The Coven- Part XLIX

Around his prey, the eagle flies,

His wing the sail, his sea the skies,

Sharp eyes to view our sins below,

Sharp cries to warn the coming blow.

 

The eagle’s prey, the scarlet rose,

Is crowned with silk, and thorns his clothes,

When thorns and talons clash like steel,

King Uriel they shall reveal.

 

“It’s a strange poem, isn’t it, Lady Grace?” Celeste asked, placing the book on her knee.

“I’ve heard something like it before,” I said, thinking of the book I’d stolen from the palace, and the Tale of the Fallen Six. “Where did you find this book?”

“In the calefactory,” Celeste said, sliding off of her bed to put the book back on her desk.

I had been sitting with Celeste in her cell, reading bedtime stories by lamplight. Celeste had made the room her own, filling the tiny chamber with as many comforts as would fit. A colorful quilt, which she’d sewn with the sisters in the calefactory, covered her cot. A sketch was pinned to the wall- a drawing that Hope had made of the fountains at St. Blanc and had sent to her with one of his letters. On Celeste’s desk, the golden haired doll sat atop a stack of books, wearing a handkerchief on its head like a veil, and on another stack of books was a yellow sol-flower in a cup.

Among these simple comforts Celeste slept as soundly as a queen, and yet it pained me that I could not do more for her. The cell was the same size of her closet in the nursery at Rowan Heights, yet she’d seemed perfectly able to adjust to her surroundings. How many times, I wondered, had she had to make herself comfortable in a new bedroom?

“Who is Uriel?” Celeste asked, turning back from her desk.

“According to some stories, Uriel was the first High King of Aeterna, appointed by the Gods. These tales are only legend; history tells us that the first King of Aeterna was Innocent I.”

“Why do you believe history instead of the tales?” Celeste asked.

“I believe the historians because they have evidence to support their claims. The church has stored Aeterna’s founding documents in their archives, all of which are signed by King Innocent I. The Prince can trace his lineage to Innocent I, which is why he is claiming his right to the Aeternan throne. Also, the Cathedral Lux was built by King Innocent I, and I’ve seen the plaque that he impressed with his handprint in the cathedral antechamber.”

“That makes sense,” Celeste said. “But Uriel might have been King before all of that. Maybe his evidence was lost.”

“Perhaps,” I admitted. “But until more evidence is found, there’s no reason for us to believe that Uriel existed anywhere but in stories.”

Celeste nodded as though satisfied, but I found myself feeling strangely unsatisfied. Something about the poem, the stolen book, and the symbol of the eagle was prompting my mind to venture in odd directions.

“Celeste,” I finally said. “I have something that you may like to see. Wait here.”

I went to my own cell and returned with the silver, eagle-embossed locket. I handed it to Celeste, who opened it eagerly.

“This is very pretty. Who is this girl? Wait- I think I know her…”

Celeste removed her spectacles and squinted at the miniature. “This is wrong, but I can’t tell how it’s wrong. Who is it?”

“This is your mother’s likeness. It was taken when she was a very young girl.”

“It is.”  Celeste said with a sudden smile. “Oh, how pretty she was! But- why did she change?”

Before I could stop her, Celeste opened the door and dashed down the hall. She threw open Sister Jubilee’s door without knocking.

“Sister Jubilee!” she said. “I want to show you something.”

“Celeste, what have I told you about knocking?” Sister Jubilee emerged from her cell, smoothing her veil as though she’d just thrown it on. I followed Celeste, half disappointed that I’d missed seeing Sister Jubilee’s face, and half ashamed of feeling the disappointment. 

“I want to show you this picture. Lady Grace said that this is my mother.”

Sister Jubilee knelt down and opened the locket. She sat silently for a long time, as though trying to make out each detail through the gauzy veil. Then she handed the locket back to Celeste.

“Your mother was very pretty,” she said.

“Can people- can people change a lot as they get older?” Celeste asked.

“Sometimes they can. Time can change the prettiest young girl into an old crone, and if someone goes through many hardships, time has an even greater effect.”

“I see.” Celeste took the locket back and kissed it. “Then I’m glad I got to see this picture.”

Sister Jubilee stood, but did not reply.

“Abbess Joy!” Celeste said suddenly, and she ran to the other end of the hall where Abbess Joy was approaching. “I want to show you my mother, too!”

“Your mother?” Abbess Joy said, blinking down at Celeste in surprise.

Celeste opened the locket and handed it to Abbess Joy. As Abbess Joy was examining the miniature, Sister Jubilee came closer to me.

“Why did you show her?” she asked in a harsh whisper.

“Why wouldn’t I?” I asked. “My own mother died when I was a baby, and I’ve always wished that I could see her likeness more than anything else.”

“Abbess Joy must not have had any hardships,” Celeste said, taking Abbess Joy’s hand and leading her back to Sister Jubilee and me.

“Why do you say that?” Sister Jubilee said.

“Because Sister Love told me that Abbess Joy is very old, but Abbess Joy is still pretty.”

Abbess Joy laughed. “Thank you for the compliment, Celeste. Everyone has their share of hardships, but I hope I’ve borne mine well.”

Sister Jubilee sighed. “Celeste, it is very late, and we have early prayer, tomorrow.”

“I was just on my way to bed,” Celeste said. She kissed Sister Jubilee on the cheek, and then turned to kiss Abbess Joy and I, as well.

“May I keep the locket, for a while?” Celeste asked. “I promise I will be careful.”

“Of course,” I said. “She is your mother, after all.”

