The Coven, Part XC

Read from the Beginning

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

Mr. St. Roch strode forward, holding a folder full of papers above his head as though to protect it from the crowd.

“I have reason to believe that the document is a forgery,” Mr. St. Roch said, shouting past the guards who blocked his path. “If you would simply look at my samples…”

“Really, Mr. St. Roch, you’ve made enough of a nuisance of yourself already,” Bishop Septimus snapped.

“I would like to see his evidence,” Bishop Benedict said, “especially considering the mysterious origins of this blood oath.”

Bishop Benedict looked up to Father Pius, who nodded.

The guards stepped aside, and Mr. St. Roch came forward, stopping only briefly to bow to Father Pius and then the Bishops’ bench. Mr. St. Roch and Bishop Septimus argued together, comparing documents, pointing, fidgeting with and trading papers. Finally, all of the papers were laid out on the floor for the bishops to examine.

“You see, this letter- written in Lord Frey’s own hand- was examined by your inquisitors and stamped before it was conveyed to Lady Frey. The signature is clearly distinct from the one on the blood oath. And here- Mrs. Goode supplied letters from her son, Captain Goode, written before his hands were taken. There is also a note supplied by Miss Chastity’s sister-“

“This is all pointless; the hand can alter with time and circumstance,” Bishop Septimus shot back. “A humbled prisoner will not sign with the same pompous flourishes as when he is free and defiant. The lack of a loop here or there hardly signifies-“

“This is not a matter of the odd flourish- the person who wrote the signatures on the oath learned to write in an entirely different school! The prisoners, with the exception of Lady Willoughby, were privately educated, while the person who wrote the oath clearly studied monastic writing-“

Mr. St. Roch cut himself off, and a hush fell over the court.

Bishop Septimus had been kneeling to examine the documents that were laid out on the floor. Now he stood, raising himself to his full height, and cleared his throat.

“What, exactly, are you trying to imply, Mr. St. Roch?”

Mr. St. Roch remained kneeling beside the documents. “Only that the hands do not match, Bishop. Nothing more.”

“It sounded to me as though you meant to implicate a member of the church,” Bishop Septimus said, raising his voice. “And it’s not the first time during these proceedings that you’ve tried to place the Church of Order in a bad light.”

Mr. St. Roch hesitated, and then he stood, looking at Bishop Septimus eye to eye.

“Light illuminates, my friend; only darkness can conceal truth. The purpose of this trial is to illuminate, is it not?”

Bishop Benedict stood and stepped between Bishop Septimus and Mr. St. Roch. He turned to Bishop Septimus with an apologetic smile and shrugged his shoulders.

“I fear there is more heat than light, here. I myself don’t know what to make of all this. Mrs. Auber, can you think of any clue, no matter how small, that may suggest the origin of this blood oath?”

Mrs. Auber shook her head.

“I suggest we examine the documents more closely later, when heads are cooler. For now, if you will be so kind as to take your seat, Mr. St. Roch and Mrs. Auber, we will call the next witness.”

“Very well,” Father Pius said from atop his throne. “Mrs. Auber and Mr. St. Roch, you may both be seated. Lady Grace Frey, please stand.”

 

 

#

 

 

As soon as my name was called, I heard a strange sound. From the gallery high above, and scattered corners behind me, I heard reverent whispers rise.

Lady. Lady…”

      In that moment, I knew that Father Pius had been wrong to advise me to appear meek and humble before the court. Pius had carefully arranged the proceedings of the court, but not to impress the Bishops. The people who supported my husband-the people who believed -expected a queen.

I stood to face the crowd, ignoring the hisses that came from all around me. I had expected the presence of an audience to frighten me, but somehow it had the opposite effect. The very presence of a people helped me slip into the role of Queen. I raised my head and walked toward the dais in deliberate, measured steps.

Bishop Benedict met me with a reassuring smile, and took my hands in prayer, leading me through the litany of truth. I bowed my head and joined in the song, and then repeated my false oath like an actor delivering a line.

“Thank you, Bishop Benedict,” Bishop Septimus said, his hands full of the papers that had littered the floor seconds before. He stowed the papers on the bench where he’d been sitting, and then gazed at me through his spectacles.

“You are Lady Frey?” he said. “You must be very recently married- you can’t be any more than…”

“I am twenty years old,” I said.

“You look much younger,” Bishop Septimus said, as though to contradict. “How old were you when you married Lord Frey?”

“I was nineteen- we were married just after midsummer,” I replied.

“Just in time for you to get entangled in all of this,” Bishop Septimus removed his spectacles and waved them at the courtroom around him. “How long had you known Lord Frey before you were married?”

“I met him a week before our marriage,” I said.

“So soon before?” Bishop Septimus said, raising his eyebrows. “Your father must have been acquainted with Lord Frey beforehand to arrange the match.”

“I believe my father was acquainted with the late Lord Frey,” I said, “but I was not out in society before my marriage.”

“Curious,” Bishop Septimus said. “I have reviewed your marriage contract, and it is signed by Father Sauris himself. Do you know why the High Priest would have had a hand in arranging your marriage, as opposed to the local Bishop?”

“My father’s estate, Willowbrook, is very close to the Cathedral Lux, where Father Sauris kept his office. My father always consulted Father Sauris in spiritual matters, so it did not seem strange to me that Father Sauris helped arrange my marriage.”

Bishop Benedict stepped forward, placing himself between Bishop Sauris and I. He wore his usual gentle smile, but I could see a slight crease in the lines between his eyes.

“I’m afraid we are getting a little off course,” he said lightly. “I think the events leading up to the dumb supper may be more relevant to this case.”

“My questions are perfectly relevant,” Bishop Septimus shot back. “After all, Father Sauris himself sent this girl to Rowan Heights mere weeks before Rowan Heights struck back at him. What was his purpose in doing so? Did he suspect Lord Frey, and send this girl to report to her father?”

Bishop Benedict turned back to me. “Did you father ask you to report on the happenings at Rowan Heights?”

The letter my father had sent to me at Rowan Heights, asking for information, entered my mind briefly. I remembered with relief that I had destroyed it long before inquisitors searched Rowan Heights.

“I did not correspond with my father after my marriage, until I was presented at St. Blanc,” I said.

“Did you correspond with Father Sauris?” Bishop Septimus persisted.

