The Coven, Part CVIII

Read from the beginning.

I did not return to the manor until dawn’s rays shone over the hills. I fell fast asleep as soon as I reached my room, and did not awake until well past 1:00. Even so, when I went out again, most of the household still slept.

      I had dressed myself in neither breeches nor a gown, but in my white pilgrim’s robes, which brushed the grasses under my feet as I wandered through the hedges on the southern slope, near the manor.

      I walked until I could no longer see the house, and I was certain that no one from the house could see me. Then I sat on the ground, closed my eyes, and considered the problems I’d been presented.

 

      In my present state, I endangered all of my loved ones who possessed a soul.

      If I accepted a soul, I would not longer endanger my friends, and I would live forever, able to explore the universe’s most tantalizing mysteries.

      Exploring the universe’s most tantalizing mysteries was a power as dangerous as my soulless power.

 

      Surely, I thought, there was also much good to be done with the power of science. Order had created the soul network and defeated death with the power of science, after all.

      But Order had become corrupt, just as my power had corrupted me.

      The problem with power, I realized, was not its potential misuse. The problem with power was that it was in its nature to grow until checked by an outside force. How could I, in my present state of ignorance, be sure that any power I sought would be checked before it became destructive, or that the force that checked it would not be a thousand times worse?

      I was descending into another spiral, so I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind.

      I ran through all of the exercises that Prudence had taught me when teaching me to meditate. I spent some time simply breathing. I concentrated upon a mantra. When this failed, I sat quietly and let thoughts come, trying to let them pass without judgement. The thoughts, however, overwhelmed, sinking me back into the same vicious circle.

      “Why is this always so difficult for me?” I asked aloud to no-one.

      I closed my eyes again and sifted through my memories, repeating to myself all of the sound advice I’d ever received from Hope, from Prudence, and from Abbess Joy on how to clear my mind whenever life was difficult, and my thoughts inevitably tangled themselves. As I wound backward through all of the wise words I had been given, one memory that I hadn’t thought of in some time came back to me. It was a memory of Dare performing that slow, peaceful form under the endless stars.

      “This form is part of your heritage, Grace. It’s been passed down from ancient to ancient for centuries. The Church gives us martial forms that teach us to kill, but this form grants us the strength to live.”

      I hesitated to stand, at first. It seemed reasonable that if I could move a little, my mind might be less restless. At the same time, while it was a slow, meditative form, it was still a martial form, and I had promised myself I would not practice until my powers were under control.

      In the end, I could see few other options. I stood, brushed the grass from my robes, and slowly, tentatively, made my way through the first poses of the Ancient form.

      I had not done the form in some time, and my memory of the pattern was faint. I missed a pose halfway through the pattern, and only realized it when I reached the end, and realized I was in the wrong place- on the wrong foot. I groaned in frustration, and went back to the beginning.

      I took a deep breath, and then released it as I slid into the first pose once more.

      My mind cleared, and I recalled the missing pose.

      I made my way through the poses, and my fear, doubts, and frustration melted away. For the first time since I’d been at the Cathedral Lux, I felt calm- my heart felt light. The constant dread that had settled in the pit of my stomach the whole time I’d been at Rowan Heights vanished.

      I stopped, sat down again, and thought.

      The form was performed in a specific pattern of up-and-down motions, smooth and rolling, like ocean waves. My breath seemed to match the pattern naturally, in on the upward motions, and out on the downward. The pattern of breathing, in time to the the changes of speed created by long and short steps, added to the meditative quality of the form.

      What would happen, I wondered, if I changed the pattern of breath?

      I stood again, and changed my breathing to counter the movements- in on the down movements, and out on the up movements. This time, the form felt less natural- more plodding and deliberate, but otherwise I felt no effect.

      The pattern of steps changed time in a 2-7-2-5 pattern of breaths. What would happen if I reversed that pattern?

      This proved to be a far more difficult task. The movements and breath were dissonant, and forcing the movement felt wrong. The frustrations I felt as I tried to force the breath was so strong, it was almost painful. My nerves tingled, and then burned with the sensation.

      I fell back into the proper pattern, and my nerves settled- my feelings calmed.

      I sat down again and breathed in contentment so still and so long that a sparrow landed on the ground nearby. Making a wide berth for the giant creature that sat unwelcome in its clearing, it hopped in a circle, pecking the ground beneath it.

      Having no one else with whom to share my discovery, I leaned forward and whispered. “My ancestors knew what they were doing, after all. They didn’t just send a soulless race out into the darkness. They gave us the tools we needed to control our power- a way for our higher will to assert itself.”

      The sparrow looked up at me with its bright, dark eyes, cocking its head curiously to one side.

      “If I examine Dare’s stories, what else will I find? What other secrets lie within the Ancient lore?”

      The sparrow hopped closer to me once, twice, thrice. Then it seemed to lose its courage, and it fluttered up, away, into the sky.

      I watched the sparrow until it disappeared over the crest of a nearby hill. Then I closed my eyes and began to work in earnest.

      As the sun began to descend in the sky, I learned that I could manipulate my feelings just by breathing in time to Ancient pattern, letting my body ride and fall with the rhythm. After a little more time, even the breath was unnecessary- by concentrating I could feel the resonance within my mind, and my body reacted.

      I had found the key to controlling my growing power, and with that key, the ability to choose my path forward freely.

 

 

#

 

 

      “Grace- thank goodness.” Hope greeted me when I returned to the manor. “No one has seen you since last night. I was worried sick.”

      “I’m sorry to worry you,” I said, falling into Hope’s embrace. “And thank you for being concerned with my well-being, but I’m fine. I promise I’m fine.”

      Hope drew back and looked into my eyes.

      “Yes- you are.” Hope took my hands. “Come to my rooms- we can talk privately, there.”

      I followed him up the stairs and into the master suite, where I had held his hands and allowed him to sleep, free of nightmares, for the first time.

      Hope and I sat on the edge of the bed, facing the window that looked out onto the ocean of hills. I turned to Hope, who was staring at me hungrily. He reached out tentatively, as though suddenly shy, and brushed the back of my hand with his.

      “I am not sure how much longer I can stand this,” Hope said. “It seems like every time I turn around, Wisdom has stolen you away.”

      “He took me to bluebell hill, last night,” I said. “I believe he wants me to convince you to accept the throne; he tried to overcome any objections I had to the plan. He was-” I paused, searching for words. “He was very persuasive.”

      “Do you wish me to be king?” Hope asked.

      “I would like to see you out of Wisdom’s grasp,” I said. “But the decision must be yours. You’ve had enough people whispering in your ears.”

      Hope smiled the cocky, lopsided grin that was now so rare.

“Whispers will not sway me.”

      “Then- you do have a plan,” I said. “You’ve been so confident that I was sure you had a plan. May I ask- what is it?”

      Hope laughed so hard that he fell back onto the bed, clutching his stomach.

      “This morning I talked to Wisdom. He thinks I plan to be King, but that I am holding out to bargain for a greater share of power from the church,” he gasped, wiping his eyes. “Chastity thinks I plan to refuse, but am afraid to say so openly while under Wisdom’s power. Lord Willoughby thinks I am prolonging my time with Wisdom so I can study him for a weakness, and then move against him. What is your theory, Grace?”

      “I am completely at a loss,” I said.

      “Then I will tell you. I have no plan, but I have been trying very hard to act as though I do.”

      Stunned, I lay back on the bed next to Hope. “What- no plan at all?”

      “No. All of the theories I’ve heard are equally terrible. I could accept the position of King and protect the people of Aeterna in some small way from the demon who has them in his grasp, all the while being trapped in his game forever. I could flee Aeterna, and never see my homeland again. I could try to fight Wisdom- a literal God- and die in the attempt. Or- I could do what I’m doing now: stay in my house, dance, make merry, and watch my greatest enemy squirm as he tries to figure out where I’m at. The last option, at least, is amusing, but I suppose I cannot continue it forever.”

      I turned, propping myself up on my elbow to regard Hope.

      “If Wisdom is desperate enough to come to me for help persuading you, you must have him in check. You are to be congratulated.”

      Hope propped himself up on his elbow as well. “Wisdom has manipulated us for far too long; let him feel what it’s like. What did he tell you last night that was so persuasive?”

      “He told me why he is afraid,” I said.

      Hope lifted his eyebrows. “Wisdom- afraid?”

      “Yes, and just imagine the scale of catastrophe that a God would fear. There are reasons behind his desperate acts- our world is the product of a dark and troubled past. I am certain that, if you did accept the crown, Wisdom would keep you on a tight leash. He may grant some indulgences, but he won’t allow freedom of thought in his church.”

      Hope stared at me, searchingly.

      “You don’t believe that Wisdom is right, do you?”

      “No. He may have reasons to be afraid, but I’ve discovered reasons to be courageous.”

      Hope smiled. “I can see the light of discovery in your eyes. Oh, Grace, how I’ve missed it!”

      Hope drew me close to him and kissed me deeply. I could feel his heart beating in his chest. I could feel his desire, hot and feverish, as he held me tight.

      Can I be blamed if I gave into his desire?

      Can I be blamed if I gave into my own?

 

 

#

 

 

      Afterward we lay together on the bedsheets in the sunset’s purple light. I traced his form with my eyes, committing every detail of his person to my memory.

      I was not in turmoil, as I would have imagined. My heart was quiet, and my mind at peace. I realized that my heart had decided my way forward long ago.

      I traced my eyes up Hope’s chest, neck, and finally to his face, and then I could not stop myself from using my fingers to trace his jawbone, his cheeks, and his forehead. Then I ran my hands through his short, dark hair.

      “Are you alright?” Hope asked.

      “More than I have been in a long time,” I said. “I’m sure everything is going to be fine.”

      “No, I mean-”

      I placed my finger against Hope’s lips. “Yes- I know. I’m alright. I promise I am.”

      Hope caught my hand and kissed my fingers, my knuckles, my palm.

      “You don’t have to tell me what to do next, but what is your opinion,” he asked.

      I thought for a few moments, and then said. “If you don’t like the options you have before you, then my opinion is that you should search for alternatives.”

      Hope nodded, but said nothing.

      At that moment the bell rang, announcing dinner.

      “The others will be expecting us,” Hope groaned, “and I have another act to perform.”     

      I sighed and reached for my robes. “We should hurry to wash and dress, then, or we will be late.”