 

#

 

Later that evening, when everyone else was asleep, Sister Jubilee knocked quietly on my door and beckoned for me to follow her. We made our way without a lantern up the hill to the old lighthouse and entered silently, as though in reverence.

We went upstairs, stopping at the second story laboratory. Sister Jubilee went straight to the table and started working without a word. She fiddled with some of the devices, which glinted in the electric light, and wrote notes in a battered book that lay open on the table.

After watching Sister Jubilee work for several moments, I turned to examine the nearby shelves, which were full of books of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Sister Jubilee, however, looked up from her work and called me away from the tantalizing books.

“Don’t read those, yet,” she said. “They must be studied in the correct order, or they will make no sense. There- have a seat.”

She gestured to a stool that stood across the table from her, away from the largest instruments. As I sat, she took her own seat and rolled up her voluminous sleeves to the elbow.

“Where shall we begin?” she said in a businesslike manner. “Have you read anything by Lord Tolemus?”

“I’ve read his Treatise on Sacred Geometry, as well as Divine Proofs and The Theorems.”

“Excellent- Lord Tolemus is one of our few contemporaries whose writings are remotely sane.”

“If you feel that way, then you must not have read Lord Aston, Sir Reginald, Sir Boromir, Brother Apollion…”

“I only have a passing familiarity with Sir Boromir, but I wouldn’t really consider him a contemporary. The rest that you mention are brilliant men- giants in their fields- but they are all insane. To be human is to be insane, and it is a long and arduous journey to sanity.”

I leaned my elbows on the table. Fatigue was setting in, though the room’s lights were far too bright to allow for sleepiness.

“I must admit that my experiences over the past few months have led me to question the very definition of sanity,” I said. “I’m ready to re-learn everything I thought I knew.”

“Are you willing to learn even if you must study nights instead of going to the telescope?” Sister asked, putting her own elbows on the table and leaning toward me.

“I fear that sanity may be elusive if I can’t go to the telescope.”

“If you know you must re-learn sanity, then how can you be certain that the telescope will be necessary?”

I closed my eyes to consider my answer. The electric lights were distractingly bright, but I could not block them out. I repeated to myself that they were harmless and then re-ordered my thoughts.

“The stars help me to accept what is, no matter how fantastic,” I said. “They are the most fantastic things there are, yet I can examine them with my own eyes and verify that they follow natural laws.”

Sister Jubilee remained silent for several moments. “I see your point,” she finally said. “In fact, that helps me understand how I’ve kept my own sanity. Don’t smile at me in that manner- I have a tighter grip on sanity than anyone else in this room.”

I bit my lip. “Of course.”

“I have one more question I would ask you before…” Sister Jubilee stopped, sighed, and put her head in her hands. “No- it would be pointless to ask. I’ve already decided.”

“What have you decided?”

Sister Jubilee stood and walked around the table, stopping next to me. She held out her hand.

“Since Mr. Filius won’t return until after Chaosmas, I’ve agreed to take you on as my apprentice. Do you accept?”

I stood as well. “I don’t know- perhaps I should interview you as you have interviewed me, to see if I wish to take you on as a teacher.”

“I should refuse to teach you and ban you from this tower,” she said exasperatedly.

“It’s too late. You’ve already given me the key.”

Sister Jubilee sputtered in protest. I laughed, satisfied that I’d taken the advantage in our verbal sparring for the first time, and took her hand.

“Sister Jubilee, I am intrigued beyond words to learn what you have to teach me. I would be honored to be your apprentice.”

Interlude

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Solar Eclipse 2017

I was lucky enough to witness one of nature’s wonders today- the rare spectacle known as a solar eclipse. I live in Texas, so I was not in the path of totality, but the partial eclipse was still an awesome sight.

I was unable to take photos because I lacked the proper equipment, but I will share my experience as best as I can with words. I used three pieces of equipment to view the eclipse- my smartphone, with help from the NASA livestream, a pair of ISO certified glasses, which I obtained courtesy of my local astronomy association, and a camera obscura (i.e. a card that I tore in half and poked a hole in with a thumbtack.)

eclipse_equip

(Not pictured- my smartphone and the thumbtack.)

I got an early start viewing the solar eclipse from my smartphone, watching the live feed of the eclipse that NASA was streaming from Oregon. When I was able, I went outside to view the eclipse firsthand. I went outside at 12:08pm CDT, and followed the eclipse’s progress until 12:26pm CDT. The view through my eclipse glasses was sharp, and the dark curve of the moon was starkly visible against the sun’s orange crescent. When I began viewing, the coverage was ~15%, and before I went inside again the coverage was ~30%.

I went back outside at 1:00pm CDT. I viewed the eclipse through my glasses, and also decided to try using a little pinhole viewer I’d made. The pinhole viewer worked much better than I’d anticipated. I didn’t have to adjust the angles of the cards very much at all before the eclipse became visible, and though it wasn’t as big and clear as the view through the glasses, I could clearly see a bright little crescent of light on the card. The last time I viewed the eclipse, the coverage was ~50%.

Viewing nature’s wonders was its own reward, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to discover any superpowers the eclipse might have unleashed from deep within me. I haven’t tried everything, of course, but here are the possibilities I’ve eliminated.

I cannot stop time.

I’m not indestructible. (I still have a little scab on my chin that hasn’t miraculously healed.)

I cannot pass through solid objects.

I’m not a magical girl. (I tried shouting “moon prism power, make up!” but nothing happened.)

I cannot see the future.

 

It’s too hot for me to attempt to try super strength or super speed, and I haven’t had enough time alone to try to fly. If anyone else has any ideas on superpowers for me to try, leave them in the comments. I assign a very low probability that I received any superpowers at all, but I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain in testing it.

