The Coven, Part CVI

Read from the beginning.

I sat by my bedroom window, staring into the morning light.

      The sunlight was piercingly bright, and the more I stared, the worse my temples throbbed with pain. The night before, Wisdom had escorted me to my room and had pressed a cup of brandy into my hands, watching as I’d downed one, and then another, and then another. Sufficiently numbed, I had managed to fall asleep, but I had not slept long until the morning light made sleep impossible.

      Even though I could no longer escape through sleep, at least my headache cast a pleasant veil over the memory of my interview with Wisdom.

      Not far from my window, in the rose garden, Chastity and Mirth were sparring. At first glance, I would have assumed Chastity had every advantage. She was a skilled fighter, was stronger than Mirth, and was nearly a head taller. Mirth, however, still possessed the same speed and the same keen eye that had made her such a formidable opponent the last time we’d fought.  

      This morning, Mirth was overextending herself, but it was clear she had not lost her ability to fight. All she needed was to regain an intuitive sense of her body and its abilities, and she would no doubt overcome Chastity completely.

      A knock sounded on the door as I watched. I called, “come in,’ and the door creaked open. I didn’t have to look up to know that Hope had entered. I continued to watch as Hope dragged a chair next to the window and sat beside me.

      “I haven’t seen you wear that dress since last summer,” he remarked.

      I looked down at the muslin dress I’d put on that morning. Surprisingly, my trousseau had remained untouched by the inquisitors when they had ransacked Rowan Heights. I had taken my flashiest clothes to St. Blanc, and I did not own any jewels, so it seemed likely that the inquisitors simply hadn’t realized how valuable my wardrobe was. Or, perhaps, they had no use for women’s gowns, and knew it would look odd if they tried to sell them.

      I had awakened feeling hot and feverish, so I’d stumbled into my dressing room, washed, and put on the rustling muslin gown, laying aside my breeches and sword.

      “You do not wish to spar with Chastity and Mirth?” Hope said, gesturing to the rose garden.

      “No. I’m not ready to make the attempt,” I said.

      Hope scooted his chair closer to mine and took my hand.

      “I have so much to tell you. I spoke to Prudence last night through Miss Taris, just as Miss Taris had promised. I confirmed that I spoke to Prudence; she and Celeste and Mercy were all safe together at del Sol. Abbess Joy sent you a message to confirm that she was present. She said you would know what this meant- ‘The maelstrom and tempest are with us now, but soon they will leave this place in peace.’ Do you know what it means? Is it about the war?”

      This unexpected note of grace pierced through the veil of pain that had wrapped itself around my mind, and I sat up, a startled laugh bubbling from my lips.

      “Oh no- it isn’t about the war at all. The maelstrom is an airship. I gave Mr. Filius funds to complete the sister ship, and I suppose it will soon be complete.”

      “An airship?” Hope said, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Is this some new kind of sea vessel?”

      “Oh no, it is just what it sounds like- a ship that floats on air.”

      Hope laughed. “Surely, that can’t be literally true.”

      “I’ve seen the prototype work. I rode in it my-”

      The words caught in my throat as I remembered the destination of my balloon ride. I remembered the battle to liberate the Ancient temple, the lives I’d taken, and the bodies I’d buried- Ancient warriors who lacked any souls to continue in the afterlife.

      How can I speak of this so calmly now, I thought. I, who have bent my knee to my people’s enemy.

      Memories of my actions the night before burst through, clear and fresh through the veil of pain. I had begged Wisdom to grant me a soul, and had offered my life and service in exchange. I had betrayed Hope and Prudence, whom Wisdom had tortured and maimed. I had betrayed my people, who faced death without fear.

      Still, I could not deny that a dark force, one I had invited, was growing within me. Surely, if it was possible that I would one day harm Prudence or Hope’s magic, which they relied on to survive, I was obligated to use any means to stop it from happening. If it was possible for me to become powerful enough to damage their souls…

      I shuddered, unable to contemplate the possibility for long.

      “Grace?” Hope whispered.

      “Hope, may I ask you a question?”

      “Yes, anything.”

      “Can you control your desires?”

