother who ruled a nearby kingdom- the land of eternal winter. The brother watched the Prince’s sunny kingdom with envious eyes year after year, as the enchanted winter grew so cold that his heart froze.

One day the brother sent a gift to the Prince; a beautiful rosebush full of scarlet roses. This rosebush, however, had been enchanted by an evil fairy so that as soon as the bush was planted in the royal garden a cold wind blew in from the north, and snow began to fall.

The snow killed all of the beautiful flowers in the royal garden except for the rose, which grew larger and larger until the whole palace was encased in a cage of thorns. The Prince sought help from his wisest advisors, who told him that he must cut down the rosebush at the root. The Prince took his mightiest sword in hand and attempted to cut his way through the cage of thorns , but the iron sword broke as soon as it struck the vine.

At that moment, the Prince heard a cry from the heavens, and he looked up to see an eagle swooping toward him. The eagle easily slipped through the thorns to land at the Prince’s feet, where it dropped a single quill.

The Prince picked up the quill and struck at the vines, and the quill cut them away as easily as an iron sword cuts through silk.

The Prince thanked the eagle and bid his wife and child farewell, promising them that he would set them free. Then he set off through the dense tangle of vines, seeking the rose’s root, always dreaming of the day when he will return to his family and his home.

 

In a strange way, Hope’s letter to Celeste hurt more to read than the letter he’d written to me. I had expected to see raw anguish in his letter to me- it was proper that he would show me his pain. However, the fairy tale he’d written for Celeste, which he’d said he’d written to amuse, was a poor disguise for his current struggle. I briefly considered keeping it from Celeste, but the determination he’d expressed in the final lines gave me pause, and since Prudence expressed no concern in allowing Celeste to read it, I held my tongue.

I watched Celeste’s face very carefully as she read. We had sought privacy on a rock near the abbey that overlooked the dunes. The spot proved a good choice; the sun was bright, and wind was so mild that the paper barely ruffled in Celeste’s hands. Celeste’s eyes narrowed a little, as if she were trying to make out the tale’s meaning, and then she smiled.

“Isn’t it funny that Uncle Hope has been thinking of the same fairy tale that I have? I like his version better than any I’ve read.”

“What fairy tale do you mean?” Prudence asked.

“It’s the story of King Uriel, of course.”

“This doesn’t seem like the same story,” Prudence said thoughtfully. “There are two brothers and an eagle, and there the similarities end.”

“What about the rose?” Celeste cried. “The eagle fought the rose in Uriel’s song- the one from the book of verse Lady Frey read with me,”

Prudence shrugged. “Roses appear in many fairy tales. There are so many symbols that appear again and again in fairy tales, that if you pick out every similar detail you will find they are all the same. The story’s plot is different from King Uriel’s tale, and that is the most important thing.”

Celeste sighed. “I think the stories are similar. The Prince’s brother was envious, after all.”

Prudence paused, and then spoke in a lower, wistful voice. “Your Uncle Hope is a talented spinner of tales, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read one of his stories. I’d rather enjoy his creativity for what it is.”

Celeste’s insight had set my mind in motion, and against Prudence’s advice I found myself drawing lines between clues that seemed connected to a much larger plot. I could not, however, bring myself to disagree with Prudence aloud. I was too torn between tenderness and envy to speak, and I wouldn’t have disturbed her recollections for anything-especially to start an argument over a half-formed conjecture.

“Uncle Hope said that he knew you,” Celeste said to Prudence. “You must have been very good friends, just like Uncle Hope and Uncle Just were.”

“Yes- we were all great friends,” Prudence said.

“I wish we could have all stayed together,” Celeste said. “I told Brother Lux to stop the inquisition- to make it go away- but he said it wasn’t easy. I’ve made up my mind that I won’t call him Uncle Lux again until he makes the inquisition stop.”

She slipped down from the rock and turned toward the calefactory. “I’m going to write my letter. Would you like me to say anything from you, Mother?”

“You know why that’s impossible, Celeste. I must remain a secret,” Prudence whispered.

“One moment, Celeste,” I jumped down from the rock and followed her a ways to the calefactory, leaving Prudence behind us. “There is one more thing- when you write your letter, don’t mention King Uriel.”

Celeste groaned. “You don’t think the stories are the same, either?”