Keep your eyes on the skies, everyone, and happy viewing.

Apologies

Hello, everyone. I hope you are having an enjoyable weekend.

Due to a hectic work situation coupled with a lack of sleep, I was unable to post the latest part of The Coven this past week. I assure you that I will return to my regular posting schedule as soon as possible.

To thank you for your patience and support, here is a picture of a baby elephant.

The Coven, Part XLVIII

 

“Last night’s storms must have been a dream,” Celeste called happily, turning her face toward the sun.

“The sky’s so clear that you must be right,” Sister Jubilee replied. “I think we all met in the dream world, last night.”

Celeste laughed and, as though she could not contain herself anymore, broke into a run, kicking up golden sand behind her.

“Stay where we can watch you,” Mercy called after Celeste. Then she sighed and ran after her.

I let Mercy chase Celeste, but the anxiety I might have felt for Celeste the day before was gone. I felt certain that she was safe on the beach so close to del Sol. The sea was calm; the waves pulsed low and soft against the shore. A winter chill still hung in the air, but there was no wind, and the sunlight melted the cold away as it touched my skin. It felt like the light of dawn that melts away a nightmare.

Sister Jubilee and I stood together and watched Celeste and Mercy run along the shore. After a time, Innocence sidled up to us from the dunes.

“It is a pleasant day,” she said, “though the sea’s beauty can’t compare to the gardens at St. Blanc.”

“I cannot agree,” I said. “Even at court, I’ve never seen such jewels. The sea is sapphire, the sun and the sand are gold, and the waves glitter with a thousand diamonds.”

“Your words are wonderfully poetic, but you can’t sell poetry to feed the hungry or fund a war,” Sister Jubilee said. “The beauty of St. Blanc is directly related to its wealth, and real diamonds are worth far more than glittering water.”

“A diamond’s only worth is in its beauty,” I countered. “You cannot eat a diamond, or use it as a weapon. But you can live off of the sea’s bounty and sail warships on its surface. The sea has the advantage in both poetry and utility.”

“Stop- I can hardly keep up with the two of you,” Innocence pleaded. “I was speaking only of pleasure, not economics or politics. Let jewels and poetry remain useless, so I can properly enjoy them.”

“Miss Innocence, you will make an excellent sister once you learn to tolerate daily prayer. Focus on the abstract, elevate your spirit, and leave the mundane business of reality to Lady Frey and me,” Sister Jubilee laughed, linking her arm with mine.

“I wish I could focus on the abstract,” Innocence said. She held her hand out for me to see. “Look- I’ve been doing useful work every day after prayers, and my hands are covered in blisters. I’ve given up my title, and now I don’t even have a Lady’s hands.”

“I can tell you still have a Lady’s heart,” Sister Jubilee said with a slight note of contempt in her voice.

Innocence only sighed in reply. “I do my best.”

Innocence linked her arm with mine, and the three of us walked together- drifting across the sand like a daisy chain flung toward the sea. When we caught up to Celeste and Mercy the two had tumbled to the ground, and were both laughing without restraint.

When Celeste had caught her breath, she stood, brushed the sand from her robes, and took Sister Jubilee’s hand. “Come with Mercy and me. I want to show you an experiment that I’m conducting.”

“An experiment?”

“Yes. Help me gather stones and driftwood, and I will tell you about it.”

“Would you like me to help, too?” I offered.

Celeste shook her head quickly. “You mustn’t see my experiment until I’ve finished, so you can properly judge the results,” she said in a carefully grown-up voice. Then she tugged on Sister Jubilee’s hand again, and the three made their way up the shore.

When we were left alone, Innocence’s smile faded, and she stared down at her blister-covered fingers.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said softly. “I don’t belong.”

“None of us do,” I said. “Del Sol seems to be a place for those who don’t belong.”

“That’s exactly what Sister Purity told me before she left St. Blanc. I’d thought that she wanted me to follow her. That’s why I didn’t stay longer at St. Blanc, I suppose- it’s better to be with a friend who needs you than to watch your own dreams crumble.”

“Do you regret your decision?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t regret it if I knew that Sister Purity truly needed me. When I arrived, she’d already taken her vows, and she is so comfortable that it seems as though she’s lived here for years. She is happy.”

“She may still need you,” I said. “She may be content with your presence.”

“Perhaps.” Innocence picked at the peeling skin around her blisters.

“You should allow Abbess Joy to heal you hands,” I said.

Innocence curled her fingers into fists and dropped them to her sides, like a frightened child hiding a wound. “Why don’t you allow Abbess Joy to heal your bruises?”

“I have. She gave me salve to put on them.”

Innocence furrowed her brow in frustration. “Lady Frey, you know she can do more than apply salve. The fact that you haven’t let her use the litany of healing proves that you feel the same as I- that you have to atone for something.”

Innocence looked up at the dunes, and her smile returned. The sisters were walking single file down to the beach. They were singing, and their song hovered in the still air over the shore.

Sister Jubilee returned to greet the other sisters as Celeste played with Mercy at the water’s edge. Sister Jubilee was the only sister still wearing her veil; all of the others had thrown theirs back as they climbed through the dunes, and were blinking into the afternoon sunshine.

“Good afternoon,” Abbess Joy said as she approached the shore. “You are all welcome to join us for meditation.”

Sister Jubilee readily agreed, and though Innocence seemed about to refuse, she acquiesced when Purity took her arm. Abbess Joy turned to me with a welcoming smile.

“I’m sorry, but I need to go to the pilgrim’s quarters today, before Mr. Sutton leaves,” I said.