      Outside, Chastity launched a final series of blows that overwhelmed Mirth, who fell into the flower beds in a shower of rose petals.

      “Control my- what do you mean?” Hope said, a look of astonishment on his face.

      “My power to counteract magic is a force of will” I said. “I have learned to assert my will- to force my feelings to move through and shatter any magic that opposes it. But my will is a manifestation of my desires, which are just… intrinsic. Can you, with your human soul, control your desires?”

      Hope bit his lip and looked outside, where Chastity was helping Mirth back to her feet. The two bowed in mutual respect, and then began to flow through a series of slow, meditative forms.

      “I don’t believe that anyone can control their desires,” Hope said. “You can repress them, perhaps, but that always causes pain, in the end. That is why I rebelled against the Gods- so we could build a world where people didn’t have to repress their desires.”

      “It is good to allow people to marry those whom they love, to allow people to pursue knowledge freely, and try to build a life for themselves outside of their station. But what about dark desires- anger, envy, the lust for vengeance?”

      “If it were easy for people with souls to repress their dark desires, then there would be very little suffering in the world,” Hope said. “I do think we can control how we behave. It isn’t easy, but when the desires in our hearts are in conflict, we can learn to choose the higher will within us. When we are overwhelmed by darkness, we can channel our darker impulses toward justice.”

      I sighed. “When I first began to train with Mercy, every move I made had to be slow- deliberate. I had to tell my hand and foot exactly where to move, and how. Then, once I learned the forms by heart, my hand and foot would react at speed, before I even thought of it. My power is much the same- at first, I had to concentrate and force my feelings to move. Now they know how to move, and react at speed. I don’t know if I can reign them in, again.”

      “You can. The most powerful martial artists I’ve seen are the ones who have the greatest control.” Hope gestured out of the window toward Chastity, who held a difficult pose like a statue, without the slightest sway or waver in her posture.

      “Grace,” Hope continued quietly. “What did Wisdom say to you, last night? Did he hurt you, in any way?”

      I almost told Hope the entire story- about how I’d pleaded with Wisdom to give me a soul, and how he had offered to help me. As broken as I was, however, a piece of my mind was still playing the game, and it calculated that Wisdom had offered me a soul in order to gain Hope’s goodwill.

      “He didn’t hurt me. He only told me that I must learn to control myself- control my powers.”

“He would do anything he could to crush your powers, now. You are a threat to him.”

      “Yes- he admitted that I was a threat,” I said. “Still, until I learn control, I am as much a threat to my friends as my foes.”

      “I will help you in any way I can,” Hope said. “I believe in you.”

      “Thank you,” I whispered, though I could not feel the same confidence.

      I stood. “I have been sitting here too long. I need to stretch my legs. I think I will take a short walk.”

      Hope nodded, and stood as well. “Don’t go too far- I will join you soon. Lord Willoughby requested that I speak with him after breakfast.”

      “It’s alright. I will see you soon,” I said.

      Hope pressed my hand and left the room.

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

      I wandered the halls of Rowan Heights, surveying the damage that the inquisition had done. Some rooms were stripped of all of their ornaments, and some seemed to be untouched. I did not see any damage to the building itself until I reached the hallway near the library.

      The paper on the walls, which had once been blue and white, was streaked with black scorch marks. Several of the portraits had been utterly destroyed, and the rest were rendered unrecognizable by water and smoke. The heavy library door was mostly gone, but for two heavy beams that hung askew on the frame. I looked through the doorway and saw that inside, only a heap of rubble and ash remained.

      As I approached to get a closer look, I heard a tentative voice behind me.

“Lady Frey?”

      I turned and saw Lady Willoughby, dressed in silk and feathers and wearing a sheepish expression.

      “Lady Willoughby,” I went to her and, dropping any attempt at formality, embraced her. “I am sorry I could not greet you properly, last night. How glad I am to see you looking so well!”

      “You are?” Lady Willoughby said. She pulled back with a puzzled expression. “I thought you would be cross with me, now that I follow Wisdom. I’d heard that Lord Frey was the last one of us who still resisted Wisdom- well, he and Captain Goode, but no one knows what has become of Captain Goode.”