“No- not at all.”

Bishop Septimus began to pace, tapping his spectacles against the palm of his hand.

“Is there is anything you would have reported, anything that frightened you at Rowan Heights…”

Bishop Septimus stopped pacing and turned back to me, his watery eyes filled with fake concern. I lifted my head higher and summoned all the dignity I could to keep my anger in check.

“What could frighten me at Rowan Heights that would compare with the real terror I faced when my husband was arrested? What imagined danger could even touch the real possibility I will lose him forever?”

“I understand that you must have been frightened, but your husband was accused of a heinous crime, and he is being given a fair trial.”

“He was not given a trial before his eyes were cut out. The inquisitors have deprived him of his faculties forever. They have deprived Captain Goode and Lady Willoughby in the same way, without any opportunity to speak on their own behalf.”

Angry mutterings echoed my statement from the gallery.

“Lady Frey!” Bishop Septimus burst forth. “I have been indulgent because of your innocence and your age, but I must remind you that your husband is at the mercy of this court.”

My eyes drifted over to the prisoner’s box, where Hope sat. He was thin, chained, his blind eyes covered in bandages, and yet his countenance was impossibly serene as he sat awaiting his fate.

“You are right, of course,” I said with a slight bow. “I must speak for him, now. Ask me what you will, and I will answer.”

Bishop Benedict stepped forward again, and he gazed at me with a strange, almost fearful expression before he spoke.

The rest of my testimony proceeded precisely how Father Pius had predicted, and I answered without making a single mistake. Bishop Septimus poured over his notes, comparing all of my answers to the letters and statements he had collected, but in the end he was forced to admit there were no inconsistencies.

“Still, you were not at Rowan Heights long,” Bishop Septimus said. “I understand you love your husband, Lady Frey, but there are still many things you do not know.”

Father Pius waved me back to my seat, and I allowed the inquisitors to lead me away.

“Bishops, you have a difficult task ahead of you,” Father Pius said. “The fates of the prisoners are in your hands, and by your souls I charge you not to make an error in your judgement. I will allow you an hour’s recess to review the blood oath and deliberate, and then you must render your verdict.”

 

 

#

 

 

The courtroom vibrated with low voices and the restless shuffling of feet as the excruciating minutes passed. The men in the gallery did not shout, and the separate factions among the nobles, and in the crowd that spilled into the hallway, did not tussle amongst themselves. The leaders of each faction were in check- all actions were held for the moment the side doors opened and the bishops returned to render their verdict.

I looked around the room, and realized with a start that the courtroom had been set up to collapse as soon as chaos broke loose. There were few guards in the gallery, even though it was the most volatile section in the courtroom. Armed inquisitors were concentrated around the noble’s section, closest to the nobles who were most loyal to the Prince. I looked, but I could not find Miss Taris among them. Brother Lux stood unarmed at the front of the cluster of armed inquisitors, poised on the balls of his feet as though he were ready for action. Brother Domitian and Brother Severus, also unarmed, stood close to the bishop’s bench, surrounded by armed inquisitors on all sides.

I looked to the back of the courtroom, where the crowd spilled into the back of the hall. A few of the prince’s guard stood at the bottleneck- far too few to stem the tide once it burst forth.

I looked back to Brother Lux, who caught my eye. He touched his chest briefly, and then gave me a slow nod.

At that moment, the side doors opened.

The Bishops returned.

Father Pius followed the Bishops, but he did not ascend the dais. Instead, he stood at the front of the courtroom where the witnesses had given testimony and turned slowly, looking at each of the seated bishops in turn.

“Bishop Benedict, this trial has been deeply troubling in many ways. Before the verdict is read, please come forward and offer the Litany of Strength.”

Bishop Benedict nodded, and came forward to stand beside Father Pius. As he sang, Bishop Benedict’s voice was gentle, but the effect was like adding kerosene to embers. The crowd grew more restless- the tension crackled with a terrible energy, threatening to burst forth.

“Thank you,” Father Pius said with a humble bow of his head. Then he turned to the Bishop’s bench once more. “Bishop Septimus, please stand.”

Bishop Septimus stood, straightening his robes with an air of importance.

“Bishop Septimus, do you speak for the assembled Bishops.”

“I do, your Holiness. The verdict was not quite unanimous, but there was a very clear majority.” Bishop Septimus shot a glare at Bishop Benedict.

“Very well,” Father Pius said. He turned to the prisoner’s box. “Please stand, and hear what the Bishops have to say.”

The prisoners all stood, their chains rattling against the side of the box. I noticed how very near they stood near the door- how tightly the guards held their chains- and my heart leapt in fear.

“Your Holiness, nobles and gentlemen of the court,” Bishop Septimus said, bowing to each in turn. “The assembled Bishops have found the accused, Lord Hope Uriel Frey, Lord Tranquil Willoughby, Lady Patience Willoughby, Captain Justice Goode, and Miss Chastity Evans, guilty of the charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy against the High Priest, murder of the High Priest, and Witchcraft. For these crimes, they are to be put to death by hanging- may the Gods have mercy upon them.”

Cries of shock and dismay rang out mingled with shouts of anger and even triumph. The sounds seemed to ring in my ears- I was struck numb. Yet, before my head could clear, and the pain could strike with its full force, a call rang out.

“My Priest!” Brother Lux sprang forward and threw himself onto his knees at Father Pius’s feet. “I have remained silent, but I cannot any longer. I was suspicious of my brother- jealous. I have persecuted and wronged him, but I do not believe he is guilty. If there is to be punishment, then punish me- take my life in his stead.”

All around me, voices stilled, and those who had risen took their seats once more. The circus continued; the show was not yet over.

Father Pius placed his hand on Brother Lux’s bowed head. “If you have faith in me, I will be your priest. Confess your sins, and I will show mercy.”

“My brother and his friends truly possess power, but that power is not evil- it is holy,” Lux said. “They did not seek to aggrandize themselves, or to avenge themselves by means of murder. Instead, all their efforts have been to help the oppressed and free the enslaved, and they were willing to sacrifice themselves to this end. I did not understand my brother’s power or the faith that gave him the will to fight. I sought to save him from what I wrongfully perceived as wickedness. In my efforts to save his soul, I scarred him and our friends forever.