“If your Uncle Hope wrote the story on his own, you might hurt his feelings by comparing it to another.” I winced inwardly at the ease with which I was lying to Celeste, but she did not seem to notice.

“That makes sense- he might not have meant to take things from the other story,” Celeste said. “I don’t need to talk about King Uriel; I have so many other things to tell Uncle Hope.”

She smiled a little to herself as she skipped toward the calefactory, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

 

#

 

I had thought my last two letters to Hope were difficult to write, but this one was infinitely worse. I possessed one piece of information that would bring him joy in his moment of despair, but I could not convey it. The inquisition was reading all of my letters, and if they found any hint that Prudence was alive, Lux wouldn’t be able to protect her any more.

I spent the second day of Lux’s stay composing my letter to Hope, and when the sun set and it was time for me to meet with Mercy, the letter still wasn’t complete. I tucked the parchment into my pocket and went to meet her, unsatisfied.  

Mercy and I sparred in the open, and even though Lux had already seen us fight once, and no doubt he had heard reports of Mercy’s lessons from Miss Taris, he still watched our practice carefully. When we were done, Lux bowed slightly to Mercy and then left without a word.

I took advantage of his absence to slip away to the tower. I climbed up the the observatory, turned the crank to open the roof, and gazed up into the clear sky for a few moments. A strange feeling welled up within me, as though I were surprised that the stars were still present and still following their courses even as Hope sat in his underground cell.

I allowed the feeling wash over me, and then I went to the telescope.

Lystra was setting in the west, and I had just enough time to plot its position, which was refined by the powerful instrument. The image was clear and bright, free of any features, and I realized that the features I’d seen on Lystra through my own instrument might have only been an illusion- a fuzzy shadow imposed by my imperfect eyes when they looked through the weaker instrument.

I sketched what I saw in my observation book, and then Lystra sank below the horizon and I could examine it no further. I sighed heavily, laid my book aside, and closed my eyes in thought.

The instrument I viewed Lystra through was more powerful than mine, yes, but perhaps I could no longer see features because Lystra was brighter, and the brightness washed away all of the features. I remembered that there had been various eyepieces and filters for the telescope stored in the laboratory, so I stood to close the roof before I left to find them. As I touched the crank, however, I heard a voice behind me.

“Leave it open, if you please,” Abbess Joy said. “I would like to continue stargazing.”

I spun around and saw a glint of golden hair shining in the starlight. Abbess Joy was sitting on the edge of the platform, very near where I had been moments before.

“Abbess Joy- I didn’t hear you come in.”

“I turned out the lights below before I came up- I didn’t want to disturb you,” Abbess Joy said. “I didn’t have to be very quiet. You were very absorbed in your work.”

“I suppose I was,” I said with a laugh.

“I wish to speak with you alone,”Abbess Joy continued. “I am willing to wait until you have finished.”

“I don’t believe I will ever be finished, but I have reached a good place to pause,” I said.

Abbess Joy smiled a tight, thin smile. “Perhaps I worry too much. I have worried about you since you were born- if you were eating enough, if you would hurt yourself when you learned to tottle, if you were happy… when you were taken, there was no end to what I worried about. The worry was so great that I sent spies to watch you.”

She looked up at me with an almost sheepish expression that seemed out of place among her perfect, regal features.

“You spied on me? How?”

“There was always a Sister in your father’s employ. For some time it was the downstairs maid, and when she left the order, the scullery maid-”

“Sister Meek!” I said. “I have only seen her without her veil twice, but she looked strikingly familiar. I couldn’t quite place her, though, and when she caught me staring, she pulled down her veil.”

Abbess Joy laughed a little. “She was worried you would be cross when you discovered it. Please reassure her, when you get the chance.”

“I will.”

Abbess Joy nodded and resumed her story. “The Sisters told me that you did not get along with your father, and that you were lonely, but that you were healthy and very bright. When I learned Lord Ainsworth’s scheme to marry you to Lord Frey, I had a fresh source of worry- that you would be trapped in a loveless marriage. I never dreamed that you would fall in love with Lord Frey.”

“Nor did I,” I said. “But I think that was good for me. I quarreled with Lord Frey- I learned to stand up for myself. When we finally became friends, conflict resolved itself into passion.”