      “I didn’t know that you follow Wisdom,” I said. “I’d worried he was keeping you here against your will.”

      “I-” Lady Willoughby started, and then cast a glance at the ruined library. “Can we go to the sitting room, or to your study- anywhere else but here. I need some semblance of normal, now.”

      “Of course, Lady Willoughby,” I said. I took her arm, and together we walked back to my study.

      My study had not escaped the inquisitor’s hands. My desk set was missing, including a very handsome mother-of-pearl paper knife, which I’d brought from Willowbrook. The lanterns, vases, and the ornate torsion clock, which I suspected had originally belonged to Prudence, were all gone, as well. The bookshelves were almost empty- The handsome tomes that Hope had gifted to me upon our marriage were all missing, and only a few paper-bound books and pamphlets remained.

      I opened the side doors to the garden to fill the empty room with the scent of roses and starflowers. Then I gestured for Lady Willougby to have a seat, and seated myself at my desk across from her.

      “It is obvious that Hope still despises Wisdom,” Lady Willoughby said as she sat. “But Captain Goode believed that you were secretly working for Wisdom the whole time. That isn’t true, is it?”

      “Not intentionally, no,” I said. “But his manipulation was so perfect that every move I made ended up working in his favor. I’ve been his pawn.”

      “I understand,” Lady Willoughby said. “Whether we fight him or join him, it all ends up being the same in the end.

      “Still,” she looked up at me, her eyes wide with awe. “I wonder if you may not succeed where the rest of us have failed. You broke our curses, after all, and then you freed us from our chains. I was half-drugged at the time, but I will never forget the moment I saw you, dressed like a man, charging at the guards with your sword raised. You looked like the old paintings of the Goddess Chastity- her hair unbound and her bow raised in the hunt.”

      “How did you get away, after we were separated?” I asked. “Hope and I saw you and the others from one of the barred windows, but I couldn’t tell where you were headed. How did you end up here, with Wisdom?”

      Lady Willoughby twirled one of the curls from her powdered wig around an elegant finger. “You will think I have gone mad. Even after all of the wonders we’ve seen, some of the story is so fantastic that I can hardly describe it.”

      “Try- I doubt anything can surprise me, now.”

      Lady Willoughby laughed a little, and then folded her hands. “Let me start from the beginning, then. After we escaped the Cathedral, the men in black led us into an empty field nearby, and Wisdom was waiting there. When I saw him, I thought that I had been caught again- that I would soon die.

      “I suppose Captain Goode thought the same thing, because he overcame the nearest man and fled. The rest of us were too weak and frightened to do anything, but looking back, I believe Wisdom would have let us go if we’d tried to run. No one tried to stop Captain Goode.

      “We all stood in the field, trembling and waiting for the end, but the end didn’t come. Instead, Wisdom raised his hand in the air, and it looked like part of the sky was torn away like a veil, revealing a large, white object- like a giant bird with four, spinning wings. It landed on the grassy field, an opening appeared in the side of the object, and Wisdom led us all inside.

      “The inside of the object looked like a comfortable little sitting room, and Mrs. Auber was already there waiting for us, drinking tea. I sat next to the window, and then the whole object lifted us up- up- up into the sky. The cathedral, and then the whole city and its lights, looked smaller and smaller below us. I thought to myself that we were being borne up into heaven, and I felt sad to go. I whispered to myself, ‘goodbye, Willoughby Lodge. Goodbye, St. Blanc. Goodbye balls, and parties, and nights at the theatre.’ I wondered if there would be music in heaven, but even if there was, wouldn’t I still miss my poor little lute?”

      She sighed. “Isn’t it strange that, after everything I’d suffered, I still wished to stay on earth?”

      “I’ve never known anyone with as much spirit and life within them,” I said. “I am not surprised.”

      Lady Willoughby leaned forward to squeeze my hand before she continued.