“Yet my brother forgave me my sins against him. He gave me this- a symbol of the faith that gave him such power. Last night as I looked at this symbol, it seemed to glow with a holy light, and I was no longer afraid. If the God who gave my brother such faith would forgive me, I would follow that God to eternity.”

Brother Lux reached into his robes and drew forth the symbol of wisdom.

There was a gasp in the courtroom, and all around me people shielded their eyes, as though from a great light.

Father Pius leaned down and kissed Brother Lux’s head, and then helped him to stand.

“You have laid your sins at my feet. Follow me, and I will wipe your sins away.”

Father Pius’s eyes glowed white, and he gazed into Brother Lux’s eyes, which reflected the light.

“Look! The prisoners!” A woman from the gallery cried.

I turned and saw the prisoners- their skins shimmered with white light, and when the light dissipated their bruises and wounds were gone. Captain Goode held up his arms, staring in amazement at his two perfect hands.

Hope pulled the bandages off of his face and opened his eyes.

Wisdom- Wisdom!”

“He is the true God- Freer of the oppressed!”

“It is a miracle!”

      All around me I heard cries of joy. Then, almost as one, the Bishops stood.

“This is blasphemy,” Bishop Septimus screamed. “Chastity, Reverence, and above all- Order! These are the true Gods.”

Pius ignored Bishop Septimus, turning instead to regard the crowd all around him.

“I see those who already know me, and I see those who wish to know me. I have shown you the corruption that has infested the old church- the cruelty and the horror. The old Gods no longer listen to your prayers and no longer heal your suffering.”

Pius raised his arms and smiled benevolently on the crowd. “Give me your prayers, my children, and I will hear them. Give me your sufferings, and I will ease them. I- Wisdom, the newly ascended God- will not abandon you.”

There were a few boos scattered in the crowd behind me, and some cries as though in terror. But then, rising above it, the gallery seemed to cry out as one.

Our prayers for Wisdom! Our lives for Wisdom!”

      Pius turned to Bishop Septimus once more.

“The old order is through.”

 

The Coven, Part XCI

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The Coven, Part LXXXIX

Read from the beginning.

Mercy’s motions almost blurred together as she moved, and if I had not already learned the cadence of her fighting style, I would not have been able to follow her motions at all. I had to focus all of my attention on evading her blows, because she was aiming for my most vulnerable spots with all of her strength.

I was injured, and Mercy was armed, but I did not have the Luxury to panic. Fleeing would mean leaving Prudence alone in the hands of our enemies. So I anticipated Mercy’s feints and tried desperately to find an opening to attack.

I don’t have to fully disable her, I realized. Mercy must be hypnotized as well. All I need to do is break the spell.

      Completely breaking a spell, however, required a great deal of concentration, and it took all of my focus just to evade Mercy’s lethal attacks. My ankle, which Mercy must have grabbed to jerk me out of the tree, protested with every movement, and Mercy spotted the weakness quickly. She swept my legs and I fell.

“You don’t want to fight me,” I huffed, rolling away from another blow. “I’m not your enemy.”

“You don’t know know what I want,” Mercy growled.

“This isn’t you- Pius has hypnotized you,” I said.

Though I hadn’t touched her, Mercy fell back and hissed as though in pain.

I took the opportunity to spring to my feet once more and aimed a blow at Mercy, which she evaded.

“Stop trying to trick me,” Mercy growled. “Wisdom has given me power. I’m stronger than all of my enemies, now.”

“’Wisdom’ is your enemy,” I said. “He imprisoned your friends, he imprisoned Chastity- your teacher. He tortured and maimed them.”

Mercy cried out this time, clutching her head. I took a deep breath and reached out to break the spell, but Mercy rallied, and struck another blow to my injured shoulder.

I fell back as Mercy advanced, clutching my injury.

“It hurts when I tell the truth, doesn’t it?” I said. “It hurts when reality is discordant with the spell. You know that Pius is your enemy- the pain you feel now is the proof.”

Mercy fell to her knees and screamed aloud- a primal, animal cry that made me fall back in sheer reflex. I remembered my father as he gasped in bed, in so much pain that he could not breathe. I realized that my father’s pain must have been the same pain that Prudence had once felt for years before she gained the ability to see the illusions of magic for what they were.

Inside me, a feeling started to grow- a hatred for this thing that broke people’s minds and bound them in a prison of illusion. I hated the lies that magic told and its ability to veil the truth of reality. Righteous fury swelled inside me until it burst forth, flooding the starlit field around me.

“Oh!” Mercy gasped. She stood, shaking her head as though to clear it. “Oh- Lady Frey. What have I done? Are you alright?”

“I will be,” I said. “Are you alright?”

“I think so, but- oh! Your shoulder. It may be broken.”

Mercy tossed her staff aside and ran to examine me, and I heard a harsh hushing noise from the window.

“Shhh- be quiet, you two,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper. “It isn’t safe to speak anymore; come inside, quickly.”

“Do you think you can climb?” Mercy whispered to me.

I rolled my ankle a little to test it. The sharp pain was starting to dissipate, and though it tingled with warmth, I could move it freely. My shoulder, however, would not allow me to raise my arm to reach the branches above me.

“Here- I will climb first and help you,” Mercy said. “I won’t be able to examine your arm properly until we are inside.”

I nodded and allowed Mercy to go first, and then reached for her outstretched hand with my good one. The going was slow, but between the two of us I managed to make it up the tree and through the window.

Prudence helped us through and then embraced me gingerly, whispering “thank you” before she took a lantern and bustled through the side door.

Mercy pulled down my robes and examined my shoulder while we awaited Prudence’s return. “I don’t think it’s broken,” Mercy finally said. “I broke the skin with the first strike, though, and it’s badly bruised. We will need some rags so I can bandage it.”

“There are some linens in the cupboard,” Prudence said as she bustled back into the room. “Celeste is safe, and I’ve recast the security spells that Grace broke, so we may speak freely.”

Mercy went to the cupboard to find the linens, and Prudence took her station at my side. Prudence removed the kettle from the hob and used the hot water to clean my wound, dabbing at it gently with her handkerchief.

“I feel like such a fool,” Prudence said as she worked. “Now that the spell no longer binds me, it all seems so obvious. I should have been able to see past the hypnosis, like I can with any other magic.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself, Prudence. It was a spell cast by a God.”