      Then I hesitated, flung the robe aside, and kissed Hope once more.

      “I love you,” I said. “Come what may, never doubt that I love you.”

Part CIX

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The Coven, Part CVII

Read from the beginning.

One, two, one, two. The bellows squeezed and the bench rumbled as my fingers fumbled along the keys. I squinted my eyes, trying to ignore the glittering lanterns all around me as I watched the musical notes dance before my eyes. I disregarded the sound of laughter and conversation, and concentrated on counting the music’s time.

      I had never attempted to play the handsome spin-organ that stood to one side of Rowan Height’s grand ballroom, but there had been no time to hire musicians, send invitations, or order dinner for this ball. The entire enterprise had begun when Lady Frey declared that the small figure dance in the sitting room was not diverting enough. Soon, the ballroom doors were flung open, and the lamps lighted. The whole household assembled; the young maids flung their caps aside and put flowers in their hair, and the footmen and gardeners and grooms ran to secure partners from their number. Now everyone was dancing- servants and gentry, nobles and the living god- together.

      Lady Willoughby had been too keen to dance to play the organ, and Miss Taris, blushing, had said that she’d already promised the first two dances to Mirth. Hope had made a polite attempt to persuade me to dance, but his tone of voice suggested that he knew the attempt was pointless.

      So, being the only available musician, I bit my lip and counted my way through the first set of dances. Afterward, two very pretty young girls had laughingly handed me a book of country dances, which I also played. My unpracticed fingers fumbled over the unfamiliar keys toward the final cadence, where I held the final chord for an exact count of eight before I released the keys and let the sound fade away into the night.

      The ballroom burst into applause as though my clumsy, mechanical playing had been the most delightful sound on earth.

      I massaged my tired fingers while the dancers drifted away from the floor, their conversation and laughter growing loud enough to fill the room.  

      Then a voice spoke- one that could break through any cacophony. “Excellent playing, Lady Frey, but why do you not dance? Surely, you remember that I can charm the instrument to play alone.”

      “I would rather play,” I said, turning on the bench to look at Wisdom. “Let those who are happy dance.”

      “Lady Willoughby is not happy,” Wisdom said, sitting beside me on the bench. “Yet, she is determined to be gay.”

      “She is herself, and nothing will change that,” I said. I closed the music book and laid it aside, while Wisdom took up another and opened it, studying the notes.

      “Your husband is determined to be gay, as well,” Wisdom said. “He has spent the day in determined silence. I have asked him several times to accept the crown, but he will not answer. Now look at him- he is eager to talk about nothing to anyone who will listen.”

      He gestured with his chin to the crowd beyond, where Hope was speaking animatedly to Chastity, who gazed at him with a dazzled smile.

      “What game is he playing, Lady Frey?”

      “I don’t know, but he seems to be playing it very well,” I said.

      I looked back to Wisdom, who was flipping through page after page of music, frowning as though in concentration.

      “What are you-” I began, but Wisdom held up a finger to silence me.

      “This book will give us… maybe two hours? By that time everyone will be too tired to realize we are missing.”

      He opened the book and set it upon the stand, and then played the first line of music. Then he took his hands away, and the keys moved on their own.

      Wisdom took both of my hands and, making certain I did not brush against the instrument, helped me to stand.

      “Come this way; I wish to speak with you alone.”

      Wisdom led me away from the crowd and out a side door that led not to the verandah, but to the small path that wound to the lawn where Hope and I had shared our first kiss. He did not lead me down the path to the lawn, for which I was grateful, but rather toward the front of the manor.

      “I’m afraid I haven’t made my decision, yet,” I said. “There’s been no time for me to consider my feelings, or the full implications of-”

“I wished to speak to you about something else,” Wisdom said, waving this aside. “Tell me, do you have any personal reservations about your husband accepting the crown?”

      “Me?” I said, taken aback. “Only the obvious ones- that you will make him your puppet, and that he does not want it.”

      “Lord Frey has not said that he doesn’t want the crown,” Wisdom pointed out. As he spoke, he did not turn toward the manor’s front door, but instead down the gravel path that lead to bluebell hill. His strides were so long that I was obliged to lift my skirts and trot behind him to keep up.

      “No, he hasn’t. But his goal is to reach Celeste and Prudence at del Sol, and then…”

      Wisdom stopped and turned to me. “Yes? And then what?”

      “I don’t know,” I admitted.

      He spun, his dark hair swinging behind him, and began to walk again.

      “Pretend, for the moment, that Lord Frey has decided to accept the crown. Pretend I have given him all of the autonomy and authority that any sovereign can possess. What concerns remain?”

      I took a deep breath and imagined the scenario.

      I saw Hope in my mind’s eye, issuing decrees to address the most troubling aspects of our country. He would free the slaves first- at least, the non-Ancient slaves that were not under the church’s dominion. He would give women rights of inheritance equal to sons. He would certainly ban the practice of beating wives and children.

I saw him carefully constructing his new government. Would he set up a parliament to give the people a voice, instead of a court consisting of noble advisors? Would he turn control of the land away from the nobles and to the peasants? How much freedom could he give the people while maintaining a monarchy?

      When I turned my imagination toward intellectual freedoms, I hit another sticking point. The church of Order had been the guardian of the hearts and minds of Aeterna, as administered through its abbeys, the schools connected to the abbeys, and the inquisition. I did not have reason to doubt that Wisdom would make the reforms he had promised, to allow people to love and marry who they chose. Still, I did not think that Wisdom would be quick to relinquish control of the schools and prisons. I remembered how Miss Taris had looked into the hearts of those present at the Cathedral Lux, and had imprisoned those who were revealed as false converts. Those men would have joined the other heretics in chains.

      “Hope could do a lot of good for the people,” I said. “But the sovereign does not have much authority compared to the church. I know Hope will never be satisfied, as long as the inquisition still operates.”

      “The inquisition must continue for a time,” Wisdom said, “but the prisoners will be treated humanely; there will be no more torture or starvation. I must do this for the King’s own safety- the followers of Order will try to have him killed, as you well know.”

      The path began to wind uphill once more, through the sweet-smelling fields of bluebells that shimmered in the moonlight.

      “Why have a sovereign at all?” I asked, my satin slippers sliding on the gravel as we trudged uphill. “A king is a single focus for your opponents’ anger, and potentially a critical weakness. If freedom and equality are your ultimate goals, then wouldn’t a democratically elected government- governors and a representative parliament- be the best solution?”

      Wisdom reached out to help me ascend to the crest of the hill. We stood in silence for a time, behind the cottage, facing the clearing where I’d first seen the coven chanting their spells to the demons.

      “You must have been reading forbidden books, to know words like ‘representative democracy.’” Wisdom said.

      “Oh? I didn’t know they were forbidden. I read books describing different forms of government in my father’s library.”

      “Of course you did- that serpent,” Wisdom sighed. “Lady Frey, a representative democracy would be a disaster. Aeterna must have a King who is imbued with sovereign authority by the Gods.”

      “Why?”

      Wisdom did not answer. He stepped forward, looking up to the waning gibbous above, the pink light reflecting in his eyes. Then he turned to me and spoke.

      “I understand that you own a rather handsome telescope. Am I correct in guessing that you’ve hidden it in the tunnels below?”

      “Yes. Hope hid the instrument there before we left for St. Blanc.”

      “Stay here. I will fetch the instrument. There is something you need to see.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Before I could object, Wisdom had retrieved my telescope and its mount, and had set it up in the clearing. Despite the low light, his movements were deft and sure, and soon he turned the instrument toward the red moon.

      “The seeing is good, tonight,” he said as he focused the instrument. “There is no bothersome haze or halo. I am delighted with the instrument, as well.”

      “Once your church is established,” I ventured, “do you plan to release any of the forbidden books, or ease restrictions against forbidden technologies?”

      Wisdom stood and looked at me.

      “Controlling information is the main purpose of the church. There is potentially dangerous knowledge in the forbidden books, and the use of forbidden technologies- even something as innocent as a telescope- can lead to the discovery of dangerous knowledge. Should I give my people the means to create napalm, atom bombs, nuclear missiles?”

Wisdom paused, and then laughed at my confused expression “I forgot that you don’t know what these things are, but believe me, it is a blessing that you don’t. Given free reign, people will create weapons capable of destroying all of humanity.”

      “But surely, we wouldn’t destroy ourselves. That would be madness.”

      “Humanity won’t be able to help itself. The technologies will begin as something benign, but they will grow out of control, like a cancer. You should know, better than anyone, how a power can grow dangerous if unchecked.”

      Wisdom leaned over to the eyepiece again, adjusted, and stepped back. “If you require more evidence, here it is- the red moon.”

      I stepped forward and looked into the eyepiece.

      I had seen the red moon through a telescope before, but I hadn’t understood what I saw. The moon was gibbous, now; the surface looked barren, rocky, and pock-marked, with huge white streaks running north to south- Chastity’s tears. It had seemed unlikely that a civilization could exist on such a place, but I’d reasoned that powerful beings, Angels and Demons who did not possess the same bodily needs as humans, might manage.

      “It is both a blessing and a curse to be able to look into the sky, and see your homeland shining back at you,” Wisdom said quietly. “If you look along the terminator, toward the south pole, you will see a dark, flat ravine. Between that ravine and the large crater lies the ruins of the city where I was born.”

      “The ruins?” I whispered.

      I turned away from the telescope to look at Wisdom, who stared up at the red moon with shimmering eyes.

      “The red moon did not always look the way it does, now. If you had stood in this spot and looked up into the sky just a few thousand years ago, you would have seen a lovely green and white marble. It was a paradise with rolling blue rivers, fields of green grasses, forests, and great, underground oceans. There was a white polar cap, filled with a reserve of fresh water, from which “chastity’s tears” emanated each spring- the source of our rivers.

      “That lovely world was mankind’s original home. It was my home.”

      “What happened?” I asked. “Was it one of those weapons you spoke of, earlier? Was the red moon destroyed by war?”

      “Oh no.” Wisdom said with a bitter laugh. “The end of my world was not so dramatic. You see, we had built a civilization filled with wonders, and we were all dependent on the technologies you know as forbidden. We had cities whose buildings reached the sky, roads full of vehicles that could move without horse or ox to pull them, flying machines that could bear you from one side of the moon to the other at incredible speeds, and eventually, ships that could bring us here, to settlements that we’d built on Terra.

