The Coven, Part LXIV

I spent the rest of the advent to Chaos night working tirelessly. Sometimes, Prudence worked by my side. We spent our early evenings in the calefactory conducting research into theurgy, though we only found references to the art in short paragraphs and footnotes in the oldest theological tomes. After the sisters returned from confession, Prudence and I adjourned  to the dormitory to prepare our gift for Celeste. When Prudence went to bed I continued to work alone, and then in the early mornings I slipped away to help Honest build the mechanism we would use to view stellar spectra.

If I had not obtained the wakefulness potion from Brother Lux, I would not have had the ability to keep up with my private affairs or research.

I spent the first half of each night  working on my treatise- plotting the planets on their orbits. I used Sir Boromir’s observations as my guide, which, once I’d verified some of the planetary positions using the large telescope, I realized were stunningly accurate. The planet’s motions unfolded – astounding in their elegance. The sun proved to be at one center of each planet’s ellipse, and the speed with which the planets moved was proportional to their distance from that center. How easy it was to see, now that I examined the clockwork of our worlds!

Around two o’clock I would put my treatise aside and write to Mr. Sutton or Mr. St Roch. Then, when my business was done, I would slide a stack of white paper toward myself.

I had drawn, smudged, and re-drawn the scene I’d started sketching in the calefactory- Prudence looking up at the airship. I’d gotten a little better each time I’d sketched her face. Sometimes, as we worked alone together on Celestes’s gift, I would study her face by firelight. Her face was not really round; it was shaped like a heart, with a narrow chin, a wide brow, and a widow’s peak in her scarlet hair. Her eyes were round but not protruding- they were deep-set under finely curved lids and framed by elegantly arched brows. Her age was only just beginning to show just in the soft brackets around her mouth, which disappeared when she smiled.

I sketched and sketched it again until I was able to bring each newly-discovered feature into the fore. In each iteration her aspect grew larger and took up more of the frame, and the airship was nudged aside. As I finished each sketch I longed to begin the next, because my memory had added another detail which must be added- she had a freckle under her ear, and a dimple near her chin. I allowed myself to become enrapt by the image of her beauty to the extent that I hoped never to complete the work.

 

#

 

I went over a week without sleeping, and the days blurred together. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, it was Celeste’s birthday.

Mercy did not give a lesson on Celeste’s birthday. Instead, all of the sisters awoke before sunrise and assembled in the refectory to decorate, bake honey cakes, and arrange her gifts in the place where she usually sat. When Celeste was brought in, she gave a start of surprise, and then her eyes filled with tears.

“Is this all for me?” She faltered. Then, when she saw her seat filled with presents, she laughed a little and wiped the tears away. “Oh! How perfectly wonderful!”

For the rest of the morning, Celeste was all smiles. She opened her simple gifts slowly- almost reverently, folding the colored paper wrappings and placing them carefully aside to save for later. Prudence had carefully hidden our gift to Celeste underneath the others, so that it would be the last she opened.

“Look! Here’s one more. There are so many!”

“Don’t be too excited,” Prudence said, an edge of laughter in her voice. “This one is from Lady Grace and myself, and I’m afraid it is only more schoolwork for you to complete.”

“Don’t tease-” she began as she pulled away the paper, and then her breath caught as she looked at the gift.

Prudence and I had known nothing of the art of bookbinding, but with some instruction from Abbess Joy, we’d contrived to create something sturdy. Prudence had seen to the construction of the book, the folding and sewing of the pages, and had contrived to find thin but sturdy boards to reinforce the canvas cover. I had stitched together the cover and embroidered it with the words, The Research of Miss Celeste Goode.

Celeste ran her hand over the stitching in her name, and then flipped through the book, revealing a great deal of clean, blank paper.

“I don’t know what to say,” she breathed.

“Don’t worry what to say,” I said. “Just think of what you will write.”

“Thank you.” Celeste slipped down from the bench and, still holding her book with one arm, tried to hug Prudence and I at once with the other. Then she turned and beamed at the sisters. “Thank you, everyone.”

“Enough of that, child,” Sister Love said, wiping away a tear. “We are glad to do it. It has been too long since we’ve celebrated a child’s birthday, here. Now, let’s hurry before the honey-cakes get cold.”

It was not the Sister’s custom to eat breakfast, but everyone ate together that morning, and they even chatted together during the meal, allowing Celeste to rhapsodize to her heart’s content.