“You broke the spell easily enough,” Prudence said. “You broke several spells at once.”

“It wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed. I was in pain, and I was angry. I’ve never pushed my way past spells that powerful before.”

I heard a rip of fabric as Mercy shredded the sheets into bandages.

“At least I know Pius’s motives for keeping me safe and bringing me here to Hope. He means to present me to Hope as a miracle, to take credit for resurrecting me, and- with my acquiescence- to help twist Hope’s mind to his will.”

“He promised you the queenship, didn’t he? You were muttering something to that effect before the hypnosis was broken.”

“Yes- he promised I would reign as Queen at Hope’s side.”

I heard a final rip, and then Mercy returned with a bundle of bandages.

“Whether the Prince or Lord Frey, no one is getting the crown in Aeterna without war,” Mercy said bluntly.

“So, then what do we do?” Prudence asked, shuffling backward on her knees to allow Mercy access to my arm.

Mercy lifted my arm a little to position the bandages, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out in pain. We sat in silence for a time, each lost in our own thoughts as the lantern burned dimmer and dimmer.

“We must flee as soon as we can, which will not be easy. The prisoners are all held with chains heavy enough to thwart even Chastity’s strength, and the Cathedral is crawling with guards. It was difficult enough for me to slip away unnoticed,” I said.

Mercy nodded thoughtfully. “We are in a similar position, though without the chains. Pius kept a close watch on us until we had been hypnotized. Prudence, do you have a pin I could use to keep the bandage in place?”

“I don’t think we could make it past his magical protections without Pius noticing,” Prudence added, standing to fetch the pin.

“Perhaps you could if you went with me- I was able to pass through Pius’s protections undetected. I could steal inquisitor’s robes to disguise all of you, and you can flee to del Sol.”

“Celeste’s robes would require hemming,” Prudence said dryly. “The inquisition is not so in need of members that they recruit 11 year olds.”

“Ah- yes. That would be a problem,” I said.

“Besides- once we’ve escaped, how long will it be until we’re caught on the road? Will I be avoiding inquisitors for another decade?” Prudence handed Mercy a pin and then knelt beside her. “Don’t add to your anxiety by trying to plan a fruitless escape, Grace. We are under the thumb of a God, and we have yet to accomplish any of our goals. Hope is still held in chains, facing the gallows, and I have yet to find any information on the underground route to del Sol. I think I should stay where I am, where I can watch our enemies more closely.”

Mercy quirked an eyebrow at Prudence. “What are you going to do- play spy?”

“Why not?” Prudence asked.

“Pius will know that I’ve broken the hypnosis,” I said. “He and Lux can see magic-“

Prudence smiled. “So can I. Let him hypnotize me again. I will be able to see past it, now that I know what I’m looking for. I can keep the spell in place while keeping my mind my own.”

“I can’t,” Mercy said bluntly.

“All Lux asked was that you protect me from Grace,” Prudence said, “and I won’t need such protection.”

Prudence looked back at me, a kind of triumph glittering in her blue eyes that frightened me in its prematurity.

“When I contradicted the hypnosis earlier- before the spell was broken- it caused you pain. My father suffered the same pain before I freed him from his spell.”

“When I was hypnotized, everything felt wrong,” Prudence said. “I loved Lux again as a brother- it was a love I had lost long ago, and was glad to have again. At the same time, something in the back of my mind was screaming at me that this was dangerous- that there was something wrong with the story he’d told me, but I couldn’t see what. You told me where the dissonance was, and the spell pushed back.”

Prudence stood up and offered me her hand. “Now that you’ve shown me- the same way that you showed me my face- I can find the boundary between my true thoughts and the thoughts magic has planted in my mind. I know I can, as surely as I found my true face. Trust me, Grace.”

I took Prudence’s hand and stood.

“And what about Celeste? If you stay-“

“I will protect Celeste,” Mercy interrupted. “You- concentrate on saving Lord Frey.”

As if to shut down any argument I might make, Mercy spun on her heel and walked away, into the next room where Celeste slept.

 

 

#

 

 

I could think of no other argument to dissuade Prudence. Her movements were strong and sure as she helped me down the tree and back into the annex courtyard. When we were steady once more on firm ground, she turned and smiled at me, her face ghostly pale in the moonlight.

“How can I leave you in the power of a madman?” I whispered to her.

Prudence took my hands in hers. “You can leave me because Hope is waiting for you, and he’s in far more danger than I.”

I started to drop her hands, to turn away, and then hesitated- torn between Prudence and Hope once more. Prudence laughed at my hesitation, and then leaned down to kiss me.

Those lips I’d traced over and over again, trying to capture their perfection, touched mine, and before I could memorize how they felt they were gone, leaving the faintest impression in their wake.

“Go back,” Prudence said. She stooped down and picked up the staff Mercy had left on the lawn, and held it in such a natural way she looked ready for any opponent to strike.

“Go to Hope. Free him,” she said.

“I promise I will.”

I turned away and, ignoring every instinct that screamed at me not to leave Prudence, and followed the instinct that drew me back to Hope.

 

 

#

 

“Hurry and ready yourself,” a sharp voice woke me. “We must get to the courtroom before the sun rises.”

It had hardly seemed a second since I’d returned to the infirmary and slipped into the cot beside Hope. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and peered blearily at the inquisitor before me.

“Where is Brother Amicus?” I asked. “He is my usual escort.”

“Brother Amicus has more important things to do,” the inquisitor snapped. “Do as I say and get ready- today is your day to speak, and you must be presentable.”

I sat up, and Hope stirred.

“Grace- has the sun risen already?” he asked.

“No, but we must go early,” I said.

I went to the washbasin and tried to ignore the heavy presence of the inquisitor, who stood close behind me as I washed my face and combed and pinned my hair.

When I had completed my toilette, the inquisitor stopped me and looked me over from head to toe.

“Your fine dress is wrinkled in the back, and your eyes are red. Good- your fatigue will garner sympathy. Come with me- there is no need to utter goodbyes. You will see your husband in the courtroom soon enough.”

Another inquisitor met us at the Cathedral door and led us to a seat closest to the High Priest’s dais. Even though the courtroom was almost empty, the two inquisitors flanked me very closely where I sat. A line of guards stood together like a gate before the courtroom door, behind which I could hear the rumble of the crowd.