      “But all of these wonders came at a price. We consumed our small world’s resources at an unsustainable rate in order to build these wonders. The byproducts of our growth filled the air and water with pollution- substances that were not only poisonous to humans, but poisonous to the moon itself. The air filled with smoke that trapped the sunlight, making the world so hot the ice cap melted, which flooded the basins. The excess water was contaminated by waste, which killed the plants and trees that checked the winds. We were forced by the heat and the rampant storms to flee into underground cities. We pumped the air and water through filters into our caverns, and leaving nothing on the surface but rocks and rivers of salt.

      “The barren world you see now is the gift our technology granted us.”

      “And all of your great scientists- they didn’t see what was happening?” I said.

      Wisdom clenched his fist at his side, as though in anger.

      “Our scientists knew precisely what was happening, within ample time to stop the catastrophe. For decades- for over a century– they warned the masses – the people, the politicians, and the factory owners- exactly what would happen if we continued to pollute the air and water, and they told us what we needed to do to stop it.”

      Wisdom looked down at me. “You are right to look bewildered, Lady Frey. Even knowing the history- even having seen the end of it- I still wonder at what fools we were. The first scientist who deduced the problem was laughed at by the public, and her career was destroyed. The people, comfortable and happy with their lifestyles, dismissed the next scientists who reached the same conclusions as alarmists.

      “Soon, however, the evidence became impossible to ignore or dismiss. Even so, in that free society, where scientific knowledge was available to all, everyone refused responsibility. The public pointed their fingers at the industrialists, whose factories were spewing the poisons into the air and water. The industrialists pointed their fingers back to the public, who consumed the factories’ goods, and they claimed they could not compete with other industrialists if they spent the money required to curb their pollution.

      “Everyone looked to the politicians for guidance, and the politicians wrung their hands, promised to invest in cleaner technologies and infrastructure, and then cut the necessary taxes to appease their constituents. The moon, locked in this unwinnable game, spiraled into oblivion. This was how representative democracy operated in the face of certain destruction.”

      I looked back into the telescope and re-centered the image, staring at the world that hovered still, stark, and silent- it’s story only hinted at in the visible rocks and craters.

      “At that time there was a group of scientists, headed and funded by a wealthy inventor, who were working on the problem in secret.” Wisdom continued. “It was too late, the inventor realized, to save the red moon, but Terra was large, young, and relatively untouched. Terra, he knew, could be saved.

      “He began by evacuating as many people as he could to the surface of Terra. He gave those who remained behind special bodies that could survive the harsh environment of the red moon while they continued to work in secret. At the same time, the inventor created the soul network- a way to not only thwart physical death, but also bind all of humanity to a single purpose- that they might preserve the health and beauty of the planet Terra. The inventor- Order- vowed to control access to dangerous technologies, so that nothing like the destruction of the red moon would ever happen again.

“Of course, in the early days, there were still many who had the scientific knowledge to work against Order. The ancestors of the Ancients could not accept Order’s rule. They rebelled, introducing the phage into their blood that would resist the network of souls. Even so- the rest of humanity was saved.”

      I looked away from the telescope to regard Wisdom again, but he stepped around me and went to the telescope, leaning over the eyepiece and re-centering the image.

      “Souls: patterns of consciousness that dwell in the network created by all living minds. Angels: beings made perfect and immortal, who are able to answer the prayers of the suffering. Gods: those who bind all of humanity together, who hear and are heard. This should have been the perfect system, and would have been, if Order had not become corrupt. But Order’s commandments became unreasonable, and his punishments cruel. During the Ancient war, my father saw that Order had become corrupt, and he devised a plan to correct the problem. Order, however, discovered my father’s plan- my father could not keep his thoughts secret from the God of origin. Order devised a way to segregate my father and his followers into a separate realm- I have no idea how- and infected our realm with the curse known as hell.”

      “I suppose,” I said slowly, “that this is the danger of having a single person to rule over all. He may, over time, become a tyrant.”

      “I’ve studied my father’s work carefully,” Wisdom said. “I am certain I know where Order went wrong, and I’m trying to correct his mistake. I have been cruel, I know, but my ultimate purpose remains untouched. I’ve inoculated myself against the corruption.”

      Wisdom stood and looked at me. “I still need good people to join me- people like your husband. Each good person who joins me keeps to true to my purpose.”

      I looked into Wisdom’s eyes for a long time, searching for any glimmer of deception. Finally, I spoke.

      “Thank you, Wisdom, for showing me your home world. Thank you for telling me your story.”

      I turned back to the telescope and took one last, long look at the red moon- the craters, the dark, flat basins, and the remnants of the great rivers known as Chastity’s tears.

      Then I turned the telescope away from the red moon and into the starry fields beyond. I explored a little, hopping from familiar star to familiar star. Between the familiar, named stars, unfamiliar lights stretched out endlessly. As I gazed at them, I felt the first stirrings of desire within me. If I had a soul, my mind would continue forever, and I would be able to uncover mysteries without end.

      Then my heart sank. What was the point, if the mysteries were forbidden to me? Wisdom had just demonstrated why my curious mind could be just as dangerous as my soulless power.

      “Oh!” I said, suddenly distracted. “Here, in the Cat’s whiskers, is the double star I discovered on my wedding night. The two stars are just as tightly-knit as they were the night I found them, over a year ago. I wonder what keeps them from drifting apart.”

      “I understand, Lady Frey, that a curious mind may suffer greatly under the Gods’ restrictions. If you accept my offer and follow me, I promise to allow you some indulgence to seek and guard scientific secrets, but only under the auspices of an agent of the church. I trust my story has demonstrated to you why such questions must be asked quietly among the wise. The wise will remind you it is hubris to reach so far.”

      “In that case, I wonder why you chose my husband as your sovereign. He firmly believes that hubris is a virtue.”

      I centered the double star once more and then stepped back, looking up with my naked eye at the faint glimmer of light at the end of the Cat’s whisker.

      Wisdom stepped forward and looked into the eyepiece. “We once called this double star Julia A and B. I wonder if I should tell you what binds them together- would that secret satisfy your curiosity, or simply whet your appetite for knowledge?”

      He stepped back, and looked at me. “I hope-” his voice seemed to catch, and then he began again. “I hope you accept my offer, Grace. It would be a blessing to me if you would stay with King Uriel, and advise him.”

      “Really? But you and I always see things so differently. I would only cause you trouble, you know.”

      “That is why I want you. Your way of thinking is quite alien to mine. You challenge me.”

      “Perhaps my thoughts are only strange because I am an Ancient,” I said. “If I accept your offer, you and I may think more alike.”

      Wisdom chuckled. “I doubt it.”

      I returned to the telescope and brought the double-star back to center. “You have given me much to think about, and I am fatigued. I will consider your offer as thoroughly as possible in the morning. For now, I just want to look at the stars, and clear my mind.”

      “I understand,” Wisdom said. Then he stepped forward. “Here- allow me to show you one of the beauties of the night sky. We call it the pixie nebula.”

Part CVIII

The Coven, Part CVI

Read from the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      I shuddered, unable to contemplate the possibility for long.

      “Grace?” Hope whispered.

      “Hope, may I ask you a question?”

      “Yes, anything.”

      “Can you control your desires?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Hope pressed my hand and left the room.

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

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

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

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

“Lady Frey?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see,” I said.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

#

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Lady Willoughby held the dress out toward Mirth.

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

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

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

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

      “Mrs. Auber-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coven, Part CVII

The Coven, Part CV

Read from the beginning.

 

Hope led the way, wearing a look in his eyes similar to the one I’d seen in Prudence’s eyes the night I left her- something beyond mere confidence. He seemed not seem to notice my pleading glances as he climbed down into the well, giving me no choice but to follow.

      At the bottom of the well, Miss Taris touched the wall, and it opened. The tunnel looked different from the last time I’d entered. The lights no longer flickered, but shone with a clean, steady light. I was used to walking through the tunnels now, and the lack of frightening shadows and flickering lights should have put me at ease. Even so, I clutched at Hope’s hand as we went. My fatigued mind supplied shadows the lights did not.

      “When Wisdom took this tunnel, I suppose he disconnected the portal from the demonic realm,” Hope said as though thinking aloud.

      Mirth cast a glance toward Miss Taris, who pressed her lips together tightly, and said nothing.

      “I wonder- to which realm has he connected the portals?” Hope continued. “He cannot draw power from the realm of the gods, since they still resist his rise.”

Miss Taris spoke. “You will not trick me into divulging any more information. Wisdom will be unhappy with you, if you continue to try.”

      “I’m so sorry to offended his Holiness,” Hope said, his voice rich with sarcasm. Then he turned to me. “Grace- you enjoy riddles. Do you have any idea where Wisdom’s realm might be?”

      As fatigued as I was from the emotion of the day, I answered without thinking.

      “If the realm of the demons is on the near side of the red moon, and the realm of the Gods lies on the far side, then Wisdom must be constructing his realm here on Terra.”

      Mirth spun around to regard me as she continued to walk.

      “The red moon?” she said. “Like in all of the old stories? Surely, you-”

      At that moment, she stumbled backward into the ladder that led into the cottage.

      “Watch your step,” Hope said smoothly, helping her back to her feet.

 

 

 #

 

 

 

We stepped out of the cottage and onto bluebell hill.

      My eyes blurred with tears once more, and I could not see the moonlit fields of bluebells all around me, but their scent enveloped me in memories as fresh as the summer breeze.

      It was not a dream- Hope and I did not fly- but Hope clutched my hand, and he did not let go.

      Our companions fell silent, as though they sensed that our homecoming was a sacred moment. We departed to the manor without a word, though our footsteps clattered on the gravel path and a light breeze rustled the bluebells all around us. I wiped my eyes dry with my left hand, and I saw the fields washed in pink moonlight, and the full red moon shining its light on Rowan Heights.

      The manor loomed closer and closer until we finally reached the front door. Before Hope could reach out to touch the handle, the door swung open, and inside I could see that the whole household had assembled in the foyer to greet us.

      Mr. Poe and Chastity stood side by side at the front, and the cook and gardener, maids and footmen all stood in neat rows behind them.

      Hope and I stepped across the threshold onto the shining marble floors.

      Chastity and Mr. Poe stepped forward to meet us. Chastity dropped her professional demeanor entirely and rushed forward to embrace Hope.