Abbess Joy nodded. “That is probably best. Will you be able to find the pilgrim’s quarters on your own?”

“I know where to find it. I passed it with Brother Lux,” I said.

Abbess Joy nodded. “When you have completed your business, go to the nearby infirmary. I’ve made a new batch of salve for your bruises, but I left it in my office. You’ll find it on my desk, in a blue jar.”

“Thank you.”

“Abbess Joy, please help me persuade Lady Frey that the salve isn’t enough,” Innocence said. “She should let you heal her properly, or else quit learning the martial art. A lady in her condition cannot be too careful.”

“Her condition?” Abbess Joy looked back at me sharply.

It took me a few moments to understand what Innocence had meant. “Oh! Miss Innocence, there’s no need…”

“What are you talking about?” Sister Jubilee said.

I looked around at the sisters, who were all looking at me with keen interest, now. I could not control the burning in my cheeks.

“There was a rumor at court, but it was only a rumor,” I said firmly.

“Are you certain? Lady Fairfax said-”

“I’m quite certain.” I said to Innocence. “Lady Fairfax was mistaken. I hoped that the rumor had been put to rest once and for all.”

Abbess Joy pursed her lips in concern.

“Trust me, Abbess Joy, there’s no way that…” I cleared my throat and continued in a stronger voice. “I’m absolutely certain I have no ‘condition’ at present.”

“Very well,” Abbess Joy said. “Still, you should be careful with your health for your own sake, at least.”

“I will be. Mercy only pushes me because I need it. If my health suffers, I will stop practicing.”

“I trust you,” Abbess Joy said. “You were born to be a fighter, and I cannot change that.”

 

#

 

I put up my cowl as I neared the pilgrim’s quarters, letting its loose edge fall far over my face so far that I could hardly see. The main quarters were located in a white, square building lined with a profusion of unadorned columns, and beside it were several low, wooden buildings clustered together.

I walked around the edge of the buildings, watching the groups of pilgrims who walked up and down the paths that led from the cathedral and the carriage house. Abbess Joy had told me that Mr. Sutton was unmistakable- very tall and lean, with a profusion of red hair, and sure enough, I soon spotted pilgrim who appeared to be at least a head taller than any of the others, and whose hair shone like fire in the afternoon sunlight.

I pulled my cowl even further down and approached him. In a swift gesture, I drew Mr. Filius’s card from my sleeve to reveal the picture of the eye.

“Good Afternoon,” Mr Sutton said in a light tone. “It would seem that you and I share secrets.”

“In secrets, there is trust,” I whispered in reply.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “Do you know a place where we may speak privately?”

“Hmmm… I suppose the old lighthouse is out of the question at this time of day. We wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s an interesting place. Let’s go to the Cathedral.”

“The Cathedral?” I asked in surprise as Mr. Sutton started back up the path.

“Of course- everyone already knows that the Cathedral is uninteresting, so it is empty as soon as prayers are done.”

I trotted behind Mr. Sutton, feeling very much like a child trying to keep up with an adult, until we arrived at the Cathedral doors. Mr. Sutton opened one door and gestured for me to enter.

The Cathedral seemed even more massive on the inside than it had on the outside, with the arches all pointing toward the high-vaulted ceilings, yet with wide, open space between the unadorned walls and windows. The floor and the pews were all made from the same unfinished wood, and there was a gleaming metal pipe organ behind the low altar.

“You see, there not even a symbol of order to distract us,” Mr. Sutton said. “We may speak here, undisturbed, until everyone is forced to return for evening prayer. How can I help you, Miss…”

I pulled my cowl back. “My name is Lady Grace Frey, and if you  don’t wish to involve yourself in my troubles, I will understand.”

Mr. Sutton drew a sharp breath. I looked into his face, and saw that he was blinking his grass-green eyes in surprise, and his freckled cheeks were growing red. I was tempted to take his reaction as an answer to the plea I had yet to make. Desperation, however, forced me to stay and attempt to persuade him.

After a few moments, he sighed, and the red splotches faded from his cheeks.

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I’d guessed that you would seek help from the order, at some point. Please forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive- your reaction was natural. You didn’t flee at the sight of me, or call me the ‘devil’s whore,’ which is more than I expected.”

Mr. Sutton shook his head. “I am sorry you have been treated so. I study human behavior, so I’m well acquainted with how quickly people can turn against the innocent- especially when superstition is involved. I hope that one day I will learn how to correct such behavior.”

“I am lucky- I have friends at the abbey who can protect me. However, I cannot leave their protection, so I was hoping that you would agree to help me navigate the outside world.”

I reached into my pocket and drew out the letters I’d written.

“Abbess Joy told me that you have friends in the legal profession. Do you know anyone at all who would be willing to represent my husband at his trial? I am willing to offer double their usual compensation.”

“I know one gentleman who will be willing. His name is Amity St. Roch, and he is one of us.” Mr. Sutton lowered his voice significantly. “He helps me to study human nature, and is as eager as I to correct superstition.”

I let out a deep sigh, as though I’d been holding my breath without realizing it.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve written this letter for him, which includes everything about my husband’s case that may be significant. From what I understand, the inquisition’s primary piece of evidence is a forged blood oath.”

Mr. Sutton nodded, taking the letter. “I believe that I speak for my friend when I say that it won’t be necessary to pay more that his usual rate.”

“But he’s involving himself in such a dangerous case- I really must insist.”

Mr. Sutton smiled wryly. “I will tell him what you say, and see how he replies. Keep in mind that he is an attorney, however, and he has yet to lose a case.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I hate to impose further, but there is another favor I would ask. My husband’s estate is being neglected while my husband is imprisoned. I need to find someone who can forward the servant’s wages to their families and take care of my husband’s beneficiaries. If you will give me a name-”

“My name is Merit Sutton, and I would be happy to undertake your charge.”