Soon after I’d arrived, Father Pius entered the room- his white cloak sweeping the ground behind him. He did not go to the dais, but went straight to me, brushing aside the inquisitors.

“Miss Celeste, Sister Jubilee, and Miss Mercy are in a carriage, bound for del Sol,” He said in a low voice. “You will not interfere with them again.”

“But you promised- you said they would be under your protection.”

“I do not break my vows,” he scoffed. “My protection extends far beyond the Cathedral grounds. Amicus is with them, and he carries a piece of my power with him.”

The two inquisitors who stood beside me did not react to this statement, but the guards near the door exchanged puzzled glances.

“Perhaps I should thank you,” Pius continued. “This place is no longer safe, and I want Miss Celeste and Sister Jubilee to survive. But when you are on the stand, Lady Frey, remember that they are under my power. Do not disappoint me.”

Then Pius spun on his heel and retreated back through the side door to await his grand entrance.

I cursed under my breath that I had ignored my instincts, and had left Prudence alone. Pius’s words, “I do not break my vows,” seemed to ring in my ears, and I realized too late the first loophole in Pius’s vow- that his promise to protect Prudence only lasted until the time she returned to del Sol.

“Oh, Abbess Joy- protect them when they arrive. Protect them,” I whispered.

I did not have time to indulge in fear or regret. Too soon the cathedral doors opened, and the crowd spilled into the courtroom, pushing and arguing with each other on the way. The doors were left open even after the courtroom was full, and the line of guards remained by the door to keep the crowd outside from pushing through.

In dizzying succession, the bishops filed in, and then the prisoners, and then Pius, who sat on his his throne and called the courtroom to order with a wave of his hand.

“Mrs. Charity Auber,” Bishop Benedict called. “Please rise.”

Mrs. Auber came forward, looking tiny between the two tall inquisitors who assisted her forward. She turned to face the crowd with a serene expression and relaxed posture, as though she stood in a drawing room instead of a courtroom.

Bishop Benedict bade Mrs. Auber repeat her vows, and then graced her with a gentle smile.

“It was very brave of you to come forward, Ma’am,” he said. “I will make this as painless as possible.”

“I am always ready to do my duty,” Mrs. Auber replied with a humble bow of her head. “What will be, will be.”

“How long have you known the accused?” Benedict continued, this time in a voice loud enough to carry though the courtroom.

“I’ve known Lord Frey for a long time- ever since my dear departed husband brought me to Hill Country Village some twenty-five years ago,” Mrs. Auber answered. “The Freys were the most prominent family in the whole country, but they were always kind to my husband, though he was only a country doctor. In those days, the two boys were very young, and Lady Frey would ask my husband’s advice for dealing with the usual childhood ailments. They would often invite us to dine at Rowan Heights, and it was there we met the Goode family and their children.”

“What was your impression of the children as they grew?” Bishop Septimus asked.

“Young Hope- now Lord Frey- was a healthy, vigorous young man. His brother, now named Brother Lux, was a more quiet, sensitive boy. As far as the Goode children are concerned, young Justice was respectful and well behaved, but Prudence was tomboyish and wild, always speaking out of turn and questioning her elders.”

I smiled a little, in spite of myself, at the mental picture of the four friends.

“I did not see any signs of danger, however, until the former Lady Frey died and the former Lord Frey retired, leaving young Hope in charge of the estate. I began to hear grumblings among the young people- discontent with perceived injustices of slavery and inequality. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and the whispers stopped when the poor girl, Prudence Goode, went crazy and ran away.”

“You believed that Prudence Goode had merely gone mad?”

“Everyone thought Miss Goode was mad. She was secretive, paranoid, delusional- half of what she uttered made no sense at all. I am certain she fled because she thought her friends were persecuting her in some way, even though we only wanted to help her. For a decade we searched for her, and then one day we received word she’d been caught by the inquisition and had died in prison.”

“What effect did this news have on her family?”

“I did not have the chance to speak to Mrs. Goode, but her brother, Captain Goode, seemed enraged. He and Lord Frey spent a lot of time together afterward, shutting themselves away in so secretive a matter that it seemed more than grief- it seemed that they were plotting.”

“Other than their secretiveness, did you notice anything else odd?”

“Oh- yes,” Mrs. Auber said. “Lord Frey and Captain Goode, despite their grief, seemed to flourish at this time. I thought it strange, but they met more and more often with the Willoughbys, attending parties and dinners, making connections with the wealthy and powerful, and finding success in almost everything they did. Young Mr. Goode was promoted to Captain. Lord Frey’s Father, who had long since retired, died suddenly, and Lord Frey used his newfound wealth to great advantage- he made several very good investments that gave such returns that he was able to make many improvements to his properties.

“Lord Frey was able to raise his staff’s wages, and Miss Chastity was promoted to head maid after only a couple of years of service. She was in Lord Frey’s confidence more than Mr. Poe, the steward, so of course everyone in the village whispered about the relationship.”

Her only lies have been lies of omission, I thought. Everything she saw happened, but when it comes to witchcraft she only speaks of rumors.

      Bishop Benedict held up his hand, halting Mrs. Auber’s soliloquy. “When did you first see evidence of witchcraft?” he asked.

“I’d say that was the night of the dumb supper that was held the night of the full moon- the one-year anniversary of poor Prudence’s death.”

Mrs. Auber paused and took a deep breath, as though steeling herself for something, before she continued. “I did not think it unseemly to hold a dinner in Miss Goode’s honor. After all, everyone had loved her before she went mad. However, strange things happened that night I could not ignore.”

“Such as?”

“At dinner, Lord Frey very obviously plied his young wife with wine until the girl became ill and had to go to her room. It seemed the act of a cad, but then what young man would want his bride present while he mourned his mistress?”

“When Lady Frey became ill, did someone escort her up the stairs?”

“Yes- she was much too ill to walk. Lord Frey took her upstairs.”

“Lord Frey- but…” Bishop Septimus rifled through some papers, peering closely at them through his spectacles. “In your statement, you said that Brother Lux accompanied Lady Frey, and when Brother Lux had left Lord Frey swore vengeance on Father Sauris.”

“Oh?” Mrs. Auber’s eyes grew unfocused, and she looked up at Father Pius for a few moments with a dazed expression.

“Do your best to remember,” Father Pius said gently.