      “You are safe. Bless you,” she said.

      “Thank you, Lady Frey, for everything you did for us in our time of need,” Mr. Poe said, shaking my hand in both of his. “Our families might not have survived, if not for your help.”

      “I only wish I could have done more,” I said. “Was Mr. Sutton able to send the latest payments? Does anyone still need anything?”

      “There is no need to worry, Lady Frey. Everyone is well provided for, now,” said a voice that sent chills down my spine.

      I looked up to see Wisdom, dressed in robes of deep blue, standing like a statue at the top of the grand staircase.

Then Wisdom moved, descending the staircase with Mrs. Auber and Lady and Lord Willoughby in lockstep behind him. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Lady and Lord Willoughby stepped forward as though to greet us. However, at that moment Wisdom held up his hand and Lady and Lord Willoughby froze where they were. Chastity pulled away from Hope.

      “Welcome back, Lord Frey,” Wisdom said with a slight bow of his head. Then he lifted his head to look behind us. “Welcome to you as well, Miss Taris, Miss Beaumont. Both of you have served me well.”

      Wisdom turned back to Hope. “Miss Taris, I believe, has a promise to keep to you. Chastity can escort you someplace private. In the meantime, I need to speak with Lady Frey alone.”

      I moved to follow Wisdom, but Hope took my hand again, holding me fast beside him.

      “My wife isn’t well. Whatever you have to say to her can wait.”

      Wisdom nodded once to Chastity, who nodded back to him, and then dispersed the servants with a wave of her hand. Then she motioned for Mirth and Miss Taris to follow her, and they left, along with Lady and Lord Willoughby and Mrs. Auber. Soon, Hope and I were alone with Wisdom.

      “I’m not in the mood to play games, Lord Frey. You have my word that I will not harm Lady Frey, and I am sure you are aware of the blood oath I made to Abbess Joy. I need to speak with Lady Frey now, because she is a danger to herself and others. Go to Miss Taris and check on your daughter’s safety.”

      “Why are you in my home?” Hope asked.

      “The inquisition has destroyed many of the protections we placed on your home; I am here to strengthen them,” Wisdom said unflinchingly. “As Lady Frey has correctly guessed, I am building my kingdom on Earth, and Rowan Heights will be part of that kingdom.”

      “I do not consent to-” Hope began, and then stopped.

      Wisdom stepped forward. His expression was peaceful, and his movements were almost tender, but Hope’s eyes went wide, as though with awe.

      “You consented to all of this long ago when you bound yourself to my coven,” Wisdom said quietly. “You may have contracted with Raven, but you made your oaths to me. Fear not. There will be no more torture- no more pain. My gifts are boundless, and you are one of my children.”

      Hope continued to stare, silently, up at the God before him.

      I might have attempted to break the illusion Wisdom cast on Hope, but I was too fatigued- too numb, to react, and for this I was grateful. I clamped down on my feelings even further, not daring to give them free reign. Instead I squeezed Hope’s hand and whispered.

      “It’s alright. I am not afraid. Go to Miss Taris. You can tell me later what she says.”

      “But,” Hope turned to me, fixing me with eyes so wide he looked almost mad with fear. “I cannot let you be alone with him.”

      “It would not be the first time we were alone,” I said. “He hasn’t hurt me- not since we left del Sol. I will be safe. I promise.”

      Hope turned back to Wisdom, who bowed slightly.

      “Go to her,” I urged.

      Hope turned back to me, squeezing my hands. “Are you sure?”

      I smiled as best as I could manage. “You know holy magic cannot hurt me. Go to Miss Taris- make sure that Celeste and Prudence, and all our friends at del Sol, are safe.”

      Hope nodded, finally relenting. He pressed his lips briefly against mine and then turned to go.

 

 

 

#

 

 

      Rowan Heights looked a little barer than it had when I’d left it. It had not been completely ravaged, but the tables were stripped of everything small that had once adorned them- the crystal vases and the delicate china. The heavy rugs, the large bookcases, and ancient portraits all remained.

      Wisdom led me down the dark, narrow hallway that ended in the trick bookcase. He pulled the third book from the left out of the place, and then stepped back to allow the bookcase to swing open. The old alarm chimed, but he touched a sconce on the wall, and the chime immediately stopped.

      He gestured for me to descend, and then followed me down the narrow stairway. I found myself alone with him in the room where Hope and I had made our blood oath, the night I’d revealed I knew he was a witch. The room had, apparently, remained undiscovered by the inquisition. The walls were still lined with scroll-cases, and the desk was still covered in parchment and quills. I saw a portrait on the desk I hadn’t noticed before- a small likeness of Prudence- and my heart leapt inside my chest.

      I had to close my eyes for a moment. Her steady gaze seemed to look right into me, into my unfaithful heart and to the cruel, untamed will inside of me. How far I had fallen, since we’d parted!

I opened my eyes to look around the room once more, and I realized I’d been descending into darkness long before we’d met.

      “This room can be locked from the outside,” Wisdom said, pacing around me. “I should lock you in here until we are able to send you back to the other Ancients. Here, at least, you are far enough away from the rest of the house to hurt any of its other inhabitants.”

      “You mean- I am far enough from Hope for his magic to remain unaffected?”

      “I think so, but-”

      At that moment, I felt as though a restraint had been loosened from around my heart, and all the feelings I’d been keeping in check burst forth. I fell to the ground, sobbing with abandon, unable to remain strong any longer.

      I do not know how long I cried. I hardly knew where I was or cared; I knew nothing but despair. The deaths I’d caused, the heartbreak I could no longer avoid causing, and the knowledge of who I really was overwhelmed my senses, and I was blind with pain.

      After some time, a strange feeling brought me back to my senses. I felt a warm hand rest on my shoulder, and a soft cloth was pressed into my hand. Mechanically, I wiped my eyes and nose with the cloth and looked up. I saw Wisdom crouched on the floor beside me, looking at me with an expression that seemed alien on his face.

      “Lu- Lux? Is it you?” I croaked.

      “He is with me as always, but he is busy, now. Some of the townspeople from Bridon have come to the Cathedral for healing, so he can’t help you. You must regain control of yourself, Grace. You cannot afford to indulge in despair, now.”

      I took a deep breath, and then another.

      “You were right about me,” I told Wisdom after a few more breaths. “I’ve been such a hypocrite. I thought I could be a good person, but you saw through me from the beginning. I am a monster.”

      Wisdom sat back on his heels. “That is exactly the type of despair I meant. Look at me, Grace.”

      I raised my head, and looked into his dark eyes. His expression was not judgmental as I’d imagined it would be, nor was it pitying, as Lux’s might have been. Instead, he seemed uncomfortable, as though bewildered by my display of tears.

      “You are a God- literally a God,” I said impatiently. “I know I am only a soulless creature, but isn’t there anything you can do? Isn’t there some way to- to fix what is broken inside of me?”

      “There is nothing broken inside of you,” Wisdom said. “You are exactly what you were designed to be- not only soulless, but destructive to the very nature of souls. Truth be told, you are a marvel.”

      “I don’t want it.” My voice burst forth from me, filling the tiny room. I came up onto my knees and clutched my hands together in supplication to Wisdom. “Please, grant me a soul. Take this destructive power out of me, and grant me a soul. I will be yours- I will pray to you and follow you, but please, help me.”

      Wisdom backed away from me, his eyes growing even wider in bewilderment.

      “You would follow me- your sworn enemy?”

      “I almost killed a young boy today, but you healed him, even though he was your enemy. If you could stop me from killing ever again, if you could stop me from dying, if you promised to make amends for the hurt you caused my friends, then yes- I would be yours forever.”

      Wisdom pressed his full lips together, staring at me, and then spoke. “Lux healed the boy, today.”

      “Lux is part of you, just as you are part of him,” I said.

      “I tortured and maimed your husband and your friends,” Wisdom continued. “Considering all of the worry you suffered while you were in exile at del Sol, I tortured you. My careless plans have harmed countless more people. I’m not worthy of your worship.”

      “Then make yourself worthy. Heal the world, like you promised,” I said. “Please- there is no one else who can help me.”

      Wisdom let out a sound like a choked laugh, but I saw, to my astonishment, that his dark eyes were rimmed with red. He blinked rapidly, as though blinking away tears.

      “You are making quite a scene over a near-miss,” Wisdom said. “The boy is fine. You haven’t permanently hurt anyone.”

      But I have killed, I thought, and each time I will someone to die, I become more corrupt.

      I could not say this out loud however. Even in my lowest moment, I could not risk betraying my people.

      “This time I did not kill anyone,” I said. “But, as Lux said, my power is growing. I broke your spell over Prudence- a God’s spell- in a moment of unchecked anger. I lost control, the same as I did today. This will only get worse, over time.”

      “Even so- you don’t really want a soul. You have had a shock, today, and your fear has been amplified by your emotional fatigue. That is not the same as a positive desire for a soul, and to gain a soul, you must want it with all your heart, mind, and will. Can you honestly tell me you desire a soul that badly?”

      I opened my mouth to say, “yes, I do,” but found that I could not.

      Wisdom drew himself up, regaining some of his usual, haughty demeanor. “You value something more than you value a soul- your freedom.”

      “But- isn’t there some way to have both? Must a soul be so vulnerable to the magics cast by others- so open to invasion? Must it be connected to all other souls? I desire a soul, but one that can be kept separate, or perhaps one that can retreat from time to time to a safe realm all its own.”

      Wisdom sighed and ran a hand through the thick, black braids of hair that cascaded far past his shoulders. “Why are we seated on the floor? There are two perfectly good chairs just by the desk.”

      Wisdom stood and offered his hand to me. “Come- let us get more comfortable before this conversation continues.”

      I hesitated, and then took his hand. It was large and strong, but felt surprisingly warm and human.

      I sat at Hope’s desk, facing Prudence’s portrait, while he sat across from me. He spent some time straightening his rumpled white robes before he spoke.

      “You are not the first person to desire such a soul,” Wisdom finally said. “For centuries, those of us who dwelt in the demonic realm tried to find a way to isolate our souls, in order to escape the torment the Gods inflicted on us. After many years of research, I discovered that what you desire is impossible. There is no disconnecting a soul from the network of souls it inhabits- its realm. You can choose to inhabit the realm of Gods or the realm of the demons, but you cannot be alone.”

      “Are you certain?” I said. “Have you exhausted all other possibilities?”