“Grace-” Abbess Joy said. “Prudence is not here, and you need not worry that you will offend me if you say anything of your true feelings. It does seem rational that, since you both love Lord Frey, you are natural allies in the quest to free him. But humans are not rational beings.”

“My feelings are not at all rational,” I said. “I should feel threatened by Prudence. I should be envious of what she shared with Lord Frey. Perhaps I would feel that way if I hadn’t become her friend before I learned the truth. I must admit that I feel some envy, but…”

I had to stop, take a breath, and reorder my thoughts. “I think you imagine that I’m trying to be selfless, but that isn’t the case. In truth, I am as jealous of Prudence’s friendship as I am of Hope’s love. I’ve already lost so much that I -”

My breath caught, and I choked a little on the tears that threatened to rise up within me. But the tears quickly faded away, and I was able to breathe once more. I looked down at my hands, and Abbess Joy placed her own pale, perfect hand over my small brown one.

“One day you will have confront what you are willfully ignoring. You must know that Prudence still loves Lord Frey. If Lord Frey is freed, he will have to choose between you.”

“Of course I know,” I said, snatching my hand back, “but I cannot think of it, now. I can’t bear the thought of losing either of them. All I can do is concentrate all of my energy toward freeing Hope.”

“Remember,” Abbess Joy said in a small voice, “that you have other friends. You will not be alone, no matter what happens. I can help you, if the burden becomes too great.”

My cheeks burned with shame at the hurt in her voice. “I’m sorry that I spoke to you so disrespectfully. You’ve been nothing but kind to me, and your concerns are…”

Abbess Joy did not respond to my apology. Instead she stood, removed her cloak, and draped it around my shoulders. “You shouldn’t remain exposed so long at this time of year. You must be cold.”

“My cloak is sufficient,” I protested. “Please, don’t freeze yourself on my account.”

“Don’t worry,” Abbess Joy said. “I can endure it.”

 

#

 

Dear Hope,

I’m writing this letter to you by the dim light of a red lamp so that the jewels of heaven remain bright above me. Lystra has just set, but in the east Nergal is rising, and Tigris is close to its apogee. The cat and the virgin’s cradle glitter in the north and south against the black curtain of night.

Even though you cannot see the stars, they are all still here, rising and setting in their procession far away from our human cares. Similarly, the sun still rises each morning, washing out the stars and flooding the world with light. The sea and the air and the creatures of earth are all still here, playing the litany of their days.

The flame you kindled within me still burns. I’m fighting for you, and I will continue to fight as sure as the sun and the stars still rise. Celeste is learning and growing more every day, and we are awaiting the day that you are freed, and we are reunited.

 

I lay the parchment flat on the floor and let the glistening ink dry as I closed the observatory roof. Then I gingerly picked it up and opened the trapdoor to descend the tower.

I was hit by a rush of warm air, which set my numb skin tingling. It had an intoxicating effect, like the steam from a hot bath, or a long drink of mulled wine, and I had to steady myself for a moment before I continued to descend.

As I’d expected, I found Prudence in the laboratory. She was perched on her usual stool, staring into one of the shining devices. Her black book lay open to an empty page beside her.

“I saw Miss Taris on my way here,” Prudence said without looking up. “She asked me where you were, and I said I didn’t know. You will need to compose your own alibi when you see her.”

“Thank you- I will retire soon,” I said distractedly. “Prudence…”

I paused, unsure of how to continue. An idea had come to me after my talk with Abbess Joy- an idea even more foolish than my rejection of her concerns. I recognized I was succumbing to impulse, just as Prudence had warned me, but I was unable to resist. I longed to give something to my husband, who was suffering alone. I longed to give something to my best friend, who had once suffered the same. I could think of nothing else.

Prudence looked up from her device and raised an expectant eyebrow, and when I still said nothing, she spoke.

“Before you go, I would like to show you something,” she said. She stood and gestured for me to sit on the stool in her place.

“This device is called a microscope,” she continued as I sat. “Do you know how it works?”

“I’ve only read a brief description,” I said, remembering the letter Mr. Filius had written. “It is somewhat like a telescope, from what I understand, only used to examine the infinitesimal.”

Prudence nodded encouragingly, and I looked into the eyepiece. I was unable to make out what I saw. There were hundreds of little pink spots, lit by a light from behind. There were a few larger spots between the pink ones, and here and there a shining, silvery star.