 

#

 

True to my word, I did not leave until Celeste’s birthday was over. I accompanied Celeste and Prudence to the Cathedral to view the day’s services, where I contrived to blend in with the other pilgrims. There was a short period of prayer and meditation, and then Sister Blessing ascended to the pipe organ to play a fugue. It was an unfamiliar fugue- I had never heard it played at the Cathedral Lux- but it was played with as much skill as the famous organist who played at the city’s Cathedral. I closed my eyes, and I could almost see the notes weave together into a rich tapestry of color, touched by the sunlight that filtered through the high windows.

After the long service there was refreshment in the vestibule, followed by the pilgrim’s pageant. I’d been dreading the pageant, but the amateurish enthusiasm in the acting and design was diverting. I laughed along with the audience at all the wrong moments, and in the end the players bowed and laughed along with us good humoredly.

Then the sisters retired to the calefactory for tea, and Celeste insisted that she would stay awake with the rest of us. Within a few minutes, however, she had slumped over in her armchair and was snoring loudly. We let Celeste sleep until we were ready to return to the dormitory, and then we shook her awake.

“Come, Celeste- you are too big to carry,” Prudence said gently.

Celeste groaned, rubbed her eyes, and then stood to walk. She plodded to the dormitory in silence, and then fell into bed without another word.

“I believe her fatigue is the best commendation we can receive,” I said.

“Yes- I’m glad we could give her a satisfactory birthday, at least. She won’t be a child much longer.” Prudence sighed and shut Celeste’s door behind her. “But what a world for her to grow up in!”

“She’s resilient, and she’s brilliant,” I said. “If we manage to prevent the world from being destroyed, she will make it a better place.”

Prudence nodded solemnly, and then stood a little straighter. “Let’s give her something worth improving.

“By the way, do you still plan on leaving tonight, or will you wait until morning?”

“I will leave tonight. Come with me- we may talk while I get ready.”

Prudence followed me to my room, and as I gathered my things she leaned against the doorframe as though she were barring the way from intruders.

“I have a gift for you,” I said. “Since I won’t be here for Chaosmas, and since it isn’t quite ready, may I give it to you when I return?”

“You always make me anticipate your return,” Prudence replied. “But I like your plan- I have a gift for you, as well. Sine my gift is already finished, I will be able to spend tomorrow more profitably- spying on the pilgrims whose tongues have been loosened by wine. In addition to the cult, I have a new mystery to solve.”

“Oh?” I dropped a fresh change of robes into my bundle and looked up. “What sort of mystery?”

“It isn’t unusual for us to receive donations around Chaosmas,” Prudence said, “but the size of our recent donation, along with the fact that it was given anonymously, is suspicious. Pius has expressed an unusual interest in del Sol, so I thought-”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said quickly. “A donation is a good thing, no matter who it’s from. I imagine it was given anonymously so that there would be no strings attached.”

Prudence threw back her veil and narrowed her eyes.

You!”  she exclaimed. “Why didn’t you sign your name, or at least tell Abbess Joy? I know she would want to thank you.”

“She doesn’t owe me thanks- not after everything she’s given me and has suffered for me. I did not want to make her feel obligated,” I said. “Besides- it’s not just for her. All of the sisters have shown me kindness. Like me, most of the pilgrims come here at times of great need. If I can help them, I should.”

“I won’t tell the others, but thank you – on their behalf, as well as my own,” Prudence said.

Then she looked down the hall, sighed, and put her veil down again. “Here comes another person I will watch while you are gone,” she muttered.

A few moments later, Miss Taris appeared at the doorway, scowling.

“I’d heard you were leaving again,” she stated. “Are you going alone, this time?”

“Abbess Joy is too busy with the celebrations to go with me,” I replied.

“Does Mercy go with you?” She asked, her eyes narrowing behind the gold frames of her glasses as though in suspicion.

“No- she must stay behind to ensure Celeste’s safety. I am only going to the south dunes; there is no reason to expect I will need protection.”

“And the guardian of the southern shrine is even stronger than Mercy,” Prudence added.

Miss Taris entered the room, ignoring Prudence as she walked past as though Prudence were only a shadow.

“Brother Lux will not like this- nor will Father Pius.”

“I don’t see why they would object. I will technically still be on the abbey grounds-”

“Be careful- Lady Frey. Father Pius isn’t happy with your behavior. You are too independent- too wild. You fight, you travel unescorted, and you disappear into the northern cliffs every morning- doing Gods know what-”

Prudence signaled to me from behind Miss Taris, and I managed to control my expression.