      “Yes, I am quite sure- the soul requires the network to exist.” Wisdom looked up at me with an almost pleading look in his dark eyes. “The torment I suffered compelled me to work tirelessly on the project for almost a millennium. It was easier for me to become a God than to isolate my soul. And now that I am a God, though I am free from torment, it is all the worse- the voices of my followers echo endlessly in my mind.”

      “May I ask- no. Never mind.” I looked away from Wisdom and fixed my eyes on Prudence’s portrait once more.

      “Were you about to ask about my torment? Surely Hope has described his dreams to you- his visions of Hell.”

      “Yes, but they weren’t true visions, were they? Prudence was present in his visions of Hell, even though she is still alive. Besides, Abbess Joy once told me that Hell is different than what we are told in the litany, though she was never able to say exactly how.”

      “Did she really?” Wisdom said. “She broke a powerful geas- Order’s geas- to say so. She was correct, however. Hell is actually a corruption of the mind- a spell that the Gods released into the realm of demons to punish us for our rebellion. The specific torment is unique to each demon, just how the curse each witch suffers is unique to them. However, to keep us from growing used to our torment, the curses grow worse as each demon grows older, and so the torment can get very…”

      Wisdom took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. “My torment was not so bad as others might suffer, but it was pernicious. At all times, a feeling of doom was upon me- the knowledge that some great evil was coming for me, and that one day it would overwhelm me. I grew very good at hiding it from others, but by the time I became a God, it was difficult to get through the day without succumbing to madness.”

      “I see,” I said quietly.

      The look of discomfort returned to Wisdom’s face, and he looked away from me quickly, as though hiding the pain he had just revealed.

      “Lux wishes for me to tell you something,” he said. He turned back to me, his features composed. “I don’t know if this will help you, but- even considering all of the torment I suffered in Hell- a thousand years of it- I would still choose that torment over oblivion. I could not isolate my soul, but it was still my own. This is why I would never break my blood oath. Oblivion is the only fate worse than death.”

      A chill went down my spine, and fear greater than any I had ever known gripped me. A voice in the back of my mind spoke- your ancestors chose oblivion.

      I wished desperately my ancestors were with me in that moment, so I could ask them- why?

      “I will help you,” Wisdom said decisively. He reached across the desk and took my hand, which looked as small as a child’s hand in his.

      “I will grant you a soul, if you truly desire one. Even when you truly desire a soul, however, the process is painful- it can even be dangerous. You needn’t decide, tonight. Rowan Heights is far from the nearest conflict, so you needn’t fear any emergency will arise where you might lose control. Even if you managed to break my protection around Rowan Heights, we are safe. Get some sleep, come to me with any questions or fears you may have about the process of gaining a soul, and when you have decided, tell me.”

      I looked from Wisdom’s hands to his face, which wore an earnest expression.

      “Why- why would you help me? You hate me.”

      Wisdom released my hand and leaned back in his chair, smirking. “There needn’t be a reason to help someone. Isn’t that what you once told Miss Taris, while I was tormenting you in my office?”

      “Do be serious,” I said.

      “You unsettled me, Grace. I would never have expected to see you kneeling to me in prayer- not in a million years. Still, to be honest I am acting in my own self-interest,” Wisdom said with a shrug. “In your current state, you are a threat to me, and to give you a soul is better than the alternative.”

Part CVI

The Coven, Part CIV

 Read from the beginning.

      The crowd backed away and gave Brother Lux room. He knelt down to press a cloth against the assassin’s open wound, blood staining his white robes.

      “Lady Frey- go.” He repeated.

“I will not leave my husband’s side,” I said. My voice sounded like it was far away.

      “Go with her, my King, if you must,” Lux said to Hope as he worked. “Make sure she is calm before she returns.”

      I scanned the crowd for any other sign of danger, and then looked back to the boy who lay bleeding in Lux’s lap. My heart would not stop pounding- my nerves were on fire with anger and fear.

      Why didn’t Brother Lux heal the boy, like he had the other soldiers?

      Hope reined back his horse and reached out to me with his free hand. “Grace?”

      Then I realized.

      I pulled back on the reins, turned, and spurred my horse to a gallop. I rode as fast as I could, away from the crowd and the smells of gunpowder and the boy who lay bleeding to death. My wicked heart continued to pound inside of my chest as the horse’s hooves pounded the dust underneath.

      I was on the other side of the river, near the road that wound toward the hill-country, before my heart stopped pounding. I took a deep breath, and then another, but my nerves still burned just under my skin.

      “Grace,” Hope said, dismounting his own horse and coming to stand beside me. “Are you alright?”

      “You were wrong about me,” I babbled as Hope helped me dismount. “You were wrong. I am a monster. I am death.”

      “Grace, you protected me,” Hope said. “I owe you my life, yet again.”

      “I had disarmed him- there was no need to follow through,” I gasped. “And then- Lux was trying to heal the boy, and he couldn’t because of me. Because I was so frightened and angry- I could not reign in my feelings to let him do his work. It was my will that interfered, don’t you see? It was my will that the boy die.”

      “It’s alright,” Hope clutched my hands in his. “Look at me- this is a power like any other. It can be dangerous, but you can learn to control it.”

      I looked up into his warm, brown eyes, and then they blurred out of sight as tears formed in my own.

      “You can control it,” Hope repeated. He sat on the grass, and brought me down to sit beside him. “Close your eyes. Clear your mind. Let yourself be calm.”

      I closed my eyes, summoning the image of the stars I had used so long ago to clear my mind. This time, however, the stars seemed impossibly distant, and I felt impossibly small beneath them.

      I breathed in time to his instruction. After a few, deep breaths, he asked.

      “What do you see?”

      “I see the stars, and I see…” I stopped and sighed. “I don’t know. I cannot think.”

      “That’s ok,” Hope said. “If you cannot think, just breathe.”

      He came closer, and his voice took on a familiar, hypnotic cadence.

“It’s alright,” Hope repeated. “Listen to my voice. You are safe, here. You can trust me. Be calm. Breathe. Be calm.”

      I could not focus on his words, or let myself slip into that pleasant calm I had so long ago. All I could do was breathe mechanically, in and out.

      We sat together as the sun rose high in the summer sky. Sweat gathered under the collar of my greatcoat, and I longed to remove it and allow the slight breeze to cool my skin. I could not trust myself to move, however, so I merely sat and breathed.

      Long after my heart stopped pounding, and my nerves stopped humming, I heard the pounding of hooves in the distance. Two horses drew near; Miss Taris rode one, and Brother Lux rode the horse my father had taken to the Cathedral.

      I shied away when I saw Brother Lux approach. His white robes were still covered in blood, and he fixed me with a grave look as he approached. Hope, however, held my hand with such strength and steadiness that it felt like an anchor.

      Brother Lux and Miss Taris dismounted, and approached Hope and I by foot. Hope and I did not stand to meet them. I continued to breathe, in and out, as the others talked.

      “The boy is alive,” Lux said. “I was able to heal him as soon as you had passed the first bend.”

      “I examined everyone else in the crowd,” Miss Taris added. “Two more false converts were found and imprisoned. It is safe, now, if you wish to return to the Cathedral.”

      A strange sensation stole over me- a feeling that something was wrong with these words- but I could not think clearly enough to discern what.

      Hope was gazing at his brother with an inscrutable expression. “You went to a lot of trouble to heal an assassin and a traitor. Are you really trying to stage a deathless revolution?”

      “I am responsible for the outcome of the war on both sides,” Brother Lux said. He came and knelt on the grass, near where Hope and I sat hand-in-hand.

      “A schism is a dangerous time for the souls of men,” Lux continued. “And I would not add to the people’s distress. I drew a line in the sand where the suffering would end, and that line has been passed. This should be a time of joy.”

      And you are the final arbiter of when we should feel pain or joy? I might have said these words had I spoken to Lux the day before. Now the sentiment felt so hypocritical that the words tasted like poison in my throat.

      “I had intended to make you hurt the next time I saw you, Brother,” Hope said. “Now that you are here, I realize I haven’t thought of any punishment I am capable of inflicting that would serve justice.”

      “When you are ready, name your punishment; I will suffer it,” Lux said, bowing his head.

      “How humble you are,” Hope said, an edge of sarcasm creeping into his voice. “So sincere in your efforts to help others. You quite astound me.”

      Miss Taris started to laugh so hard that she doubled over, clutching her stomach.

      “Are you serious, Lord Frey?” she gasped. “You pledged your soul to the demons, murdered the High Priest, broke the Prince’s mind, ruined a lady’s position and reputation at court- and these are just the sins I know! Of course, you did it all for the greater good. You should have known that others were just as willing as you to dirty their hands. At least we seek redemption instead of vengeance.”

      Hope looked coldly up at Miss Taris. “You know nothing about me.”

      “I know that you’ve lost sight of the greater good entirely. Wisdom is healing the world as we speak, and you refuse to join him. You refuse to use his power to do something good for the world, instead of just lashing out at it.”

      “Even if-” I started to speak, and then my voice failed.

      “Yes, Lady Frey?” Miss Taris said, arching a brow.

      I shook my head and took another deep breath.

      Miss Taris knelt beside me, cocking her head curiously. “You were going to argue with me, weren’t you? I’m used to the lash of your sharp tongue; do not worry about sparing my feelings now.”

      I am the only one here with no chance at the redemption Miss Taris spoke of, I thought.

      “It is nothing,” I whispered.

      “Grace,” Hope said, drawing nearer. “It is alright. The boy is alive.”

      I turned to Lux. “Thank you for saving him. I’m sorry I…”

      My voice failed me again.

      “My brother is alive,” Lux said. “I am grateful that you acted.”

      “I almost-”

      “Your powers are growing,” Brother Lux said. “Remember how you felt, today. If it happens again, get away from people- as far as you can- until you regain control.”

      I nodded, swallowing back tears.

      “You’re frightening her,” Hope hissed at his brother.

      “Good. She should be frightened,” Lux said evenly. “If she does not learn to control her power, someone could die.”

      I shuddered. “Might it not be best if I- if I traveled alone? I don’t wish to accidentally hurt anyone.”

      “No- it will be safer if they can watch you,” Lux said. “It will be a small party from now on- just you, my brother, Miss Taris, and her companion.”

      “Are we going to del Sol?” Hope asked.