“I’m afraid I don’t have an opinion to offer,” I said at length. “I have no idea what I’m seeing.”

“This is a sample of normal, healthy human blood. The small red spots are called ‘cells,’ and the little stars are a type of animalcule that dwell in human blood and appear to be quite harmless.

She slid a glass pane from the instrument, and the spots disappeared. Then she slid a second pane in place of the first, and I saw another multitude of pink spots. I examined the spots for a few moments- they seemed the same size and color, and there were still a few large spots between them. I did not see any silvery stars between the spots, however. The stars were instead dark, and their shape twisted and distorted.

“These animalcules- are they dead?” I asked.

“I don’t know; I’ve never seen anything like this, even in samples taken from those who are ill. I don’t know what function the animalcules serve in the human body, if any; you are healthy in every other respect.”

“Me? Then- this is my blood?” I looked back up at Prudence’s earnest face.

“Yes. Aside from normal fatigue, you haven’t been experiencing any unusual symptoms, have you?”

“No- none at all.”

“And your diet?”

“I eat nothing more than what is served in the refectory.”

Prudence sighed heavily and sat on the stool next to me. “I’ll have to do more research. At least I’ve finally found a physiological difference- all of your other samples were normal.”

“I am not surprised that this is the only difference you’ve found. Even though I’d never been much in society before my marriage, I’ve always felt normal. The only indication that I am different is my ability to resist magic, which is hardly something that will manifest in everyday life.”

Prudence nodded, her wide blue eyes gazing past me in a distracted way. “I understand what you mean. Before my parents told me, and showed me my family’s writ of condemnation, I never had any clue that I was damned. I’d have thought that I would be marked in some way, or suffer from some sort of curse from birth, but I always felt normal.”

““I suspect that the one common thread between us- considering your condemnation and my lack of soul- lies in the High Priest’s seal. While you conduct your research, I’ll try to find some clue about how it works.”

Prudence turned her distracted gazed back to me, as though she had just returned from the past to the present, and gave me a wry smile. “I wish you more luck on that subject than I have had.”

I thanked her, and then fell into silence, still unsure on how to breach the subject of my visit.

“Grace?”

“I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I might as well do it awkwardly. Prudence, write something for Hope, and I will include it in my letter.” I took a blank piece of parchment and a pen from the edge of the table and pushed it toward her.

“Grace- that isn’t possible. You know why it isn’t possible,” she whispered, backing away from the paper slightly as though afraid.

“You don’t have to tell him that it’s you. I’ll copy it by hand into my letter, and no one will know.”

“Then why include my message at all?” Prudence looked back up at me, bewildered.

“Even if he doesn’t know it’s yours, at least he’ll have the message,” I said. “It’s not much, but it is better than nothing at all.”

Prudence reach out slowly and touched the parchment.

“Grace- I don’t know what to say to him. After I left, and after so many years have passed, we are strangers.”

“You understand what he’s going through better than anyone,” I urged. “You grew up with him. Just tell him how you feel.”

Prudence slid the parchment closer to herself.

“I will need time,” she said softly.

“Lux will be here until week’s end. I’ve finished my portion of the letter, and it will not take long for me to copy your portion, so take as much time as you need.”

Prudence stared at the blank parchment for a few more moments, and then she pulled me into an embrace. She did not speak, and for that I was grateful.

Part LX

The Coven- Interlude

The wind was quiet and the waves were low as Miss Taris approached the shore. She walked slowly, trying not to disturb the gravel under her feet lest she break the rare moment of peace.

In the sparse moonlight, however, it was not long until she lost her footing. She tripped, and though she did not fall, she sent some gravel clattering down toward the dunes. She paused a moment as the sound died away, and then winced, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“You are a liar,” she said aloud, though no one else was present. “I may be forced to listen, but I don’t have to believe you. You are a liar.”

She took a deep breath, raised her head, and continued to walk through the dune path toward the shore. She stopped at the edge where wet sand met dry, and then looked up at the red sliver of moon.

“Wisdom,” she whispered. “Please, hear my prayers. Gain the power to hear the prayers of all who suffer.”

“Pius is transforming into Wisdom as we speak. It is all happening right now- I promise.”