      “Wisdom spoke, then. He said that he didn’t wish to begin his reign in debt to us, and he asked if there was any purpose for which we’d joined the Coven that remained unfulfilled. For a time, none of us were able to speak, and then Chastity said, ‘I joined the Coven because I never wish to die, and I have yet to gain immortality.’ At that moment, I realized that I wanted the same thing.

      “Wisdom looked very grave, then. He said he could only grant us immortality as his angels, and that we could only become his angels if we would worship him.”

      Lady Willoughby stood and began to pace around the study. “You can only imagine how I felt then, Lady Frey. It was enough to overcome all of my fear, and I told him how much I hated him. I actually shouted at him for everything he’d done- how he’d betrayed us, tortured us, and paraded our pain and humiliation before all of Aeterna for his own political gain.”

      She paused in her pacing and turned back to me. “I must admit that I quite lost my head. I lunged at him and beat him with my fists, though I’m sure he didn’t feel a thing. He didn’t punish me- he didn’t even try to stop me. He only stood and took the brunt of my anger until I’d worn myself out.

      “By this time, we’d arrived at Willoughby Lodge. The inquisition had torn the place apart looking for evidence, but even so- it was home. Wisdom left us there to rest while he went off, doing heaven knows what. He left Mrs. Auber to look after us while we regained our strength. At the first opportunity, I asked Mrs. Auber why she had gone along with Wisdom- why she had betrayed us. She told me that she had seen into the future, and had foreseen Wisdom’s victory.”

      “You mean- she foresaw that he would ascend to godhood, or that he would rule Aeterna?”

      Lady Willoughby sighed and sat down hard, her skirts billowing and settling all around her. “All of it. She saw that he would ascend to Godhood, set up rule in Aeterna, and one day, he would rule world in Order’s stead. Of course, she never gives a 100% certainty for anything she sees, but she said this time, it was as close to 100% as anything ever has been- that the alternative was not even worth mentioning.”

“But surely,” I thought, “if she is never completely certain…”

“My husband was a little skeptical of her abilities when this all started, so one night he tested them during a game of silent lots. After hundreds of hands at the game, he realized that her predictions failed precisely as often as the odds of her predictions suggested. She has been wrong before, but her confidence in her predictions has never been wrong.”

“I see,” I said.  

 Lady Willoughby looked down at her hands. “I’m not an avid gamer, but I know when to fold. I’m too tired to fight the Gods any longer, Lady Frey. At least Wisdom’s church will allow people to choose whom to marry, and he will end the practice of beating children in schools. This is why, when Wisdom returned to Willoughby Lodge, I told him I would follow him. Wisdom’s sovereign, if he chooses to accept his throne, will be in a position to end slavery and inequality. It would be better if Lord Frey accepted the power he’s being offered. He might be able to make something out of this mess.”

Lady Frey looked up, and a smirk graced the corners of her lips. “There- I’ve done it. I’ve made my attempt to persuade you, just as Wisdom ordered. At this moment, my husband is attempting to persuade your husband to join Wisdom.”

      “How can you be certain that Wisdom will keep his promises, after everything he’s done?” I said.

      “I can’t, but I am at his mercy.”

Lady Willoughby took a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. Then she sniffed and sat up straight, her eyes clear and makeup undisturbed. “I can lie pretty well now, thanks to you- you needn’t believe a word I say. Talk to Mrs. Auber- talk to anyone else, so you may give Lord Frey all the information he needs to help him decide. We need him.”

      “Now-” Lady Willoughby said, standing. “Let’s dress for dinner. I can’t stand any more listless evenings, so we must have music and dancing tonight. I’ve had enough of pain and death; I am still alive.”

 

 

#

 

 

      I spent the entire afternoon in my dressing room with Lady Willoughby, Chastity, Mercy and Miss Taris. Mrs. Auber was also present, though she sat quietly in the corner like a shadow.

      Lady Willoughby had made the business of dressing for dinner a party in itself, and had ordered tea to be served in the dressing room as she went through the remnants of my wardrobe.

      “All of your best gowns were left at St. Blanc, I suppose,” Lady Willoughby said. “But there is plenty here. You still have the blue satin, which was always my favorite, and the pink rose-brocade is a bit girlish, but it is still very pretty. I think, too, that the white organdy can be dressed up for dinner.”