“I- I think that Lord Frey said something later- or…” Mrs. Auber patted absently at her silver hair, and looked around the courtroom as though in confusion.

“Mrs. Auber?” Bishop Benedict prodded.

“Brother Lux went to attend Lady Frey at some point in the evening- it must have been then…” Mrs. Auber shut her eyes and clutched her hands together as though trying to remember.

“The old Lady is dotty,” someone behind me whispered.

Mrs. Auber’s eyes opened, and she looked in my direction. Her eyes were filled with the same pain I’d seen last night in Prudence’s eyes, as though there were a struggle between the lies that the litany prevented her from telling and the spell that still bound her to the coven.

After a time, Bishop Benedict went to her and placed a hand on her arm. “It’s alright, Ma’am; let’s continue, and we may come back to this incident later.”

“Of course.” Mrs. Auber stood straight and smoothed her clothes.

“Did you see anything else strange- perhaps later in the evening?”

“Later that night, I saw a bonfire on the crest of bluebell hill, which is the second highest point in all of the hill country- I’m sure the light could be seen all over the country. Seeing it made me think of the stories my nurse told me as a girl.” She put her arms around herself and shivered.

“What stories were those?” Bishop Benedict asked.

“Stories of the witches’ sabbath, of course. In the tales the witches would gather around bonfires, under the full moon.”

There was some muttering throughout the courtroom, which faded when Bishop Septimus stood and spoke.

“Mrs. Auber, I have in my possession a document you submitted.” Bishop Septimus lifted a sheet of paper for everyone to see. “It is a blood oath, entered into by the accused, swearing vengeance against Father Sauris for the life of Prudence Goode, whom he had ordered arrested for witchcraft. On this document each of defendants swear, in blood, to take vengeance by whatever means necessary- even by dark magic. How did this document come to your possession?”

“That was the strangest occurrence of all,” Mrs. Auber said. “One day, when I came home from church, it was waiting on my desk. There was no note, no envelope, and no card to indicate who might have left it. When I questioned my staff, no one had any idea where it had come from.”

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

XC

The Coven, Part LXXXVIII

Read from the beginning.

 

“All hail the Eagle! All Hail the rightful king!”

The last cry was drowned out by a chorus of boos and hisses from the Nobles nearest Miss Taris. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, and her expression became more strained.

The Inquisitors and the Prince’s guard sprung into action, forming themselves into a wall that separated the shouting factions.

“We must go,” Brother Amicus whispered to me. Two inquisitors came forward to flank me.

I stepped away from the inquisitors, however, looking wildly around me. The Prisoner’s box was already empty, and the last of the prisoner’s escort were filing through the courtroom’s side door. Prudence’s guards were leading Prudence through the opposite door.

Lady Frey,” Brother Amicus said urgently.

I waited until Prudence was through the door, and then I stepped back and allowed the guards to escort me away.

The guards took me around the edge of the courtroom, away from the fringes of the agitated crowds, and through the same door the prisoners had used. As I stepped through, I heard a crash in the courtroom behind me- the sound of wood breaking- and the roar of the crowd amplified before the door shut and muffled it.

 

 

#

 

 

Inside the infirmary, the air was filled with the sound of rattling chains.

Lady Willoughby and Chastity both sat very tall, watching the others, as they fussed with the chains that bound their feet. Captain Goode was pacing in a small half-circle around his bedpost, which was as far as his chains would allow him to walk. Lord Willoughby slapped his chains against his cot, as though slapping reigns against a horse’s back to urge it forward.

Hope was the only prisoner that sat still. His hands were folded in his lap, and his posture was reminiscent of the pose the Sisters at del Sol assumed when in deep meditation.

Captain Goode paused in his pacing and narrowed his eyes at Hope. “What do you make of this madness, Frey,” he demanded. “Why would those fools in the gallery rally around a damned soul?”

Hope took a deep breath before he responded. “It seems that the people still believe the old stories,” he said.

“How long have you known?” I asked quietly. “In your letter…”

Hope sat a little taller, and his lips twitched into a half-grin.

“I’ve learned the tales since I was a boy, though I had no idea at the time the implications of what I was hearing. My father raised my brother and me on the old stories of Uriel and Asmodeus. In retrospect, I think the tales gave him a sort of misguided hope that perhaps we had been descended from the good brother instead of the evil, and that the tales of the eagle and the rose foretold our family’s vindication.”

“I spent enough time in your family’s home, and I never heard your father speak of such things,” Captain Goode said.

“My father told the tales when we were alone- huddled together on a dark winter’s evening. Father said that the tales were meant for my brother and I, because Uriel and Asmodeus were identical twins, like us. Lux and I would sometimes switch places to amuse ourselves- what if Asmodeus had done the same thing? Were they so talented that they could fool the gods themselves?”

“Oh- I remember hearing a story like that,” Chastity said suddenly. “My mother told my sister and I the tale.”

Hope nodded, and then began to speak, his voice taking on a soothing cadence as he recited.

“Once upon a time, at the dawn of man, two boys were born of the same woman- the first twins. These boys were beautiful, strong, and blessed beyond all other children. The first twin to be born was named Asmodeus, and the second Uriel. Uriel was a kind and gentle soul, able to charm animals with his voice, and Asmodeus was clever and skilled at fighting. The two boys worked together to tame the most free and noble of all creatures- the eagle. Thus, they were able to use the eagle’s sharp eyes to watch their enemies, and the eagle’s wings to bear messages to heaven.

“Order received the messages that the two boys sent, and their words moved him. As the boys grew, Order grew to love them beyond all other humans. He watched their accomplishments and rewarded them with arms, land, and men to lead. Uriel’s gentleness won his men’s hearts, and Asmodeus’s strength and wisdom won his men’s respect. Order elevated Asmodeus above all the other chieftains, making him leader among leaders- the first high king.

“Asmodeus’s rule was marked by prosperity and peace, but this peace was interrupted when the Ancients rose up and waged war against the Gods. Order charged Asmodeus with the task of leading men in the Ancient war, but in spite of all of his wisdom and strength, Asmodeus lost battle after battle.

“Order looked into Asmodeus’s heart, and he saw that Asmodeus had grown prideful. Asmodeus believed he was as great as the Gods themselves, and he was resentful of Order’s commands. Because of this resentment, Asmodeus had lost the will to fight for Order’s glory.”