“I am only stargazing. Brother Lux and Father Pius are both aware that my hobby is astronomy.”

Astronomy? Do you really expect me to believe you are doing something so innocent? And why must you climb all the way to the northern cliffs to stargaze?”

“You may believe what you like,” I said. “Higher altitudes are better suited to stargazing- the atmosphere is thinner, so the viewing is better.”

“You can’t have much of a difference on so low a cliff,” Miss Taris said. “And you are distracting me from the point. I am sure that Father Pius and Brother Lux would not allow you to travel unescorted, and so I must forbid it.”

“I have heard enough,” Prudence said. She moved beside me and placed her hands on her hips, taking a posture suggestive of the one she wore when she scolded Celeste. “Miss Taris, you shall not interfere. You may have forgotten that Lady Frey’s mother is buried at the southern dunes, and so I will overlook your callous disregard of her grief this once. Never let me hear of you behaving in such a way again.”

Miss Taris faltered and took a step back, and then she seemed to remember herself. She stood a little taller, and gave Prudence a severe glare.

“I’m not afraid of you, Sister Jubilee. But you are afraid of me a little, aren’t you, underneath all of your bravado?”

Prudence stood remarkably still in her pose, but I could hear her breath catch, and feel her stiffen beside me.

“Stop it,” I said firmly to Miss Taris, taking Prudence’s arm. As soon as I touched Prudence, she sighed and slid into a more relaxed posture.

“Miss Taris, why must you attack my friends? Why must we be enemies?” I asked.

“We are not enemies,” she said, the sides of her mouth curling into a grin. “You aren’t worth my enmity. As Father Pius said, you are a mere object – an imitation of life. Why should I respect your so-called grief, when we both know you have no feelings? Why should I respect the friendship of a mere automaton?”

I could feel my face flush with heat, and my hand flew up. Thankfully, before I could deliver the slap, my mind reacted. I clenched my open hand into a fist as though I were throttling my own anger, and let it fall to my side.

“If you think so little of me, then I shall return the favor,” I said. “You aren’t worth striking. I am going to to southern dunes tonight, and you can object all you like. Give Father Pius my regards in your letter to him.”

“Don’t worry- I will tell him everything,” she said, and then she turned to leave. On her way out of the room, she almost ran into Abbess Joy, who was entering the room with sister Blessing.

“Oh! I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said kindly before she turned to me. “I am glad I found you before you left. I have some things I would like Dare to have. If it isn’t too much trouble-”

“Oh no-” I said.

Miss Taris was forced to step aside and allow Sister Blessing entrance into the room. Sister Blessing was bearing a basket almost twice as large as the ones we’d given to the abbey’s beneficiaries, which she handed to me.

“There are a few more things that Dare needed, in addition to the gifts,” Abbess Joy explained. “Some warm socks and extra worsted, fishing line, and of course some fresh herbs and vegetables from our greenhouse, because she can grow nothing in that sand except wild onions. Please give her my love, as well.”

“I am happy to take it to her,” I said. Then I turned to Sister Blessing, who had taken the basket back and started to rearrange the contents in order to make it seem lighter.

“Oh no- don’t worry- it is already as balanced as it can be. It’s not too heavy to carry such a short way.”

Abbess Joy took the opportunity, however, to step forward and embrace me tightly.

“I am so proud of you, my daughter. Have a safe journey.”

 

#

 

I was happy to leave behind the chaos of the abbey and step out into the still, silent night. There was little wind, but there was a sharp chill in the air as I walked. The stars were haloed in silver light, a sure sign that we had not yet seen the year’s last frost. Even so, Abbess Joy’s parting words seemed to warm me like a fleece blanket.

“… my daughter.”

Yet, as I drew near the southern shrine, I couldn’t help but feel a sliver of cold guilt penetrate the warm feeling. I longed to call Abbess Joy ‘Mother’ in return, but how could I, when my mother was buried here?

In addition, I had a fresh source of anxiety in Miss Taris’s threats. She knew that I went to the northern cliffs- did she know about the tower, as well? If Father Pius knew learned about the secrets that were hidden in del Sol, I was certain he would not respect Abbess Joy’s rights to keep them, no matter what rights she had been granted by the Gods.

When I arrived at the shrine, I was relieved to find that Dare was not asleep despite the late hour. She sat alone- a dark shadow huddled beside the dancing sparks of a driftwood fire.

“Hello-” I called. “Good morning! it is almost dawn.”

Dare looked up from the fire sharply, and then paused with her hand halfway to her spear.