      “Yes- eventually,” Miss Taris said quietly. “Celeste and Prudence are waiting for you there.”

      “They made it?” I said. “Is Mercy safe, as well? Is Brother Amicus still with them? Can we still communicate with them?”

      “Yes, but not until we reach Rowan Heights,” Miss Taris said quietly. She looked at Hope. “I’m told you are familiar with the last length of tunnel. It goes through your land.”

      “I am,” Hope said sharply. “How soon can we go?”

      Miss Taris stood and scanned the horizon. “In just a moment.”

      Soon, we could see another figure approach the party. It was a woman, wearing white pilgrim’s robes, with loose hair that shone like bronze in the sunlight.

      “Mirth- Mirth!” Miss Taris called, waving her arm. Then she broke into a run to meet the woman in the field as she walked.

      The two embraced and laughed together with such obvious affection that I felt I was intruding on their private joy, and I had to turn my face away.

      Soon, Miss Taris returned with the woman, arm in arm.

      “I am free to join you,” the woman said. Her face, like Miss Taris’s, was flushed with joy, but her expression was sheepish, and she looked down at her feet as though struck with sudden shyness.

      “Sir Beaumont? Is it you?” Hope said, standing.

      “Call me Mirth,” she replied. “I’ve lost my title. The dragoons have decided to choose another leader. I’d hoped they would accept me but… well, perhaps that was too optimistic. I’ve changed.”

      “They are fools to cast aside such a capable leader,” Hope remarked.

      “Thank you,” Mirth said, smiling at Hope. As she looked up, I saw that she had changed only a little. Her face was rounder, and she seemed a little smaller in the loose robes she wore, but her eyes and her smile looked the same as always.

      “It is alright,” Mirth continued. “I promised Miss Taris that I would guard her, and I intend to keep my promise.”

      Mirth gestured to the polearm that was strapped to her back.

      Miss Taris squeezed Mirth’s hand, and then turned back to Lux.

“Will you come with us? The battle is over, and Brother Fortune is capable of administering what little healing is still needed.”

      “I must stay behind, for now,” Brother Lux said. “Wisdom still needs me to help secure and reorganize the Cathedral. I will join you later at del Sol.”

      “So- it’s just the four of us, then?” Mirth looked from Hope to me.

      “Yes,” Brother Lux answered for us. He stood to go, and then turned back to Hope and me. “Lady Frey, I will make sure your father and cousin remain safe at Willowbrook. Brother- until we meet again.”

      I watched Brother Lux lead the horses back toward the Cathedral, and when he was out of earshot, I turned to Mirth.

“Do you…” I took another breath to steady my nerves before I spoke again. “Do you feel capable of fighting, Mirth, or are you still fatigued from battle?”

      “I don’t feel the least fatigued,” Mirth said. “Wisdom’s miracle not only changed my body; it renewed my health and vitality. I’m not sure if I will fight as well as I once did. I have not had the chance to try, yet. I will do my best.”

      “I’m sure you will do well,” I said, “but let’s hope you won’t need to try.”

I doubted I would be able to draw my sword if we encountered trouble again, but I lifted my chin, summoned all the false self-confidence I could, and told Hope I was ready.

 

 

#

 

 

      The party followed an exposed path through the plains to the rolling hills, beyond. Two times, Miss Taris hissed at the party to hide, and we lay down in the grasses while dark figures passed in the distance- men who moved like shadows against the bright horizon.

      “They are opportunists,” Miss Taris whispered as the last group disappeared into the west. “Their feelings are repugnant- like the bandits we met before, Lady Frey. They will flee like rats when Wisdom’s soldiers march east.”

      The rest of our walk passed uneventfully, and we reached the hills as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon behind us. We stopped at an old, crumbling well that jutted off the side of the lowest hill. I looked into the well, but the setting sun cast shadows so deep I could not see more than a few feet within.

      “I can sense the seal- it is all the way at the bottom,” Miss Taris said, peering into the well. “How in the world do we get inside?”

      Hope gazed evenly at Miss Taris as she searched for a way to climb inside. Then, after it was clear she’d given up, he spoke.

      “Technically, we have arrived at Rowan Heights,” he said. “This hill is part of my property. Let me speak with Prudence now, and I will show you the way into the tunnel.”

      Miss Taris narrowed her eyes. “You are trying to deceive me. It won’t work. I will let you speak with Prudence once we are inside the house, and not a second before.”

      “You tried to deceive me first,” Hope said, fixing Miss Taris with a look of steel. “I will not invite you into my home until I know the truth.”

      “We are exposed, here,” Mirth interjected, scanning the horizon. “Can we continue this discussion inside the tunnel?”

      “No- we cannot,” Hope said. “If Miss Taris won’t cooperate, I will continue on foot through the hills to del Sol, never mind the tunnel. Del Sol isn’t far, after all.”

      “Oh yes, del Sol is very close,” Miss Taris laughed. “-just a few miles through the bandit-infested midlands, or else through the narrow valley, which is guarded by inquisitors. Remember that Prudence was unable to get through, even with all her cleverness, and was diverted for ten years.”

      “In that case, our endeavor is hopeless, anyway. The tunnel goes to the cottage on bluebell hill, and not beyond. You can’t guarantee safe passage to del Sol through the tunnel.”

      “If you submit to Wisdom’s will, you will reach del Sol safely,” Miss Taris promised. “If you run now, you risk never seeing your child or your mistress again.”

      Hope stared at Miss Taris for a few more seconds, and then he smiled. “Ah- good. We have the truth at last.”

      “I don’t know what you mean,” Miss Taris sputtered indignantly.

      “I sealed this tunnel myself. I can sense that it’s been changed. Only two people I know could break my seal. The first,” he said, gesturing to me, “has been with us the whole time, and cannot create another seal. Wisdom himself must have changed the seals on the tunnel, and once I am lured inside, I won’t be able to escape. Wisdom is at Rowan Heights, waiting to meet me so he can make me submit to him. The trap is set.”

      Miss Taris gaped at Hope, who nodded as though in satisfaction.

      “Good- I was hoping the trap would be sprung soon.” He walked around the well and then stopped, pushing one of the loose bricks back into place. There was the sound of shifting stone, and then a ladder sprung out from the side of the well.

      “Don’t dawdle. Wisdom is waiting for us,” Hope said cheerfully.

Part CV

The Coven, Part CIII

   Read from the beginning.

      I stood at the window of my old room, staring out onto the lawn.

      Hope and I had done our best to distract Lady Fairfax, but she’d continually complained of her nerves, and she would not settle herself to sleep no matter how many lulling songs we’d played on the clavichord. Finally, she accepted a glass of brandy, and then went to bed just as the sun began to rise over the hills.

      I could not follow either Lady Farifax’s example or Hope’s advice that I go to sleep. Instead, I kept watch, and after some time came to the conclusion that neither Miss Taris nor the dragoons had stayed to patrol the grounds. They were likely further in the distance, behind the veil of gunpowder that hung over the horizon to the north.

      The tip of the Cathedral’s spire shone above the haze, reflecting the sunlight like a torch. The sounds of cannon fire had begun to slow- it was no longer like a continuous sound of thunder, but rather an occasional, disjointed pop. The soldiers who still patrolled the lawn seemed to relax their postures, and marched more slowly. They had caught no enemy near Willowbrook in the night.

      As I watched, I heard a knock on the door behind me, followed by a soft creak as the door opened.

      “You cannot sleep?” Hope said across the threshold.

      “I haven’t tried, and I don’t plan to try,” I said, beckoning him inside.

      Hope entered and closed the door behind himself, coming to stand beside me at the window. He had changed into my father’s old clothes, and for the first time since he was arrested he was dressed like a gentleman.

      “It’s a strange sort of anxiety, isn’t it, when you await the outcome of a battle between your foes,” he said.

      I nodded. “The sounds of battle are growing quiet, but none of Sancti’s troops have made their way to Willowbrook. Either Wisdom is winning, or Sancti does not know you are hidden here.”

      “Or Sancti knows, and does not care,” Hope said. “But I don’t believe that Sancti would let me slip away, no matter how inconsequential Pride believes me to be.”

      “Even if Pride underestimates you, the Queen of Sancti surely knows the power of symbols. The people wouldn’t not accept her reign while you-” I shivered, unable to finish the thought.

      Hope stepped a little closer to the window and drew back a curtain a little further. “The dragoons are nowhere to be seen. They must have joined the battle.”

      “Yes. Things must have proven more difficult than Wisdom anticipated, to leave his king so unguarded. I don’t think that Miss Taris lied when she said they planned to guard us last night.”

      “No,” Hope growled in a low voice. “Miss Taris had no motive to lie. She certainly did not mean to reassure Lady Fairfax. On the contrary- Miss Taris seemed to take great delight in tormenting her.”

      Hope flung the curtain shut and turned away from the scene.

      “Wisdom will be weakened, perhaps, after such a difficult battle,” he said. “This would be the best time to strike against him. Have you tried to sing the litany, yet?”

      “No- I will try now, while we are alone. If I sing it before the others, it will look strange.”

      I closed my eyes and began to sing.

      The song was not difficult to remember. The tune and lyrics were as simple as any other litany. I sang the song once, just to make sure I remembered all of it, and then I sang through again. This time, I concentrated on the lyrics, the feeling of the tune, and any other piece of the song that might provide a clue to the spell’s intent.

      I sang a third time, going a little deeper into my feelings so I might find the place where magic resisted will, but I felt nothing.

      Finally, I stopped and sighed. “It’s more difficult than I’d anticipated,” I said. “It might help if I knew the song’s purpose.”

      Hope sat on the edge of my bed and closed his eyes. “Sing it more slowly, this time. Linger on the notes- let them resonate inside you. I will try to examine the spell.”

      I nodded and sang again. This time, however, I could not concentrate. The song echoed through the room in an ominous way, off of the dark, bare walls that had been stripped of everything I loved when I’d gone to Rowan Heights. I wondered if anything I’d taken to Rowan Heights had remained, or if the inquisition had taken it all. I wondered if they’d taken everything I’d left at St. Blanc and Verdant city when I’d fled those places, too.

      I stopped singing, feeling as bare as the room around me. I could not continue to sing Wisdom’s praises.

      “There- at the end, I thought I caught something,” Hope said. “It was fleeting, though.”