“In the version I heard, Asmodeus stopped fighting because he’d fallen in love with an Ancient woman,” Chastity said.

Hope smirked a little, and reached out for my hand. I took it, and he continued.

“As punishment, Order stripped Asmodeus of his crown and his salvation, giving both to Uriel in his stead. Then Order banished Asmodeus from the kingdom, leaving him to wander the earth alone.

“Asmodeus, ashamed at how far he’d fallen, took great pains to avoid they scornful eyes of his fellow humans. As he wandered, he would send his eagle ahead of him to warn him of any people or settlements he may accidentally encounter. One day, the eagle spotted Uriel walking through the hillside, speaking to the wild beasts.

“On Asmodeus’s orders, the eagle descended to meet Uriel, crying, ‘your brother asks for mercy! Your brother asks for mercy!’

“’Oh, how I wish I could grant my brother mercy! But I cannot defy Order,’ Uriel replied. ‘I have prayed for Asmodeus’s soul, but Order will not relent.’

“’If you cannot persuade Order, will you give your brother what you can?’ The eagle persisted.

“’I will give my brother all I can,’ Uriel promised.

“So the eagle flew away, and returned again on Asmodeus’s shoulder.

“Uriel cried tears of joy at their reunion, and tears of sadness at his brother’s fallen state. He presented his brother with food and wine, and he removed his own cloak and used it to cover his brother’s nakedness.

“’Your kindness has moved me, brother,’ Asmodeus said. ‘I repent that I ever defied Order’s will. Will you pray to Order on behalf of my soul?’

“’I swear to pray to Order on your soul’s behalf,’ Uriel said.

“’I have suffered in the wilderness without food or water. Will you promise to help restore my comfort?’

“’I swear that I will do everything I can to restore your comfort,’ Uriel promised.

“’I have been away from my people for so long that my heart breaks for them. Will you swear, upon your crown, to do everything in your power to restore me to my people?’

“’I swear, upon my crown, that I will do everything I can to restore you to your people.’

“As Uriel removed his crown to swear upon it, and as soon as the oath was spoken, Asmodeus snatched the crown and placed it on his own head. The eagle swept Asmodeus up in his talons and carried him away to the palace, leaving Uriel alone in the hills. Uriel could not expose his brother, or steal back the crown, because he had already given his oath to restore Asmodeus. Thus, Uriel made his home in the hills, and Asmodeus returned to the palace to rule under Uriel’s name.”

The clattering of chains had ceased while Hope told the tale, and as his voice drifted off, the room filled with a heavy silence. Then Lord Willoughby spoke.

“I heard something like that story at court,” he said, “but it was only told in whispers when the Prince suffered his accident, and the whispers stopped when he recovered.”

“The tale is told openly among the common folk,” Chastity said. “I’ve heard the story since I was a girl. Such stories are taken more seriously among us than among the learned men and their histories.”

“So the nobles support the Prince while he has strength, and the people look elsewhere for leadership,” Captain Goode said. Then he turned to one of the silent monks.

“What about you, Friar? Where does the clergy stand in all of this?”

“We leave politics to the laity. No king reins but by Order’s will, and the High Priest is Order’s voice on Earth,” the monk muttered.

“Then the scales are tipped,” Hope whispered in so low a voice I could barely hear him.

At that moment the door opened, and Brother Amicus stepped through.

“All is well, for now. The soldiers have separated the rabble-rousers and prevented violence.”

“For now-“ Captain Goode said, raising a skeptical brow.

“We will see what happens. Father Pius remains steadfast in his belief that the public has the right to witness this trial,” Brother Amicus said.

Captain Goode scoffed and returned to pacing.

“Father Pius offers his assurance that you will remain safe from the crowds. His protection is upon you.”

“He has protected us so well,” Captain Goode said, raising his handless arms.

Hope held my hand tight, but he did not repeat his desire that I leave for my own safety, and for this I was grateful.

Brother Amicus went to Captain Goode, speaking placating words that only seemed to agitate Captain Goode further. While they argued, I slipped Prudence’s note from my pocket and read.

I cannot write a long note, but be assured that we are well. Tonight, I will sit by my window and watch Lystra set, and I will think of you.

      The intended message was immediately clear. It was not a secure message- anyone who had intercepted the note might be able to discern that she’d asked me to meet her. However, I was one of the very few who could bypass the magical protection Pius had placed on the annex to reach her.

I placed the note back in my pocket and kissed Hope’s hand. Then I dropped his hand and stood as though to stretch, and paced to the room’s only window. Through the pane of warped glass, I could make out a patch of soft purple sky. The sun was setting, and it would be a moonless night. I stepped closer to the window and examined its immediate surroundings. The window was high, but because the infirmary was in the cathedral’s basement level, the window was level with the grassy lawn outside. There were shrubs on either side, which partly shielded it from view.

A plan began to formulate in my mind. I paced a bit more, stretching my arms casually before I returned to Hope’s bedside. Hope’s expression betrayed intense concentration- he was listening to everything around him- but he said nothing when I sat and took his hand once more.

“You have the right to your anger,” Amicus was conceding. “But- don’t let it cloud your judgement. The time is coming-”

“My judgement won’t be clouded by your pretty words,” Captain Goode interrupted. “I can protect myself.”

Brother Amicus bowed slightly and turned to go.

 

 

 

#

 

 

I waited with bated breath while the agitation in the room rose and then died down again. At last, the chains ceased rattling, and one by one the prisoners fell asleep. I watched closely as the monks dispersed, my heart sinking just a little when I saw one tuck the keys to the prisoners’ chains in his pocket and exit through the front door. One monk remained in the room, but after extinguishing the lights he sat in the corner, head nodding over his chest.

I briefly considered an alternate plan to the one I’d concocted. I could disable the monk before he made a sound, search for a way to break everyone’s chains, sneak them through the window…

The chains were my biggest obstacle, and no matter how long I sat in thought no idea came for how I could break them. The keys were gone, and I did not know how to pick locks. The chains were thick and heavy enough to thwart Chastity’s supernatural strength, so my strength alone would be useless. I could perhaps disassemble the beds where the chains were attached, but if the prisoners were still wearing the chains when they made their escape, the rattling noise would soon give them away.

One small, quiet person may be able to slip past the guards, but not five chained escapees.