“Is it really you? Grace!”

“Yes, it is only me, though I come bearing Abbess Joy’s gifts and her love,” I said.

Dare, however, stood and put the offered basked aside, instead wrapping me in a fierce embrace.

“I am so glad- so glad to see you are still well and free,” she said. As she spoke into my ear, I could feel Dare’s tears drip onto my shoulder.“I wish I had glad tidings for you, my dear, but I’m afraid our worst fears are coming to pass.

Part LXV

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Obligatory Novelization Info

Light novels based on my web serial, The Coven, are available on Amazon for both kindle and paperback. These light novels include content not available on this website, including interludes, epilogues, and other vignettes.

As you might imagine, the serials and light novels take a great deal of time and effort to produce, so any support is greatly appreciated.

 

stellar_visions

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Aeterna is a kingdom ruled by order, where everyone knows their place. The shy Miss Grace Ainsworth never expected to find herself to flung into a world of chaos, but after her marriage to Lord Frey, everything changes. Soon, Grace is torn between her love for the cosmic order of the stars, and a coven that seeks to take power for themselves and destroy the hierarchy of the entire world. Stellar Visions is the novelization of the first twenty-one chapters of The Coven.

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On the surface, Aeterna is a kingdom ruled by order, but when one looks closer, it’s apparent that chaos reigns.
Lady Grace Frey, a shy astronomer and newly-married wife to the dangerous Lord Hope Frey, finds herself flung from one world of intrigue to another when the Prince orders her presence at the palace at St. Blanc. There, Grace must navigate a web of secrets and lies woven by those who would use her for their own political ends. As Grace uncovers one unsettling truth after another, she finds herself lost in a plot more sinister than she’d ever imagined. Somnium is the novelization of chapters twenty-two through forty-four.

Humility is not a Virtue, But Caution Can Be

I don’t have a breakthrough ethical system to present. I cut my teeth on Kant and Mills, and I haven’t come much further since. I prefer utilitarianism when working out difficult moral quandaries, and I try to make sound ethical choices in my everyday life. In one respect, however, I have been neglectful, and that has been in my behavior toward myself.

I am a sentient being who feels pleasure and pain; my happiness should carry as much moral weight as anyone else’s. Unfortunately, my moral intuition tells me something very different- that it is virtuous to treat myself badly.

It is altruistic to deprive yourself of pleasure to ease the pain of others, or to suffer pain in someone else’s stead. However, my moral intuitions do not seem capable of honestly judging when my pain or lack of pleasure will really help others. It feels as though, by always putting myself last, everyone around me should benefit, but that is far from the case.

Imagine living your whole life like this.

To show where my intuition is failing, consider the following scenario- Bridgett decides to go on a drive through her happy town one sunny day. She stops at a four-way stop, and there is a truck that rolls to a stop there as well. Bridgett knows she has the right-of-way, but she is feeling humble and deferential, and decides the nice thing to do would be to wave the truck on. She doesn’t lose much time that way, and the driver of the truck may be in a hurry.

Unfortunately, Bridgett failed to check her rear-view mirror, and misses the car that has stopped behind her. This car will also be inconvenienced by her act. In addition, the rules of the road have been muddied a little, and the more Bridgett adopts this behavior- the more everyone adopts this behavior- the more awkward pause-and-wave exchanges will happen at four-way stops.

Bridgett and the car behind her were mildly inconvenienced in this scenario, but let us move her off of the sleepy exurban street and onto a freeway. Bridgett usually avoids freeways, especially in cities, because she does terribly on them. In the dark corners of her mind, she has acted in a deferential manner so often that the state of Texas handbook might as well state “Bridgett never gets the right-of-way.” Bridgett knows that she has to get onto the ramp, speed up, and merge with freeway traffic, but her ingrained instincts are screaming at her to slow down and let everyone else go ahead.

Today there is a lot of traffic, and a zipper merge is required. Bridgett wants to let everyone ahead, but it seems there is a wall of cars without end. Bridgett hesitates on the gas- the merge lane will soon end, and she isn’t up to speed. Cars are whizzing past. The situation has become dangerous, and traffic is piling up behind her. This can result in a traffic jam in the best case, and an accident in the worst case.

There are unending situations in everyday life in which deferential habits can cause more harm than good. It’s a popular fact that depriving oneself may make one unable to help others at all- “put on your own oxygen mask first.” But in addition to this, when you lower yourself on the social hierarchy, you create a greater disparity that the unscrupulous are tempted to exploit. In a sense, you unbalance a social order that requires a good deal of fairness to operate. Zipper merges prevent accidents and traffic jams only if you are willing to go ahead when it is your turn.