      She turned suddenly and fixed her eyes on Mirth. “You, Miss Beaumont, must wear the white organdy. No one else here has the complexion to wear white so well.”

      Mirth blinked up at Lady Willoughby, as though she were surprised at being so addressed. “Please call me Mirth,” she said. “I don’t believe my father will allow me to carry the family name any longer, and to be honest, I don’t want it.”

      “Mirth- what a pretty name!” Lady Willoughby said. “Never mind about your father, Mirth; they can be such tyrants. He will regret his loss in time, I am sure.”

      Lady Willoughby held the dress out toward Mirth.

      “I’ve never worn anything half so fine,” Mirth said. She turned to me. “Are you sure it is alright, Lady Frey?”

      “Yes, of course. I can only wear one gown at a time,” I said. “Lady Willoughby will make me wear the blue satin; I can read her mind.”

      Lady Willoughby laughed. “There- you see? Come now, if you are embarrassed, you can change behind the screen.”

      Lady Willoughby, accepting no further argument, led Mirth behind the screen. As they fussed with stays and laces, I broke away from the group and went to the corner, where Mrs. Auber sat. She had been sitting, quite composed, wearing a look of equanimity that dissolved as I approached.

      “Mrs. Auber-”

      “Please- not so near me, Lady Frey,” she said. “You cloud my eye far worse than you ever have before.”

      “I will be brief,” I promised. “I only wish to ask a couple of questions.”

      Mrs. Auber reached up, fiddling with the silver chain around her neck. “Very well, but do be quick about it.”

      I nodded. “Mrs. Auber, if you knew that Wisdom would succeed at his endeavor, why did you warn my husband at St. Blanc?”

      “I don’t know what you mean,” she huffed. “I’ve never been to St. Blanc in my life.”

      I leaned closer, lowering my voice. “You gave Lady Willoughby a card- the card of death- and asked her to pass it along to him.”

      Mrs. Auber dropped her necklace. “No, dear- not death. Change. It is a common misinterpretation, because people fear real change. But the card represents trials, sacrifice, and ultimate rebirth.”

      “Why did you send it to him?” I persisted. “Did you foresee that my husband would do anything different as a result of your action?”

      “No. I knew your husband would act the same, regardless. No matter what I did, your husband would be arrested, tortured, and then freed by the new God. I sent him the card so that it would not be such a shock when it happened.”

      “I see,” I said quietly. “You did it to assuage your conscience.”

      Mrs. Auber looked down at her hands. “Believe what you like, child, but I had no guilt to assuage. Wisdom could not be stopped. What will be, will be.”

The Coven, Part CVII

The Coven, Part C

Read from the beginning.  

      The sun was high in the sky, but the wind was cool as it blew over the verdant fields outside of Rogue Village.

      Hope and I walked between rows of barley, which grew straight and tall, without the slightest trace of blight. In front of us walked a group of dragoons, who swapped stories and laughter as though they were on a holiday.

      Behind us was a small group of inquisitors led by Miss Taris, who still wore her red robes. Hope kept his eyes fixed ahead of him as we went, his jaw clenched.

      “Stop- the entrance to the tunnel is just ahead,” Miss Taris called. She ran forward, and Hope squeezed his eyes shut for just a moment as she passed.

      “Are you alright?” I whispered to Hope.

      “The sight of those robes makes me feel a bit ill.” Hope took a deep breath, and then smiled. “But it is nothing; it will pass.”

      I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then we continued to the end of the field.

      We caught up to Miss Taris who stood at the edge of a grassy mound, next to a low fence that shielded a boarded storm-cellar door. Two dragoons came forward to pry away the boards and open the doors, and then Miss Taris turned to address the party.

      “With the help of Sir Beaumont, Wisdom has taken Reverence’s tunnels,” she said. “The lights, the mirrors- everything inside is under his control, now. Even the seals on the tunnels have been changed, so that no one will be able to follow us. There is a door inside here that leads to the next section of tunnel to del Sol, and I must go first to open the seal.”