My vision blurred then- Mr. Sutton became a red smudge against a brown and white background. I removed my false glasses and wiped away my tears.

“Please forgive me,” I said. “I was not expecting such ready kindness from a stranger.”

“Don’t apologize, Lady Frey. To tell you the truth, we are not exactly strangers. I was present the night you made your ill-fated petition to the oculist guild. I see now what a fool Sir Silas was for calling your courage into question.”

I took a shaky breath to compose myself. “I confess I don’t feel particularly brave at present.”

“People rarely sense the courage that is sustaining them,” he said. “And I must confess that I am helping for selfish reasons. Remember that I study people, and you interest me.”

I opened one of my letters- a letter of authorization to my Verdant City account- and filled in Mr. Sutton’s name. Then I handed him the list of beneficiaries and what was owed to them that Mr. Poe had sent me.

“I doubt I will ever be able to fully repay your kindness to me.”

“I don’t require repayment. Just remember what kindness from a stranger can mean.”

The doors to the Cathedral swung open with a loud clang, and footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous room. Mr. Sutton hastily tucked my letters into his robes, and I put up my cowl.

“Good afternoon, pilgrims,” a man’s voice called.

I peeked under my cowl to see a group of white-robed pilgrims approaching. The leader lowered his own cowl and bowed in greeting. Mr. Sutton rose and bowed, as well.

“Good Afternoon,” Mr. Sutton said. “It’s rare to see such devotion among the pilgrims. Most don’t arrive for prayer before the bells ring.”

“We’ve come to make a special petition to the Gods,” the man said. “You are welcome to join our prayers, if you wish.”

“I will, thank you,” he said.

The man nodded. “And you, miss-”

“I need to return to the abbey,” I said. “Excuse me.”

I thanked Mr. Sutton and walked around the pilgrims. At the door, I turned back to see the pilgrims kneel at the pews. They made a gesture I did not recognize in place of the sign of order, and bowed their heads.

“Order, Reverence, and Chastity,” the man said in a voice as confident as a priest’s. “We come to you for wisdom

Mr. Sutton raised his head slightly and winked at me. I bowed low to him, and then turned to leave the cathedral.

Part XLIX

The Coven, Part XLVII

Author’s note: You may have noticed that I’ve changed the roman numerals on parts 40 and up from the cumbersome XXXX to the proper VL. XXXX was originally chosen for stylistic purposes. However, since it looks like the series will be continuing longer than I’d anticipated, I’ve decided that the proper notation will be more efficient. The chapter order will remain unchanged.

I survived my first week in exile by relying on friends.

Each morning, my chest, head, and limbs were all leaden, keeping me pressed into my rough mattress heavy with despair. The little flame that had kindled within me at St. Blanc was gone.

You don’t need your energy, my aching head echoed my weakness. You can do nothing here.

Without Mercy to drag me from my bed, I might have remained all day. Every morning without fail, she would slam open my door, pull away my blanket and, when I would protest, toss a cup of cold water over me with a curt order to hurry.

Hurry I did, under such treatment. Before long the two of us were in the courtyard, working through forms and sparring without even the pretense of hiding our activities. The sisters stopped to watch us on their way to morning prayer, and as the week passed some began to arrive before the sunlight touched the frosted grass. Mercy would shout at me to ignore the crowd and stay focused, but I couldn’t help but cast the occasional glance at Abbess Joy, who watched me with an enigmatic smile. On third day I puzzled over Abbess Joy’s expression for a second too long, resulting in a particularly brutal hit.

“You’re growing more careless,” Mercy said, circling me like a prowling lioness.

“I’m tired,” I said, dragging myself to my feet. “I haven’t been sleeping well, and-”

“I don’t care, and neither do your enemies,” Mercy said. Before I had a chance to fall back into my stance, she struck again. “Self-pity is weakness.”

By week’s end I was covered in bruises. Some were new, and lingered just under the skin, but some were dark and angry. Abbess Joy dressed my bruises with a worried look, but I was learning to disregard the pain. Each new burden on my physical body lessened the burden on my heart.

Celeste awoke with the church bells, and would come running through the dunes to watch the end of my lesson. At first she watched with disbelieving eyes, but before long she was telling every sister nearby how I had used my skills to fight bandits. I fought better when Celeste arrived; the lead weights in my limbs seemed to fall away when she was near. I could take advantage of the easier movement in my loose-fitting robes,without stays to bind me or crinolines to trip me.

When the sisters departed to attend prayer, which lasted all morning, Celeste and I went to the calefactory. There, we took what lessons we pleased from the treasure trove of books on the massive calefactory shelves.

Celeste was eager to share the lessons she’d learned in my absence, and to learn more. She had a hundred questions about the work in her arithmetic primer, which her governess had been unable to answer. The work was interesting enough to distract Celeste from her questions about life at St. Blanc, which I found I could not answer without some pain.

When prayer was over, Sister Jubilee would come to take Celeste to the cathedral for music lessons. The promise of playing the great cathedral organ was as impossible for me to argue against as a pony ride had once been, so I could not object to the arrangement.

I was not idle while Celeste was gone. Father Pius had told me that everyone at St. Blanc was expected to work for their bread, and I did not get any special treatment in this regard. Sister Love took me in as her assistant. She seemed to understand that I would not fare well at the workhouse, where any pilgrim could see me, but there was plenty of work to be done near the abbey.