 

#

 

Truth is something that exists outside of our notions of social hierarchy. Fire burns, and it will burn the hand of king and peasant alike, even if the king decrees that he alone is allowed to touch the flame.

Unfortunately, my intuition is unwilling to consider this in its reckonings. I have an unfortunate habit of apologizing for being right when I am shown to be correct in a factual disagreement, and sometimes I will even stay silent when I have knowledge that I should share.

My spouse is an uncommonly intelligent person who has the ability to notice and remember far more details than I can. I space out, and my memory is inconsistent. However, after a lot of introspection I’ve finally concluded that, though my brain may be quirky, I’m not actually stupid. I can keep up with my spouse on an intellectual level at least enough to carry on very interesting conversations, to banter point and counterpoint with him on complex topics, and to be an interesting and entertaining companion to him.

Even so, I still have a hard time stepping out of my self-appointed deferential role. To give a fairly mundane example- not too long ago my spouse was returning a product to the manufacturer, and we went to the UPS store to get a box and label for shipping. The manufacturer requested that the product code be written on the box, so my spouse wrote it on the side in sharpie. He was filling out the label when I noticed a missing digit on the product code he had written.

It took me a few moments to work up the courage to point it out, and even then, I did so in a little faltering voice- “um, I think the five is missing?” I had no reason to add the question mark- I knew the five was missing- but I added the question mark to the end of my sentence anyway.

My spouse, being the reasonable human he is, checked the number and corrected it. I apologized for correcting him as we left the UPS store, but he insisted that he was of glad I had pointed out the error, and thanked me for my help.

Had he not been so understanding- if instead of being a nice person he’d been an arrogant jerk- he might have sneered at my correction. He might have insisted he was right, and pointed out both my astigmatism and my short attention span as evidence that I must be wrong. In fact- he might have just insisted he was smarter than me, and therefore I should shut my mouth. After all, why would a smart person deign to check the number on the box per the mere word of a bespectacled goofball?

If he had acted so, would his arrogance have been the opposite of the mistake I almost made when I hesitated to point out the product code error? In other words, if the jerk version of my spouse had felt less sure of himself, would be have been more willing to check the number? Or would he have fought to maintain the status differential between us, and been less willing to check? From what I’ve seen in arguments between people who view themselves that differently, I believe the latter- a person of very high status, and who finds their high status to be important, is less willing to check an error pointed out by someone of a very low social status.

Conversely, if I had been the one to write the number on the box, and someone else had pointed out an error to me, I would have instantly re-written the number without checking what I’d written. I assume I am wrong, and do not seek to justify myself before altering my behavior to suit others.

I propose that the evil version of my spouse and the current version of me are two sides of the same coin- that we are actually making two versions of the same mistake instead of different mistakes altogether. We are using our sense of relative status as the standard to determine the reliability of information instead of making an analysis of the information itself.

You might argue that relative status can be used as a heuristic to analyze the source of information, but such a heuristic can actually blind one to making an honest examination of the information source- and an excuse to ignore it altogether. If the evil version of my spouse cared more about knowledge than status, he might have considered the fact that, while I do have an astigmatism, my glasses were clean and my prescription up-to-date. He might have considered that, while I usually walk around in a fog, the very fact that I pointed out the error was an indication that I was paying more attention than usual. If the evil version of my spouse had thought about the matter further, he might have realized that product codes are generally long and confusing strings of characters, and that it would be helpful to have a general policy of double-checking them, just in case.

In other words, status hierarchies can be somewhat useful, but are inadequate and outdated technology for analyzing anything truly complicated. It is more useful to ulitise caution instead of humility- to check for mistakes in one’s self regularly not because you think that you are stupid, but because you know that you are a buggy system who deals with complex information.

If I am a buggy system, does that necessarily make me a bad system? If I am, does thinking I am ‘bad’ tell me where I am going wrong? Will calling myself a fool fix my errors? No, it won’t. In fact, this kind of self-flagellation tends to increase my errors. Feeling humble and deferential has held me back, kept me quiet, and made me hesitate to contribute to a society I could otherwise help. At the very least, it has caused me to neglect my own moral worth. Reminding myself that automatic deference will not help anyone is an effective way of countering it. I imagine that thinking overconfidence will not help one’s self may be similarly helpful in overcoming that error.

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?”

Part LXIV

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