      “I cannot actually cast a spell, only counter it with my will,” I said. “Perhaps if you sing it instead-”

      “No. Prudence was right to warn me against singing it. If I did, I might accidentally lend Wisdom some part of my own power, or perhaps bind myself to him, depending on the purpose of the litany.”

      “- which we don’t know.” I sat down beside Hope and rubbed my forehead. “I dislike these vicious cycles.”

      “Oh yes, I know,” Hope said with a fond smile. “Perhaps we could approach this puzzle another way.”

Hope pressed a finger to his lips, and then he stood and went to my writing desk, pulling out an old sheet of paper and a bottle of ink I’d left unopened.

      He made quick work of trimming an old quill, and then sat down and wrote out the litany’s lyrics in a neat series of couplets.

     

For a better future- sing

to the blessings Wisdom brings.

 

Peace on Earth and Heaven’s song,

Echo winter, summer long.

     

Angel, God, and Human child,

Join in spring and autumn mild.

 

Peace on earth eternal, sing!

Pray to Wisdom, let joy ring.

 

      “The meter is not at all unusual for a litany,” Hope said, leaning back in the chair to examine the page. “The structure is similar to the Litany of Order. The God’s name is invoked at the beginning and the end; the first couplet promises the God’s blessings, and the last couplet implores the singer to pray.”

      Hope circled the first and last stanzas, and then underlined Wisdom’s name.

      “The middle stanzas puzzle me,” Hope continued. “There are references to time- the seasons- leading to a promise of eternal peace. I would almost think this was a spell for immortality, if not for the fact that Pius was already immortal as a demon.”

      “The line that references Angels, Gods, and Humans puzzles me, as well,” I said. “Do you think that Wisdom expects the other Gods to join him?”

      Hope put aside the quill and sighed. “There is a possibility I had not anticipated- especially since he is at war with Reverence as we speak. Perhaps it’s best not to borrow trouble. Could you hum the song for me once, without words? There may be some clues isolated in the tune.”

      I agreed, and Hope closed his eyes while I hummed the litany’s tune.

      “It is a simple tune; it just follows the major scale down and up, down and up. It is almost hypnotic,” he said. “But I always feel just an edge of frustration, because the cadence is wrong. It goes up at the end without resolving back to the root. Strange.”

      Just then there was a sharp rap on the door, and I waited for Hope to take flint and tinder to the paper before I answered.

      “Your father and Miss Taris have returned,” Mrs. Ellis, father’s old housekeeper, said as soon as I opened the door. Then she cast a glance toward Hope, bobbed and curtsey, and fled as though frightened.

      I turned back to Hope. “It will take me a few moments to get ready, and then we can go downstairs to meet them together.”

 

 

#

 

 

      “My King!” My father’s voice boomed through the sitting room as soon as we entered. My father swept past me without a glance, his arms raised theatrically. Then he fell to his knees before Hope, reached out, and kissed the hem of the coat Hope wore, which happened to be father’s own.

      “Sir-” Hope began.

      “My Lord, you have my full support, and the support of my household,” my father continued, standing. “Your enemies are my enemies, now and forever.”

      “I know not what to say to such a declaration,” Hope said. “Do you mean to count yourself among your enemies? I have had reason to hate you, and I thought you hated me in return.”

      “You aren’t the first man to threaten, or even to throttle me. It is all water under the bridge,” my father said, brushing this aside.

      “I also recall that, after threatening your life, I made a very firm request that you retire from politics,” Hope continued.

      “There’s no escaping politics in this world, wouldn’t you agree my de-” Father gazed at me, for the first time, and froze.

      “What the devil are you wearing, girl?” he sputtered.

      I looked down at my dress, which I had also borrowed from my father’s closet. I wore a plain, serviceable pair of breeches that father had once worn when surveying the grounds at Willowbrook, but had not worn for years to my knowledge. I had paired this with an old shirt, waistcoat, and a greatcoat loose enough to provide easy access to my sword.

      “I did not think you would mind if I borrowed these,” I said coolly. “You were never very fond of these clothes.”

      “Go back upstairs and dress yourself like a lady,” Father said. “What if someone sees you in such a getup?”

      “It is too late,” Miss Taris said. “Plenty of Wisdom’s men in Verdant City saw her dressed like that, fighting with a sword. People everywhere are whispering about the warrior-queen who liberated the future King from his shackles.”

      Father looked at Miss Taris in surprise, and then turned back to me, examining me with a critical eye.

      “Are they, really? I had wondered what had become of her, when she abandoned me to my fate in the courtroom. Don’t worry, Grace- you chose the right man to save. I lived.”

      He raised cane like a sword and moved to strike. I drew my own sword just in time to parry the blow, and we continued for a few more moments, trading elementary strikes and parries until my father stepped back and nodded as though in satisfaction.

      “I see what you mean, Miss Taris,” he finally said. “She isn’t a great beauty. She doesn’t have a remarkable story tied to her name, or rumors of some great destiny. She will need to be singular to attract any attention at all, let alone gain public support.”

      “I do not fight to get attention,” I said, re-sheathing my sword. “I only fight so that I, and those I love, may survive.”

      “I know it- and there is nothing more attractive than sincerity,” my father said with a nod.

      Miss Taris stepped forward. “I’ve returned to let you know that the battle is through, and Brother Lux wishes to see you both. I met Lord Ainsworth on the road and he… invited himself along.”

      “This is my home, and I shall do as I please,” Father said. He turned to the footman who stood nearby. “Faith- go tell the groom to get the horses ready- my hunter and the three mares. I want the hunter brushed and fitted rather splendidly.”

      He turned back to Hope. “The king must look the part when he appears to survey the battlefield.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Hope and I argued with Father and Miss Taris for some time whether it would be wise for Hope to ride into a recent warzone, but in the end we were persuaded. Miss Taris said she had important news regarding Celeste and Prudence, but she would only reveal it once we were at the Cathedral Lux.

      As we rode down the lane the air grew dustier, and the scent of gunpowder that lingered triggered memories of battle so powerful that I had to pause to steady myself.

      The Cathedral lawn was filled with men who stood in dirty, battered coats. A few men sat in rows, bound in chains, their faces worn with fatigue. As tired and worn as all of the men looked, however, all of them were alive and whole. Not a single body lay on the lawn, and not a single wound, bandaged or unbandaged, could be seen. The scene was so different from the aftermath at the ancient temple that I could hardly imagine a battle had taken place.

      “Can you believe that there are still men who will not kneel to Wisdom, even after he brought them back from the brink of death?” Miss Taris said, gesturing to the men who sat in chains.

      “It is surprising,” my father grunted in reply. “Wisdom healed or brought back every single person his men felled in Verdant City. Afterward, everyone pledged their faith in him. One would have to be an uncommon fool to stand against such power.”

      Father spurred his horse to catch up with Hope, whose shining, black steed cantered proudly at the fore.

      “This is the birth of your reign, my King,” father said, gesturing toward the field. “The world has never witnessed such a revolution.”

      At that moment, everyone on the field turned to look at Hope.

      For a time, they all stood silently, and I could almost see the image they beheld reflected in their awestruck gazes. Even the inquisitors paused in their ministries and turned to gaze at the man who rode, upright and elegant, into the crowd of battle-fatigued soldiers. The Cathedral doors opened, and still more men came outside to gaze up at Hope.

      “It is Uriel!” one man cried. “It is our King!”

      “Long live the King!” echoed through the crowd.

      Some men fell to their knees, but still more came forward, arms upraised as though beseeching benediction.

      Then Miss Taris cried. “Look out!”

      I saw a flash of silver in one of the upraised hands; a knife was clasped in a fist, ready to stab at the man who would be king.

      Before I could think, I acted.

      I drew my sword and lashed out once, knocking the dagger from the upraised hand. Then I followed through, and my sword sank into flesh- into the stomach of the would-be assassin.

      The assassin let out a horrid groan, and he fell to the ground in a pool of crimson blood.

      The crowd fell back, and I could see the assassin’s face. He was a young man, nowhere near 20. His lips were blue as he gasped his final breaths.

      Then I heard a voice cry out. “Make way! Let me through.”

      The crowd parted, and Brother Lux appeared. He was not wearing crimson robes, but a robe of pure white. He spun to look at me, his eyes glowing in the noonday sun.

      “Get away from him, Lady Frey. Go as far as you can, or he will die.”

Part CIV

The Coven, Part CII

Read from the beginning.

“Grace?” Hope said gently under the barrack’s chatter.

      I dropped my spoon, which I’d been using to push my dinner uselessly around my tray, and looked up.

“Are you sure you are quite well?” Hope asked. He had long since cleaned his own tray and pushed it aside. Now he leaned forward on his elbows, gazing at me with a look of concern.

“I am,” I said. I swallowed the lump of guilt that had swelled in my throat, and forced down another bite of stew.

Hope took my free hand. “I don’t mean to rush you, but when you have finished, I wish to speak with you alone.”

I nodded and pushed my own tray aside, abandoning any pretense of eating. Hope looked around the table. Most of the others had already put their trays away and wandered toward the bunks, and only a few dragoons still lingered over tea and conversation.

Hope stood and led me past the bunks and to the door that led to the tunnel outside. Miss Taris stood near the door, but she made no move to stop us. We were allowed to pass out of the barracks and into the empty tunnel, unimpeded.

We walked a little way down the tunnel, side by side, and then Hope stopped and turned to me.

“We are quite alone here,” he said. “Tell me, what is wrong? You have seemed out of sorts all evening, and you hardly touched your dinner. Did something Miss Taris said upset you? Or perhaps- did Sir Beaumont’s revelation surprise you?”

“I was surprised, of course, but not-” I stopped and sighed. “Are you certain no one else can hear us, here?”

“I have cast silence. No one can hear us,” he said.

I nodded. “We must be careful; Sir Beaumont has much more to fear than ‘unkindness.’ When I was a young girl, I read one of my grandfather’s old medical texts. There was a case described in the book, which sounded very much like Sir Beaumont’s. In this case, the doctor prescribed a course of treatment to ‘cure’ his patient so severe that the patient died from it. Afterward, the doctor was still censured by the church for not turning his patient over to the inquisition straight away.”

Hope drew a breath. “Oh, hell.”

“Indeed. She showed us a great deal of trust when she shared her secret.”