Miss Taris spun around and face Brother Lux, who was walking toward her from the dunes.

“I know it is,” Miss Taris stepped forward to meet Brother Lux. A rare smile graced her face as she looked up at him. “I don’t need faith to tell me so. Every time I pray to him, I feel his peace. And now that you’ve arrived, I can see with my own eyes what he’s done for you. You have already become his angel- I can tell. You are resplendent.”

She moved with arms outstretched as though to embrace Brother Lux, but then she stopped and snatched her arms back.

“No- I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I might as well try to touch a flame.”

“My body has been changed, but it is still flesh,” he said. He reached out and placed his hand on her head, as though to soothe a small child.

Miss Taris frowned a little, but she did not object.

“My magic, however, has grown dangerous,” Brother Lux continued, and he let his hand fall to his side. “I feel as though I could move the sea itself, but I’m afraid it would cause a tidal wave that would destroy all of del Sol. I need to learn control .”

“Wisdom will help you,” Miss Taris said.

“Yes, he will. We must help him, as well.” Brother Lux removed his shoes, and tossed them aside, letting his bare feet sink into the sand. Then he stepped around Miss Taris and walked to the sea, wading until the waves came almost to his knees.

“Stop!” Miss Taris called. “You will freeze.”

But Brother Lux laughed in response, throwing his loose hair back behind his shoulders.

“I feel the cold, but it’s nothing like before,” he said. “There’s no pain- just a pleasant shiver of sensation. It cannot hurt me at all.”

Miss Taris stared at Brother Lux in silence for a moment, and then pulled her own cloak tighter around her shoulders.

Brother Lux waded back to shore until the waves barely licked his feet and looked earnestly at Miss Taris.

“How have you been faring? Have you found any relief, or at least the strength to bear your curse?”

“When I am near Lady Frey, I stop hearing the voices,” Miss Taris said. “If I stay with her long enough, even my headache fades. At night, however, I am alone, and the voices keep me awake.”

Brother Lux frowned. “Do you still hear the same voices?”

Miss Taris sighed and wiped her hand across her brow. “Yes-always the same voices, saying the same words. I hear my father telling me that I’m worthless. I hear Sir Montag telling me I am ugly. I hear Lady Fairfax telling me I am foolish. I talk back to them- I tell them that they are liars, and that I know my own worth, but they just laugh.

“I am more determined than ever to prove them wrong, but they do make my head ache terribly.”

Brother Lux went to her and, without hesitation, placed his hand on her head once more. This time she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Brother Lux. You are a much greater relief than Lady Frey.”

“I am sorry,” Brother Lux whispered, “but you must endure your curse a little longer. As soon as Wisdom has ascended, he will make you perfect, like he has made me. You will be rewarded for your faith.”

“I told you before- I don’t need faith.” Miss Taris pulled away. “And you must not blame yourself for my pain. Before you and Wisdom gave me power, I had to endure the true voices of those who hated me. My curse is only an echo of that, and it will pass.”

“Even so, I am growing impatient for the time when we can end all of this pain,” Brother Lux said. His shoulders sagged as he spoke, as though weighed down by an invisible burden. Then he straightened them again, standing taller than before. “Is there nothing else that can be done to make things easier for you? Can’t you be quartered nearer Lady Frey, so that you can sleep?”

“I’ve already moved into closer quarters, actually,” Miss Taris said. “I haven’t slept near her yet, so I’m not sure if it will work. Lady Frey spent three days at the southern shrine with Abbess Joy, and last night she went- well, I’m not sure where she went. She often disappears with Abbess Joy or Sister Jubilee.”

Brother Lux nodded and turned to pace around Miss Taris, his hands clasped behind his back.

“I am not surprised that they are conspiring. Still, I would like to know exactly where they go. I know you are tired, but-”

“I will try to find out,” Miss Taris said, turning to watch Brother Lux as he paced around her. “One thing puzzles me. Abbess Joy said that they were visiting Lady Frey’s mother at the south dunes, but I was under the impression that it was a pauper’s cemetery, full of criminals and slaves.”

Brother Lux paused in his pacing. “Everyone is given equal treatment at del Sol, even the dead. Anyone may be buried at the south dunes, no matter their station. Lady Frey’s mother is not out of place, there; you needn’t inquire into that matter.”