      Miss Taris turned to Sir Beaumont and lowered her voice. “Keep watch as I descend.”

      Sir Beaumont returned a salute, and with a gesture, his dragoons were back in formation, weapons at the ready.

      “We’ve found the culprit behind the light issues,” I muttered. “Sir Beaumont must have undone the seals, and then the glitches began as Wisdom accessed the tunnel’s functions.”

      “Then your fight with Sir Beaumont was fair, after all,” Hope muttered in reply. “His defeat was all his own fault.”

      The dragoons remained in their stations while the inquisitors filed though the storm cellar and into the tunnel. Brother Fortune turned and gestured for Hope and I to follow.

      There was a small hatch-door on the cellar’s dirt floor, on the other side of which was a section of tunnel much like the one we’d already left. The walls were the same shade of unadorned gray, and the same electric lights hung with regularity overhead. However, the current section of tunnel was much wider than the first, and a long metal rod, embedded in the floor, ran through the center of the tunnel as far as the eye could see.

      When the rest of the inquisitors and the dragoons had climbed down into the tunnel, Miss Taris instructed everyone to stand against the walls. Once the center of the tunnel was clear, she pressed her hand against a bare section of wall, which lit up momentarily as though in response.

      “We must hurry to Cathedral Lux, and luckily, the pilgrim train was completed in this part of the tunnel. It was originally meant to carry pilgrims who were too ill or infirm to walk these tunnels unaided. Unfortunately, the track was never finished, but it will be able to bear us most of the way to Cathedral Lux.”

      There was a loud screeching sound, and the section of wall behind the tunnel entrance split down the middle and opened. A series of carts emerged from the opening and rolled along the metal track without a horse or mule to pull them. The sides of each cart opened, and small ramps extended to the ground, as though the carts were welcoming us to climb inside.

      “Get in- don’t be afraid,” Brother Fortune urged the others. “The carts are quite safe. Oh!” he stopped me abruptly and turned to Miss Taris. “The Ancient can’t disable the carts, can she?”

      “Apparently not,” Miss Taris said.

      Brother Fortune nodded as though to himself, and then gestured for me to enter the train.

      I stepped up the ramp and sat down on a wide, cushioned bench with Hope just beside me. When everyone was seated, the carts jerked forward, and then we were sailing through the tunnel, far faster than I’d ever traveled by horse.

      I heard gasps in the carts behind me, and in the cart just in front, Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont laughed with delight. I gripped the side of the cart, almost giddy enough to laugh myself, but Hope swallowed heavily, his face green in the pale electric light.

      “Are you alright?” I asked.

      Hope clenched his jaw, but he nodded in response.

      Though the train did not slow, the sensation of motion in my stomach, and the giddiness that had accompanied it, soon faded away. If not for the blur of the lights overhead, I might have thought I was sitting still. Hope, however, leaned forward slightly, clutching his stomach.

      I turned to face forward and saw that Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont were just as animated with delight as they had been when we started off. I could not hear what they said over the sound of the carts on the tracks, but I could tell from their smiles that the conversation was pleasing. They laughed a great deal, and they would stop periodically to point at something outside the tracks as though they were admiring the scenery on a summer’s ride through the country, instead of traveling through a bleak, grey tunnel.

      The first portion of our ride was not long. There was a loud squeak as the carts ground to a halt, and then we found ourselves near a section of wall painted with the black letters C2.

      The doors opened, the ramps extended, and we climbed down from the train on wobbly legs. Hope stood for a moment on firm ground, and then he took a deep breath.

      “That is almost as bad as being on board ship,” he muttered.

      “Brother Virgil, please lead the party to the nearby barracks,” Brother Fortune said to one of his fellow inquisitors. “Miss Taris and I must visit the Cathedral before we join you.”

      “Will you need a guard?” Sir Beaumont asked Miss Taris.

      “Oh, I will be fine- I will have an Ancient warrior with me, after all,” Miss Taris said. She turned to Hope, “and you too, Lord Frey. There is someone who wishes to speak with you.”

      Hope stood a little straighter, his expression lightening, and he bowed his acquiescence.