Sister Love and I worked in the greenhouses near the kitchen garden, where vegetables, herbs, and yellow Sol Flowers grew. After pruning and watering, I would take the harvested vegetables and herbs to the kitchen while Sister Love carried Sol Flowers to the Pilgrim’s quarters to sell.

When Sister Love returned to the Abbey, we walked together through a narrow dune-path to the bay, where there was a series of nets that trapped comet fish and stone crabs. The nets had to be emptied daily and kept in good repair. Though I fumbled through my task, and almost fell into the water twice, Sister Love taught me with a ready laugh and infinite patience.

The days were growing colder, but I found that physical exertion kept me warmer than my best pelisse. At the end of the day, when I sat down to a dinner of fish and potatoes that I had helped to harvest, I ate with a hearty appetite.

This healthy feeling is unnatural, I thought to myself the evening before week’s end. As I’d forced my way through the week, something had fed the little flame that I thought had died within me- my will to fight. I was beginning to awaken from the dullness of misery into the heat of anger. I wondered why I was not more like Miss Taris who, despite having gained everything she’d wanted, remained as dull and listless as when we’d arrived.

Miss Taris had been my companion all week, acting as the silent avatar of my troubles. Every morning she rose early to watch Mercy and me spar, but while the sisters had made a sport of watching, cheering Mercy and I as we went, Miss Taris watched with a stony expression. Afterward, she answered the cathedral bells’ call to prayer, but as soon as prayers were complete she appeared by my side once more, looking even more pale and drawn than I’d remembered. Sister Love and I would press her to return to the dormitory to rest, but she refused. Instead, she followed us while we worked, though she was unable to assist.

At dinner, Miss Taris picked mournfully at her food until she was called away again for prayer and confession.

Meals at the abbey were quiet. Celeste had been happy to chatter through meals at first, but the Sisters ate silently, and she eventually caught on that dinners at the abbey were meant to be solemn occasions. The evening before week’s end, I noticed that Celeste had slipped a book into her robes and was reading it under the table as she ate. I pretended not to notice, and ate in silence until the refectory doors creaked open and Sister Jubilee entered.

Sister Jubilee never took her meals with the rest of the Sisters, and would often run last-minute errands that Abbess Joy had forgotten during the day. On this evening, she came to me with two letters.

“The post brought these for you, this afternoon,” Sister Jubilee said.

“Thank you.” I took the letters from Sister Jubilee, my stomach tight in anticipation. I sighed in disappointment, however, when I viewed the address on the front of each- neither were from Brother Lux, and likely did not contain news of Hope. I tucked the letters carefully into my pocket and turned back to my meal.

“Aren’t you going to read your letters, Lady Grace?” Celeste asked.

Sister Jubilee spoke before I could answer. “Ladies don’t read at the table, Celeste,”

Celeste blushed and tucked her book back into her robes. “But what if it’s from Uncle Hope?”

“I’m sorry, Celeste, but these are only business letters.”

“Oh- how dull!” she wrinkled her nose, and turned back to her meal.

“I’m afraid so,” I told Celeste, “but it’s best to get dull tasks done at once. Have you finished eating?”

“Yes, Lady Grace.”

“Come along, then. You can finish Sir Simpleton’s Quest in your room while I answer my letters.”

Celeste nodded and jumped down from the bench. She waved goodnight to the Sisters, and then followed Sister Jubilee and me from the refectory.

Outside, cold gusts of salt-sharp air swept up the walkway and through the cloisters. When we’d gone halfway to the dormitories, thunder reverberated through the heavens with a sharp crack, and then raindrops pelted the ground.

Celeste shrieked and covered her head with her hands, darting toward the dormitory doors.

“Mind that you don’t slip,” I called to Celeste.

“Yes, and run between the raindrops, so you stay dry,” Sister Jubilee added.

Celeste turned to glare at Sister Jubilee before she ran into the dormitory.

Sister Jubilee laughed. “Celeste is a good girl, but you do spoil her. I know you saw her reading under the table.”

“I can be fairly indulgent,” I admitted. “My own father was so harsh and demanding that I fear that I will make the same mistakes. I want Celeste to trust me when I tell her right from wrong, and to come to me when she is troubled.”

“You’ve already earned Celeste’s trust.”

When we reached the dormitory, I looked in on Celeste. She was already wearing a dry chemise and was happily settled with her book, so I retired to my own cell to read my letters. Sister Jubilee left to finish her errands.

 

#

 

Thunder echoed more and more fiercely as the night wore on, and inside my cell, my anger roared to life with even more ferocity. The letters had fueled my range, and I lost no time writing a fiercely worded letter of my own, which I subsequently tore and put aside. I produced a clean sheet and began a second, more sober note.

I was so wrapped up in my work that I almost missed a timid knock, barely audible over the storm. I blotted my letter and said, “come in.”

The door opened, revealing Sister Jubilee’s perpetually veiled face. She hesitated at the threshold.

“We can speak in the morning, if this is an inopportune time.”

“Stay. I need someone to hear my frustrations. Do you feel up to the task?”

She closed the door behind her. “Very well, as long as you trust me enough to speak on personal matters-”

“There is nothing personal in these letters, I assure you,” I said. “Everything here is public information, or it ought to be public.”

“Oh?” Sister Jubilee sat on my cot and placed her hands on her knees.

“On my first day here, I sent a letter to Mr. Poe, who is my husband’s steward. I wished particularly to inquire about the staff and the tenants’ wellbeing. Unfortunately, my letter was intercepted. Brother Gaius- a name I promise to remember- sent me a reply,” I picked up the first letter and thrust it toward Sister Jubilee, “telling me that the inquisition is in charge of Rowan Heights, including the staff and tenants, and that my husband’s assets have all been frozen. He told me I had no right to interfere, and ordered me not to write again.”