“I didn’t mean to be insensitive,” Miss Taris muttered, looking down as though she’d been chastised. Then she looked up again.

“Oh! I’d meant to tell you something else- Miss Mercy is teaching us all to fight, just as she and Lady Frey fought the bandits.”

“I’m surprised that Abbess Joy hasn’t stopped her,” Brother Lux said. “The only law at del Sol is that no one must harm a fellow pilgrim.”

“Abbess Joy said that Miss Mercy must be careful that we aren’t harmed, but everyone is worried about the bandits. I decided to learn alongside the others. I want to be strong in both mind and body.” She stopped and looked at Brother Lux in alarm. “Was I wrong to do so?”

Brother Lux smiled and shook his head. “Oh no- learn whatever you can. Gain strength and continue to spread Wisdom’s word while you are at del Sol. You’ve done very well, Miss Taris. Thank you.”

Miss Taris smiled at Brother Lux, her eyes shining with happiness.

Brother Lux made the sign of Wisdom over Miss Tari’s head, and then he turned back to the abbey and beckoned for Miss Taris to follow. Miss Taris picked up his discarded boots, brushed the sand from them, and then ran to catch up.

The Coven, Part LIX

The Coven, Part LVIII

It was difficult to avoid staring at Brother Lux while I dined.

He still possessed the unmistakable Frey features- the high cheekbones, high forehead, fine nose and round eyes, but he had somehow altered. The more I looked, the more puzzled I grew as to where the change lie. His eyes were a little darker than usual- I had always thought his eyes and hair were a lighter shade of brown than Hope’s- but it might have been an effect of the refectory dim firelight. His face did seem less soft, less youthful, but it was by no means aged. He glowed with vitality; I had never seen him look so handsome, nor seem so merry.

He brazenly ignored the sisters’ custom of eating in silence, and took every opportunity he could to engage Abbess Joy in conversation. Abbess Joy indulged his mood, answering his questions and even occasionally laughing at his jokes.

“I’m afraid I’m disturbing your respite,” Lux said in a solemn voice, though his eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement. “I had forgotten how good this place is for the soul. I’ve come here thrice before- twice in my troubled youth, and once in haste to bring Lady Frey- and each time I’ve found the peace that I sought. Your sanctuary is a boon to mankind, Abbess.”

“Thank you, Brother. I’m glad I can assist those who are able to journey to this sanctuary, but I’ve often wished I could do more for the wider world.”

“Perhaps, in time, you will,” Brother Lux said. “My cup overflows with optimism, and I can afford to share it with you.”

“It’s good you are in a generous mood,” I said, unable to hold my tongue any longer. “Some of us must rely on you for our optimism.”

Brother Lux turned and fixed me with his dark gaze. “In times such as these, it’s vital that you don’t give up hope.”

“Hope is all I have,” I replied.

Brother Lux turned back to Abbess Joy.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Brother Lux said to Abbess Joy. Then he turned back to me. “Lady Frey, if you would please join me…”

He stood and I rose to follow.

We walked to the Calefactory through the icy wind, which filtered through the cloisters and across the courtyard. When we entered the Calefactory, Sister Jubilee was already there, tending the hearth.

“Ah- Grace, there you are,” she said without looking up. “If you will fill the kettle, I will bring our books closer to the fire. It’s going to be a cold night.”

“The night will be cold, but tomorrow, I expect the sun will melt away all of the ice,” Brother Lux said.

Prudence paused in her work, and then began again as though she hadn’t heard him. I followed her lead, fetching the kettle and tea tin without a word.

Surely, he recognized her voice, I thought. Did he hear it the last time he was here? Will he allow her to remain safe here, or was he really not the one who rescued her before?

“You mentioned that you had letters for me,” I prompted Brother Lux as I worked. “Was there anything else you needed to discuss?”

“I’m sorry- I didn’t realize you had private business,” Prudence said. She stood and brushed off her robes. “I shall retire early.”

“Are you sure you wish to leave, Sister?” Brother Lux said. “You must be curious what I have to say to Lady Frey, and there is a matter I wish to discuss with you, as well.”

I froze.

“What business do you have with me?” she asked in a low voice.

Lux turned toward the door and raised his hand in the same gesture he had once used to cast a spell of silence on Abbess Joy’s office, though this time he did not say anything. Then he turned back to Prudence.