“The sun has set,” I whispered to Hope. “I must go, but I will return shortly.”

“Go- where?” Hope whispered, clutching my hand tightly.

“I’m going to her,” I said simply.

Hope’s grip immediately relaxed, and he sighed. “Oh! Tell her-“

“I will,” I whispered, pressing a kiss against his lips before I let go of his hand.

I moved quietly past the monk to the interior door, which opened as it had on my last midnight outing. I moved swiftly down the hallway to the laundry, where I found what I sought- bundles of scarlet inquisitor’s robes.

I found a set of robes short enough not to hinder me, rolled them up, and placed them under my arm. Then I went swiftly back to the infirmary, where I changed behind a section of curtain near the window.

I climbed up on a table and opened the window as quietly as I could. I stopped when I heard someone stirring behind me, but the stirring soon ceased, and when nothing else happened, I hauled myself out onto the grass outside and then closed the window, leaving it open just a crack. Then I peeked out from behind the bushes, waiting until the nearest guards’ backs were turned before I emerged.

I folded my hands and bowed my head as though I prayed, but I walked to the annex quickly, striding with purpose. My hair was loose, and I let it fall forward to hide my face. I walked unnoticed to the annex, where I turned sharply and went to the western wall of the annex.

As I rounded the corner I heard a rich, warm voice call my name.

“Grace- I’m up here!”

I spun around and saw Prudence in the upstairs window, framed by the ornate windowsill and haloed in lamp light.

“Prudence,” I whispered, going to stand underneath.

“What in the world are you wearing?” She laughed. “I thought you were a guard.”

“I had to find some way to get past the guards,” I whispered hoarsely.

“Don’t strain your voice- we won’t be overheard,” Prudence said with a wink. “Come closer.”

I looked around and spotted a tree that grew near the open window. I had never climbed much in my youth, but the branches were low and strong, so I hiked up my robes, stepped up on the low crotch of the tree and hoisted myself onto the first branch. I continued to climb until I perched on a limb that nearly touched the window.

“Celeste would be proud,” Prudence said.

“How is Celeste? Where is she?” I asked, peering into the room behind Prudence. In the soft lantern glow, I could see a small, sparsely furnished room with a single bed, table, and a grate with glowing embers, but no sign of any other occupant.

“She is asleep now,” Prudence said. “I wanted to ensure we were alone. I have so much to tell you, but not much time. Do you trust me?”

“Of course,” I said.

Prudence leaned forward, her eyes glittering in the starlight. “Lux didn’t want me to speak to you. He’d said it would be fruitless but- oh, I must tell you everything I’ve learned. Everything is going to be alright in the end, Grace.”

I tested the branch’s strength, and then cautiously scooted closer to Prudence. “What have you learned?”

“I will start with the obvious. Lux and Pius are controlling everything- the trial, the witnesses, and the political happenings on the council of bishops.”

“Yes, that has been obvious,” I said with a sigh.

“They are powerful, Grace. Everything is proceeding according to plan, and I have Lux’s assurance that the prisoners will live!”

“This is nothing new,” I said. “We know that Pius plans to use Hope to help him seize power. Even I the trial goes well, though, Pius will still be a threat.”

“I thought you would say so,” Prudence said. She shut her eyes for a second and sighed. “This will be difficult to explain; how can I convey what I know to someone who has no soul?”

“Just tell me how you feel.”

“This goes beyond mere feeling,” Prudence said, “though it is something like awe- like feeling the crack of thunder, or the roar of the ocean. It’s a power beyond anything.”

“Did Pius threaten you?” I asked. “Did he frighten you?”

“No- it’s nothing like that at all. Pius wouldn’t try to hurt me, now.” Prudence sighed. “Lux said you wouldn’t understand.”

“Then make me understand,” I reached out and found I was close enough to touch her hand. “Did Pius give you a reason to trust him?”

“Pius saved me, Grace. We thought Lux had only healed me, but the truth is that I died in prison. Pius resurrected me.”

“How do you know?”

Prudence blinked, and then sharply pulled her hand away from mine. “What do you mean?”

“I only ask a question you’ve asked me a hundred times- how do you know what you know? You were in suffering in prison, you fell unconscious, and when you woke you were healed. Either Lux healed you after you passed out, or you died and Pius resurrected you. If you are unconscious, you have no way to tell the difference, but you know which one is more probable. What evidence did Pius give you to convince you otherwise?”

“He told me-“ Prudence said, and clutched her head.

“Pius and Lux are the ones who betrayed you. Even if you did die, and Pius resurrected you, he was still responsible for your death.”

“No- it was my fault for betraying Pius, but he forgave me,” Prudence whispered. “Pius will bring Hope back to me. I will be Hope’s guide- I will guide him to the crown…”

“That’s the reason Pius brought you here, isn’t it?” I said. “He wants you help him win Hope’s loyalty.”

Prudence dropped her hands and looked up. The glitter in her eyes died away from a moment, leaving a familiar, blank expression.

I reached out for Prudence’s hand again. “He’s hypnotized you, Prudence. I can help you. Give me your hand.”

“Stop! You’re hurting me.” Prudence shrieked and shied away from the window. I tried to climb closer, but something caught my foot, and I slipped from the tree branch.

My first lessons with Mercy flashed through my mind as I fell. She had tripped and pushed me to the ground over and over until I was covered in bruises. Now I hardly had to think as I hit the ground- my body dispersed the weight evenly, and I rolled to absorb the shock automatically. Still, it was a long fall, and it hurt. Badly.

I was barely able to roll away from the butt of Mercy’s staff in time.

“Prudence told you that you’re hurting her,” Mercy spat. “Leave now and don’t come near her again.”

“I was just trying-“

Before I could finish my defense, Mercy’s staff spun again. This time, it clipped my shoulder as I rolled away. It stung, but the pain was bearable, and I managed to stumble to my feet.

“So be it,” Mercy said.

Then Mercy attacked me with the full extent of her fury.

Part LXXXIX

The Coven- Anti-Update

Good Morning, and Happy Holidays.

I hope everyone is enjoying the season. I certainly have been, so much so that I left town for a bit and haven’t been able to update The Coven. Now I’m desperately behind on Christmas obligations, so I probably won’t update again until the holidays are over.

Here’s to holiday cheer and holiday stress.