Sister Jubilee took the letter from me. “He uses very… strong language.”

“He went out of his way to insult me in every line,” I said. “Fortunately, his attempt to silence certain matters has failed. Mr. Poe wrote to me on his own, though how he got a letter out of the estate I’ll never know.”

I took the second letter from my desk as a flash of lightning struck outside. The light seemed to wash the ink away as it bathed the paper in white. In the next second, however, shadows fell and the black words were visible once more.

“Mr Poe’s letter is a plea,” I continued. “The inquisition has no interest in running the estate, and my husband’s tenants have no one to resolve their grievances. What’s worse- many of hill country’s poor relied on my husband for charity, and now they go without.”

“Has Mr. Poe tried to contact Brother Lux?”

“Mr. Poe states that Brother Lux knows everything that is happening at Rowan Heights, but has failed to act.”

“I cannot believe that Brother Lux would allow his family’s estate to remain neglected, whatever his feelings may be toward his brother,” Sister Jubilee said.

“The tenants’ neglect is just the beginning. The staff are being held under suspicion. They have not been arrested, but they are being kept under guard in the downstairs quarters. They are not allowed to contact their families, and though they have been given no wages, they are forced to serve the inquisitors.”

“‘Under suspicion,’ indeed,” Sister Jubilee said with an angry huff. “I call that slavery.”

“As do I.”

“What will you do?”

“I am writing this letter,” I gestured toward my desk, “to Mr. Sutton, the guild member Abbess Joy recommended. I hope that, in addition to a solicitor, he can find a man who is at liberty to administer food and supplies to my husband’s beneficiaries. I intend to forward the staff’s wages to their families, who are no doubt in need.”

“How will you do all this if Lord Frey’s assets are frozen?”

I smiled a little to myself. “Lord Frey kept a promise to me. When I was going through his financial records, I discovered that he’d placed my dowry in a separate account in the Verdant City bank. The account is in my name.”

Sister Jubilee handed the letter back to me. “That was very kind of him. Will it be enough?”

“My father was eager to be rid of me. My dowry is, as my husband once said, enough to grant me an affluent independence. “

“I wish you luck. Even with such wealth, you are up against the forces of ignorance and barbarous superstition.”

“I’m well aware of this; I don’t need your warnings not to get my hopes up.”

Lightning flashed again, and for a moment I thought I saw the outline of a face visible through Sister Jubilee’s gauzy veil. However, the moment was fleeting, and I was left looking at a blank sheet.

“Thank you for listening so patiently to my troubles,” I continued. “You’ve shown me friendship in a trying time.”

“Friendship? That’s a strange thought. Do you wish to be my friend?”

“I do, but… to be honest, it’s still difficult to trust you completely. If I could see your face-”

“Please- no.” Sister Jubilee raised a trembling hand to her veil and fingered the seams around the edge. “Don’t ask me again. If you look behind this veil, you will only see pain. I wear this to spare everyone something I should bear alone.”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

“Don’t be. You’ve been through a great deal, and will naturally suspect deception in those around you. Even so, whatever dark secrets you bear, you aren’t entitled to mine.”

“You’re right- I have no claim to your secrets. But if we do become friends, and you learn to trust me, then I hope you will have no scruples against troubling me. You shouldn’t have to bear your pain alone, and I am stronger than I look.

Sister Jubilee gave a dark chuckle, and let her hand fall away from the veil’s edge. “I know you are. You have enough of your own troubles, though. Besides, I’m not really alone.

“I came here tonight to apologize, by the way. I questioned you too harshly when you arrived. I realize that the last thing you needed to hear were accusations of witchcraft.”

“I forgive you. Will you forgive my mistrust?”

I held out my hand, and Sister Jubilee shook it. Her hand was thin and cold, but it no longer trembled.

“I forgive you. Good night, Lady Frey.”

Sister Jubilee stood and opened the door. Lightning flashed, and when the dazzling light had gone, she’d gone with it.

Part XLVIII

The Coven, Part XLVI

The wind whipped sea-grasses around my ankles as we made our way up the moonless road. The clouds had gathered again and blotted out the stars, and I couldn’t see the path ahead. Even so, Sister Jubilee was able to lead me, sure-footed, up the western slope of the cliffs. She pulled me along so swiftly that I didn’t have time to stumble. As we neared the crest, I looked up and saw a pale, white dome looming in the darkness above.

“To prove my sincerity, you shall have a key to the watchtower,” Sister Jubilee said.

I stopped walking and dropped Sister Jubilee’s hand, staring up at the building. It stood about three stories tall and was painted all in white except for a black mark on the side. As I gazed at the mark, my eyes slowly adjusted and an image coalesced until I could see a black eye staring back at me.

“Sister Jubilee, please- what is this?”

Shhh… wait until we are inside,” Sister Jubilee whispered. She reached into her robes and pulled out a key that, despite the lack of light, glinted silver as it swung on the end of a long chain. She held the end of the chain out to me.

“Open the door,” she said.

I reached out to take the key, and then snatched my hand back.

“You were correct about the advantage of the unexpected. I simply can’t keep up with you. To make matters worse, I cannot even read your expression for clues about your intentions.”

“Trust me- the veil is your asset, not mine. You wouldn’t want to be dazzled by my beauty.”

“I know I shall regret this, but if I don’t do it my curiosity will drive me mad.” I took the key from Sister Jubilee’s hand.

Sister Jubilee only laughed.