“There’s no reason for us to play games,” Lux replied. “We’re too old for that now, Prudence.”

This is a trick, I screamed in my thoughts as though I could make her hear me. Don’t reveal anything.

But Prudence sighed and pulled back her veil. “Funny- the older I get, the more games I’m drawn into.”

I dropped into the nearest chair.

Lux turned toward me, his eyebrows raised.

“You aren’t surprised, are you? I’d imagined that the two of you would be plotting together from the first day you met.”

Prudence came to sit beside me, and looked into my face with an anxious expression.

“Did you intend for us to find each other, Lux?” she asked after a few moments.

Brother Lux sat across from us and gazed at us with appraising eyes.

“Of course I did. There is little room for error,” he said. “I worried that Lady Frey’s part would prove too difficult for her to bear on her own. If you had acted as expected, Prudence, then Lady Frey would not look so fatigued.”

“I will spend all of the energy I can to free my husband, help or no,” I said. “Prudence isn’t responsible for my condition.”

Lux stood again, as though restless, and paced around the room while Prudence and I watched in silence. Then he came back and examined me more closely.

“You are fatigued, but you aren’t unwell. Your color is good, and you haven’t lost any weight. What’s more-” he paused and stood straighter, pulling a bundle of letters from his robes, “the letters I carry tell me a great deal about how you’ve spent your time in exile.”

He untied the bundle and placed one of the letters on the bare table that stood beside my chair.

“This is a note from your husband’s attorney, who has been making a proper nuisance of himself. He’s already examined the blood oath, and he interviewed the accuser without my consent. Now he is demanding the right to interview the accused.”

Lux smiled as though in approval, and placed a second letter next to the first. “This letter is from your solicitor. He attempted to send this letter to you in secret, but I easily intercepted it. Tell him to be more careful in the future. Thankfully, there’s nothing of any real import in this note. He conveys the gratitude of some of your husband’s tenants for your assistance, and he also makes some investment recommendations, though he advises caution. I believe he fears Abbess Joy’s displeasure should your assets not be well guarded.”

I winced. I’d hoped to keep my money a secret from the inquisition for as long as possible. “I shall ask him to be more careful. I certainly hope he didn’t include my account information in the letter, as well.”

Lux laughed- a fuller laugh than the barking laughter I’d last heard from him. “Don’t worry- you aren’t a suspect, so the inquisition will not touch your assets as long as you use them well. I knew you would inquire after the estate, but I didn’t expect you to provide so much material help to the tenants. Thank you.”

I opened my mouth to rebuke him for his lack of action, but paused. He looked down, letting his hair fall over his face, but I could still see a patch of skin on his cheek grow pink in the firelight. When he looked up again, he wore a look of shame in his eyes.

Prudence stood and went to him. “Why? Why did you let it come to this?”

Lux gave Prudence a sad, half-smile. “I might ask you the same thing.”

I stood, ready to defend my friend, but Prudence looked back at me and shook her head. Lux watched our silent exchange, but did not remark on it. Instead, he took a folded note and placed it next to the first two letters.

“I hope this helps you feel the good you’ve already done. It may fortify you for what’s to come.”

“What is to come?” I asked. “What is happening, now? Can you tell me how Hope is- how Captain Goode, Chastity, and Lady and Lord Willoughby are? Have you brought me the one letter I long to read?”

Brother Lux gently pressed me back into my seat.

“Please save your strength; you are fatigued. I really should insist you go to bed now, but your anxiety will be worse if I leave you unsatisfied. Before I give you Hope’s letter, I must warn you- he has entered the second degree of questioning.”

“The second degree?” I looked to Prudence, whose face had gone white as Brother Lux spoke.

Prudence sat beside me again, and reached out to take my hand- her own hand was trembling.

“The first degree of questioning is bad enough,” she said in a slow, careful voice. “They strip and examine your whole body, prod you with needles to provoke a magical reaction, and keep you up all hours, asking the same questions over and over. If you prove too ‘stubborn’ to confess under those conditions, the inquisitors start the true torture- that’s the second degree.”

“The prisoners are alive and as yet unmaimed,” Brother Lux said. “The mental effects of the abuse, however-”

Prudence glared up at Brother Lux with such ferocity that he stepped back.