      “I will await you just outside the door,” Sir Beaumont insisted. Miss Taris did not contradict him, but blushed and curtsied in thanks.

     

 

#

 

 

      Miss Taris, Brother Fortune, Hope, and I walked slowly through the empty Cathedral. Then Miss Taris stepped away from the small party, her heels clicking with quick importance, and she knelt down to touch the slick, black floor with one hand.

      For a few moments nothing happened, and then there was a flash of light on the grey wall on the far side of the room, followed by three flashes above like lightning. Then random squares of colored light flashed and faded on the floor beneath us, the walls around us, the ceiling above us, more and more until the room was filled with squares of light that flashed and faded away again. The lights coalesced, focused, and we were in a sunlit field of wildflowers. A heatless sun hung far above our heads, and small, white clouds drifted through a windless sky.

      I turned slowly, and behind us, I saw a white-robed figure approaching.

      “Brother,” Hope breathed.

      Brother Lux stopped and stood before us, face to face with his brother. The two men were as different now as night and day. Hope’s shorn hair had begun to grow back in brown sprigs that covered his head like a cap- shorter than even a soldier’s hair. His features were angular and hard, and his black-rimmed eyes were so wide they seemed almost all-seeing.

      On the other hand, Brother Lux’s features were only prominent enough to add elegance to softness. His hair was long and thick and luxuriant, and his dark eyes seemed to contain depths untold. The two men who stared at each other, one with hate and the other with concern and pity, seemed no longer to be brothers at all, let alone twins.

      Hope moved first, clenching his hand into a fist and striking out at his brother. His fist, however, merely passed through Lux’s visage as though he were a ghost.

      “You may strike me later, though I doubt it will give you much satisfaction,” Lux said. He moved his hands, gesturing at his own body. “I am not present, now. This is only an illusion.”  

      Hope dropped his fist, but did not reply. Brother Lux sighed and turned toward Miss Taris.

      “Sir Beaumont’s false reports have proved to be most helpful. I’ve received word that Sancti has moved its main forces away from the northern passage, and instead are focusing their troops on the western straights, where we are already well-fortified. The longer we can keep Sancti away from the eastern shores, the better.”

      “Would they really go to the eastern shore- so near a sanctuary like del Sol?” I asked aloud.

      Brother Lux shook his head sadly. “There is no real sanctuary in war, Lady Frey. Churches, hospitals, schools… none of these things are sacred in a game where the stakes are survival- especially in the eyes of a hardened general.”

      “If Sancti is really allied with the cult of Reverence, I’m sure they will try to take del Sol eventually,” Miss Taris added.

      I remembered all of the tricks Mercy had played on me when we trained, and how she laughed at me for complaining. I felt foolish for not realizing the same rules would apply on a larger game board.

      “There is still danger at the Cathedral Lux, but not nearly so much as there might have been otherwise. We have, thankfully, enough healers at Rouge Village to assist if that battle gets out of hand, but your healing ability will be needed at Cathedral lux, Brother Fortune. Please hurry; I will meet you there.”

      Brother Fortune bowed. “With Wisdom’s help, may the war be bloodless. May peace reign,” he said.

      “Do you know where Pride is, now?” Miss Taris asked. “Did he hurt you before you got rid of him?”

      Lux laughed. “Oh no- he did not hurt me. When it became apparent that he could not harm me, he vanished. I expect he is gathering the scattered remains of his troops in Rouge Forest.”

      Lux turned back to Hope. “You have been uncharacteristically silent, brother. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them honestly.”

      “You will ‘do your best’ to be honest?” Hope said, quirking an eyebrow. “This is an interesting turn of phrase, considering how honest you’ve been in the recent past.”

      Lux hesitated, and then quietly said, “you would not have listened to the truth if I had shared it with you. You did not understand what was at stake.”

      “I knew very well that all of Aeterna- the lives and souls of all her inhabitants- was at stake. If you had but asked, I would have willingly endured the pain, the humiliation, and the torture, just for the chance to build a better world. Instead, you denied me that choice and forced your will on me. You kept me in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, and left me in a place without any hope for the future.”