“I only hope that Wisdom will abide by his promises, at least in this case,” Hope muttered. Then he looked up and smirked. “Speaking of which, what do you suppose that last message from Prudence meant? I would have thought that Prudence was referring to the messages she’d put in her note, but with Miss Taris conveying the messages, we can’t really trust them, can we?”

“Oh! You mean the last statement where she teased me to ‘practice my dreadful singing?’” I said, remembering the conversation I’d half-listened to. “No, but…”

Though no one was present, and Hope had assured me that silence was cast, I stepped closer, using Hope’s body to shield my face from any hidden eyes in the tunnel. “Prudence’s statements bring to mind a discovery Prudence made about magic. What I am about to tell you is a profound secret but- I’m sure Prudence wishes you to know, considering the hints that she’s given.

“Your secrets are safe with me- I swear it,” Hope said.

I smiled, despite myself. “You needn’t swear- I trust you completely.”

Hope smiled as well, but I ducked my head, unable to gaze into his earnest eyes- his lovely face.

“There are things- we call them animalcules- which are hidden in the blood, too small for the human eye to see unaided. They exist in both human and ancient blood, but they look and behave differently in each race.”

“How so?” Hope asked. “And what does this have to do with the litany?”

“Well, in Human blood the animalcules look whole- healthy. They react to magic by vibrating in a predictable pattern. In ancient blood, however-” my voice dropped to a whisper. “In ancient blood, the animalcules look strange- twisted and black. They do not react to magic up to a certain threshold, and then they resonate in a waveform counter to the Human’s.”

Hope leaned against the wall, closing his eyes in thought.

“So- you were thinking that the resonance performed by these animalcules…”

“Might this have something to do with the litanies?” I said. “After all, a string vibrates when you pluck it, and your chest, throat, and sinuses vibrate when you sing. All of music- all of sound- is vibration.”

Hope nodded. “In magic, we chant or speak. When I create sigils, I add my blood to the ink, and hum just under my breath when I charge the sigils with my magical intent. When I cast wordless magic…”

“Yes, there may be a problem, there,” I said.

“Not necessarily,” Hope said. “The secret to wordless magic is to say the words in your head, and to let the resonance fill your mind. If you have done the spell correctly, you will feel your whole body vibrate with it.”

I nodded. “That means that the litany may be a type of holy magic.”

“-and if you’ve gained the ability to break spells,” Hope said slowly, “then perhaps you can break the power of a litany’s spell. Prudence must want you to try.”

 

 

#

 

 

We reached the end of the rail the next day. There, we disembarked from the train and walked the rest of the tunnel to the Cathedral Lux. The inquisitors and dragoons sang as we went, and I listened carefully, memorizing the words and tune to the Litany of Wisdom.

After just a couple of hours, we came to the end of the tunnel. Sir Beaumont went through the portal first, and after a few moments she returned, her face tight with worry.

“The tunnel leads to a cellar in the Cathedral annex,” she said to Miss Taris. “The cellar is clear, but I fear there may be danger outside. I heard something like cannon fire in the distance.”

Brother Fortune came forward. “It has been a rainy season. Are you certain the sound you heard was not thunder?”

“It may have been thunder, but I doubt it. Sancti’s auxiliary forces will be far stronger than the summer-soldiers we faced in Rogue Village. The battle may last some time.”

Miss Taris went pale, but she stood a little straighter and set her jaw.

“Wisdom is with us,” she said. “I am not afraid. Sir Beaumont, please lead the way, and we will try to find a safe path to the cathedral. Brother Lux promised to meet us there. I will stay close by to assist you with magic.”

Sir Beaumont nodded and turned to the party. “Brother Fortune, take the rear with Lieutenant Hawley. Lady Frey, do not leave the King’s side, no matter what happens. Be ready.”

We crept up the ladder and emerged through a rough wooden door, into a cellar cramped with crates and barrels. The dragoons and I all drew our weapons, though we were forced to carry them awkwardly over our heads as we maneuvered through the narrow spaces.

We waited in silent anticipation as Sir Beaumont opened the cellar door and peered outside. Then she returned and gestured for us to follow her up the dirty, stone steps. We followed, and emerged into a plain, stone building.

We made our way outside the same way- Sir Beaumont would go first, peeking around corners and through doorways, and then gesture for us to follow. We did come across two monks as we made our escape, but they only smiled and flashed the symbol of Wisdom to us before they passed.

Finally, we opened the front door and emerged from the annex into a clear evening. I could hear something rumble like thunder in the distance, and the sky around the Cathedral hung hazy and low.

“We are exposed, here,” Miss Taris said. “No one is immediately present, but-”

“There is the Cathedral,” Sir Beaumont said, pointing to the familiar tower in the distance.

“One moment- I will try to contact Lux,” Miss Taris said. She closed her eyes and hummed a little to herself, then she spoke. “There is great danger. Sancti has brought far greater numbers through the mountain pass than we’d anticipated. We face not auxiliary forces, but a full army.”

Miss Taris opened her eyes, which were now milky white. “Wisdom has the battle well in hand; our first priority is to protect the future king. We must escort Lord Frey to Willowbrook, and await Wisdom’s orders there.”

“Which direction is Willowbrook?” Sir Beaumont asked.

“It is south,” I said. “It’s only a couple of miles along the avenue.”

I pointed to the south, where a thin tangle of moth-trees veiled the road behind.

“Watch the trees carefully,” Sir Beaumont said. “Miss Taris, do you sense anyone’s presence?”

“No-one. The way is clear,” Miss Taris said.

Sir Beaumont nodded. “Then let’s go.”

There was no song or dance now as we walked, and the road to my former home seemed to stretch further than it ever had before. The sun set and the twilight faded before the avenue opened up on the emerald lawn that surrounded stately Willowbrook.

 

 

#

 

 

Two armed inquisitors stood guard at the end of the avenue. They bowed slightly to Miss Taris, and then bowed more deeply to Hope as we passed onto the lawn. On the lawn we passed a few more inquisitors and soldiers, some of whom had the symbol of Wisdom painted messily onto their shields. They would stop, examine us, and then salute briefly before returning to their patrol.

My father’s old doormen, Perkins and Taylor, stood at their stations by the door as always, but their livery was partially covered by iron breastplates, and they each held a polearm awkwardly in their right hand.

“It is good to have you home, my Lady,” Perkins whispered to me.

I glanced up at the old towers as we entered, almost expecting to see arches at their stations as there had been in centuries past. If any archers were present, however, I could not see them in the pale moonlight.

“Dear Grace! And Miss Taris, too!” My cousin’s voice echoed through the foyer, punctuated by Snowbear’s agitated barking. “It is so good to see friendly faces. I could not bear the suspense alone.”

Then, as she drew nearer to the party, Lady Fairfax fell silent. Even Snowbear seemed to sense his mistress’s awe, and stopped barking.

“So- it is as they say,” Lady Fairfax whispered, staring into Hope’s face. “I saw your disfigurement with my own eyes, my Lord, in the courtroom. I saw those deep, red scars where your eyes should have been. Now they are perfect- whole.”

“Yes, Lady,” Hope said with a courtly bow.

Lady Fairfax fell to her knees on the old, rust-colored carpet, her skirts billowing about her. She took the worn and dirty hem of Hope’s robes, and kissed it.

“I am sorry I ever doubted Wisdom’s power,” she said. “I am sorry I ever doubted you. You are the rightful king.”

“Please, Lady-” Hope stammered. He reached out to help Lady Fairfax to her feet.

“Oh! But it isn’t safe here,” Lady Farifax said, smoothing her skirts. “Wisdom’s men met me on the road and escorted me here, and now they patrol the grounds. They said that Sancti’s troops were approaching, and that there would soon be a battle, so they must protect Willowbrook.”

Sir Beaumont stepped forward and bowed low to Lady Fairfax. “Sancti’s troops are attempting to take the Cathedral Lux, but you have nothing to fear, my Lady. I have seen Wisdom’s power on the battlefield. I have seen Wisdom’s enemies flee before his angels’ power. I have seen the aftermath of the battle of Rogue Village with my own eyes- not a single casualty was had on either side.

“The soldiers who patrol here are only a precaution. Wisdom’s forces will easily overcome the armies of the sleeping Gods.”

Lady Fairfax nodded, though she paled slightly. I stepped forward and took her arm.

“Don’t worry, Cousin. This old fortress has stood through far worse battles. We will be safe, here.”

Lady Fairfax nodded again, and then she drew back, seeming to notice the sword on my belt.

“But then- Lady Frey, why are you armed?”

“How silly of me,” I said. “I did not mean to alarm you. In truth, the journey here has been so dull that the dragoons taught me a little bit of swordplay- something to keep me occupied. I must have forgotten to put my sword away after my last lesson.”

“That is a very strange hobby for a young lady,” Lady Fairfax said, narrowing her eyes. “Though, it does seem like something your mother would do. She was very wild, riding and even shooting every chance she got. Well, you can put the sword away and join me in the sitting room, and I’m sure you will be glad to change out of those robes.”

Lady Fairfax turned back to Miss Taris. “Miss Taris, you must wish to change out of those-” she gestured vaguely to Miss Taris’s crimson robes. “You may find something that will fit among Lady Frey’s old things.”

“There is no need,” Miss Taris said. “I am going out with the dragoons to patrol the grounds.”

“Patrol the-” Lady Frey stammered. “Now, Miss Taris this is entirely too much. Has everyone gone completely wild, or have I-”

Miss Taris stepped closer to Lady Fairfax, whose pale eyes went as wide as saucers. Then Lady Fairfax fell to her knees again, shielding her eyes as though Miss Taris were too bright to face directly.

“Oh no, Lady Fairfax.” Miss Taris flashed a smug grin, bit her lip, and then affected a more sober expression. “You must never kneel to an angel.”

“An angel!” Lady Fairfax gasped.

Miss Taris reached out to help Lady Fairfax to her feet. “I followed Wisdom as he ascended, and he rewarded me for my faith. I am no longer that pathetic girl you knew at court.”

Miss Taris smiled, this time benevolently, as lady Fairfax continued to gape. Then she linked arms with Sir Beaumont, and the two strode back onto the lawn together.

“I knew strange things were happening, but I never imagined how strange,” Lady Fairfax said in a faltering voice.

I stepped forward again, taking Lady Fairfax’s arm. “Come to the drawing room, and Lord Frey will entertain you while I change clothes. I believe some music may help calm your nerves, and would like to practice my singing.”

Part CIII