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?”
“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.
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.
“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.”