      “Would you really have done it for Aeterna’s sake?” Brother Lux said. “I was watching you at court. I watched as you fell in love with an Ancient girl and forgot the woman you’d sworn to love forever. I watched, again and again, as you attended to the feelings of a soulless creature before you attended to the simple plan we’d crafted to get the Prince on our side. I watched you lose sight of everything that is important because you cannot see beyond the people closest to you.”

      “And you, apparently, cannot see suffering when it’s under your very nose,” Hope shot back.

      Brother Lux clenched his fists as though in frustration and turned away from his brother to pace. As he walked, the grasses rustled against his calves, as though only the incorporeal could affect the incorporeal in this place.

      “I know suffering, brother. My mind is filled with the voices of the suffering every day, echoing endlessly. I have joined my mind to that of a God, and as a result I hear the desperate prayers of thousands. Each voice belongs to a person as unique, as loved, as real as the cherished few you would die for.”

      “I know that-” Hope began.

      “You know that there is suffering in the world,” Brother Lux interrupted. “You have felt the pinnacle of suffering, yourself. But you can’t understand the scale of the problem. Your mind possesses enough empathy to feel the suffering of a few; if you felt the suffering of thousands of your own beloved, it would kill you.”

      Hope’s eyes narrowed and he watched his brother pace. “How dare you claim to understand suffering, when I watched you turn a blind eye to the suffering of the prisoners under the hands of your inquisitors.”

      “If I had tried to liberate the prisoners too soon, they would have all been hanged without trial. You and the rest of the prisoners are free because I arranged the dungeon’s liberation- or did Lady Frey forget to mention that fact?”

      Hope scoffed. “A cryptic gesture in a disordered courtroom is hardly an ironclad plan. We happened to escape, and you are happy to take credit.”

      “An army of my men stormed the dungeons to liberate them. The men did this because I told them to be ready for the event. I also, through my cryptic gesture on top of weeks of preparation, made sure that Lady Frey could be with you.”

      “How kind of you, after you stole Prudence away!”

      “I am keeping Prudence safe, in fulfillment of my oath,” Brother Lux stopped pacing and spun to face his brother once more.

      “And why I should trust that you are keeping her safe, after everything she suffered because of your plots? Damn you- when I think of what I suffered in the dungeons, and know that she suffered the same…” Hope’s voice cracked, and he seemed lost for words.

      “That was a mistake,” Brother Lux said in a lower voice. “I got her out as soon as I could- healed her wounds…”

      “There are some wounds you cannot heal,” Hope said.

      The two men had been staring at each other in anger, their breaths coming in short gasps as the Miss Taris, Brother Fortune and I watched the argument in stunned silence. Now Brother Lux seemed to relent, took a step back, and lowered his head a little as though in penitence.

      “Fine- I will grant you this. I cannot heal the worst wound- cannot undo the most atrocious of my sins. The question now is- what you will do? Will you attempt to undo my wicked deeds, and build a better world? Will you try to understand what is at stake, and bring peace to Aeterna as her king?”

      “You mean as your puppet?”

      “No- as my sovereign,” Lux said.

      Hope stepped forward, closing the gap Lux had made when he’d stepped back.

      “Tell me the truth, for once. What is your goal?”

      “My goal hasn’t changed. I seek peace, freedom for people to love as they choose, the liberation of the slaves-“

“Not all of the slaves,” I whispered.

 Brother Lux continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “I seek the end of sickness and poverty. I wish to undo the damage that Order has done to this world.”

      Hope and Lux stood together, as still as two statues. Then Hope turned away.

      “I will see you at the Cathedral Lux,” he said.

Interlude

Book Four of The Coven is Available

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The order in Aeterna is quickly falling into chaos.
Lady Grace Frey has returned from her exile at the Abbey del Sol to testify at her husband’s trial. She quickly discovers a town filled with warring factions, all of them present to witness a trial that may determine the fate of the nation.
Amongst the chaos, Grace must carefully plan her testimony, protect those she loves, and confront the sins she has committed. Though she is compelled by the forces of chaos around her, Grace must find the ability to enact her will in the world before the trial is complete.