“You cannot allow this to continue,” she said. “Your own brother, my brother, our friends-”

“I thought of you as my sister before your betrayal,” Lux replied with an edge of steel in his voice. “The laws of magic are stronger than the ties of friendship or blood. Even so, you have my word that they won’t die.”

Prudence laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh. “The worst part is that you really believe what you’re saying. As long as nothing unforeseen occurs, our friends might survive torture and emerge from their trial unscathed. This is enough to ease your conscience.”

“I won’t disabuse you of your anger- you will need it. Forget that you’re alive now because I willed it, and fight as hard as you can to save Hope. That is all I require.”

Lux turned away from Prudence and handed the last letters to me.

“There is real anguish and despair in his letter,” Lux said in a gentler voice. “Do not become infected by it. Give him hope for the future in your reply. I will remain at the abbey for three days, so you have time to compose your letter carefully.”

I looked at Prudence’s ashen face, and back to Lux.

“How can my words possibly be enough?”

“Your words can’t free him, nor can they take his pain away,” Lux said. “All I ask is that you remind him of the light in the world, and of everything he has to gain.”

 

#

 

That night I fell asleep during my third reading of Hope’s letter, as the tears dried on my cheeks.

I had asked Prudence to read the letter with me, but she’d refused. I knew she understood why I’d asked her, and in the same way, I understood why she’d refused.

She had spoken to me before she left me alone with the letter. The truth she offered me gave no comfort- rather, it was as though she’d lit the lantern for me to read by its light.

“I can guess what comes to your mind when you imagine torture,” she said, sitting beside me on my cot. “I can assure you that the torture machines that you read about are never used. The inquisition has built a few, but their only use is to be carted about and exhibited at festivals. The real methods of torture the inquisition implements are far more mundane, and probably far more effective.

“During the second degree, the inquisitors would dunk my head in freezing water until I thought I would drown, or hold me over hot coals until I thought I would burn. They would beat and whip me, all the while taunting me to call upon my demon to make the torment stop. It was unbearable, but I was never tempted; I knew that magic would bring me no relief.”

“But if the others don’t feel the same aversion to magic-”

Prudence sighed. “They are stronger than I was. Hope has literally seen hell, so whatever they present him with can’t compare. My brother was always strong, even before he was trained as a soldier, and Chastity possesses a quiet strength that enables her to endure constant pain. My greatest fear is that Lady and Lord Willoughby will betray themselves. They have lived a decadent life, and are unaccustomed to physical endurance.”

A sudden thought came to me, and I stood to pace the room and shake off my fatigue.

“Grace?”

“I don’t think that Hope literally sees hell when he sleeps,” I said.

A frown tugged at the corners of Prudence’s lips. “You must have witnessed his torment- you cannot deny such anguish.”

I stopped pacing. “I don’t mean to diminish his pain. I have seen it, and I would give anything to be able to go to him now and take it away. He described his dreams to me in great detail, once, and among those agonies he said that he saw you, beside his parents, suffering hell’s torment.”

“But I’m still alive.”

“Exactly.” I sat beside Prudence once more. “This means that he cannot really be seeing hell.”

“Then what does he see?” Prudence stood now, and paced the tiny room as I had a moment before. Then she stopped abruptly, opened the door, and looked into the hallway.

“No one is near, and Miss Taris’s room is still empty.” Prudence closed the door and sighed. “We are growing careless- this conversation is better suited to the tower.”

“I cannot go, tonight,” I said. I handed her Hope’s letter to Celeste. “Are you certain you won’t stay to read Hope’s letter with me?”

“He addressed it to you,” Prudence said softly. “I will read this letter to ensure there’s nothing that may alarm Celeste. I know he would never do so on purpose, but in his current state…”

“I understand. Thank you, Prudence.”

“Don’t thank me. Lux was right, you know- I should have been helping you from the beginning, instead of allowing that wall of mistrust to exist between us. From now on, I will give you everything I can to help Hope.”

“There’s no need to apologize. You’ve put Celeste’s safety first in your thoughts and actions, which is exactly what Hope would wish. I’m grateful that you are able to give her what I cannot.”

Prudence smiled a little, and the slipped her veil back over her face.

“If you need me, remember that I am just on the other side of Celeste’s door.”

The Coven- Interlude