On the dark wood door there was a glint of silver- a lock that shone like the key. I turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door, and was almost blinded by the brilliant white light on the other side.

I stepped inside, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, each feature of the room was unveiled. I was standing in a bare entryway, and beyond it there was a circular room with a spiral staircase in the center. The white light shone from a series of glass baubles that circled the ceiling.

I stepped backward. My mind flashed back to the tunnel under bluebell hill, and the baubles that had like lit the way.

“Is something wrong?” Sister Jubilee asked. She closed the door behind us, trapping me inside.

“The lights,” I said.

“Don’t let them scare you. I know that they seem very bright, but they are lit by natural-”

“They are unnatural. Whom do you serve?”

“I’m a free woman who is allied with the oculist guild. I’m not allied with any coven, and, despite how I dress, I do not serve the church.”

I spun to look at her. “What evidence can you offer to assure me of this?”

“Very good,” Sister Jubilee said. “You’re much more clearheaded than you were at the oculist guild meeting. You made a poor impression that night, which was one reason I voted against you.”

“You were present?”

“I certainly was. I was wearing pilgrim robes, and my cowl covered my face, so you wouldn’t recognize me even if I lifted my veil. Still, I remember what happened. Sir Silas was an ass as usual- he voted against me, too- but I think he had a point. There’s no reason women shouldn’t join, but you’re too green. I love Mr. Filius, but he rushed you into initiation before you were ready.”

“You know Mr. Filius?”

Sister Jubilee nodded. “He’s one of my oldest and dearest friends.”

“Who spoke for me, aside from Mr. Filius?” I quizzed.

“Abbess Joy, of course, and if I recall correctly, Trusty did, too.”

I heaved a great sigh and walked further into the library. “That’s enough. I’m sorry to question you, but I’m not in a position to trust easily.”

“You should always question things, no matter your situation,” Sister Jubilee said. “I will probably question you, soon, and far more harshly. I will wait for Abbess Joy to arrive before I do.”

I took a turn about the room, staring up at the baubles. “If the lights are natural, then how to they work? Do they burn oil?”

“They are light-emitting diodes powered by electricity- by lightning,” she stated.

I looked at her, and was again frustrated by the presence of her veil. I could not tell if her expression was serious, or if she grinned.

“Perhaps we are using different definitions of the word ‘natural,’” I said.

Sister Jubilee laughed again. “I’m starting to like you very much, against my will. Lightning is a natural phenomenon- not something flung to the earth by the Gods as the litany states. I’ve seen machines that can generate lightning. We use strands of wire to transfer electricity- lightning- from one place to another, even though these,” she pointed upward, “don’t use wires. Abbess Joy won’t tell me how these lights work, but I know they’re electric.”

“How do you know all this?”

“If you’re initiated into the oculist guild, you’ll learn about the forbidden technologies. We are doing experiments to fill the gaps in our knowledge, but the truth is that we stole most of our knowledge from a prior age- the golden age before the Ancient War.” Sister Jubilee sighed. “There are a lot of gaps, I’m afraid. We only have a tiny summary of what mankind used to know. The church and the angels destroyed most of mankind’s knowledge so we would be dependent on the Gods.”

I could not question Sister Jubilee further. I was interrupted by the loud creaking of the tower door. My heart skipped a beat, but then steadied again when I saw Abbess Joy emerge from the entryway.

“Good evening,” she said serenely, as though we’d met in the refectory instead of a library full of forbidden technology. “I do hope you haven’t been quizzing Lady Frey, Sister Jubilee.”

“Quite the opposite,” Sister Jubilee said. “She’s been demanding all of the order secrets from me, and I’m afraid I’ve spilled most of them.”

Abbess Joy turned to me with an affectionate grin. “Some things never change. You were

always so curious as a child that we could not keep a closed cupboard or basket around you. How often I had to answer your questions, only to have them repeated!”

“How old was I when I came to del Sol?” I asked, and then laughed at the amused look on Abbess Joy’s face. “I still ask questions, I’m afraid, but my memories from that time are very faint.”

Abbes Joy nodded. “Of course- I understand. You were born in the abbey. Your mother’s health went into a sharp decline soon after she married, and your father allowed her to come here so I could nurse her back to health. Unfortunately, none of my healing arts-”

Abbess Joy stopped speaking and looked down her hands.There was a distant look in her eye, as though she were looking into the past.

“My healing arts could not help her. She slipped away from me shortly after she gave birth. But you- you were alive and healthy and beautiful. Before she died, your mother made me promise to care for you, so I kept you at the abbey until the High Priest demanded that you return to your father. You were only four years old.

“I did not trust your father to care for you, especially when you were so young. I tried to persuade your father that you would be in good hands at the abbey, and that you would be protected and well-educated, but he would not allow it. I persuade the High Priest, but he would not be swayed. All the time, I invented illnesses you did not have, and excuses why you could not travel. Soon, my lies gave way to outright rebellion.

“I fought the High Priest- it was my right to protect my sanctuary- but the Gods intervened, and you were taken from me when you were five years old. That was just one of the sins I committed as part of my fall, and for which I now pay penance.”

Abbess Joy looked back up, a wry smile tugging the corner of her mouth. “You can see how well I’m performing my penance, but this-” she gestured around at the well-lit library, “is still within my rights as the sanctuary’s guardian. I am allowed to keep secrets safe, including the forbidden technologies. In the wider world, however, I’ve lost all of my rights and my powers.”

“So that is why the oculists make pilgrimages here,” I said.

“It’s easy for the guild to hide among those looking for healing or spiritual guidance,” Abbes Joy said. “And the guild does find guidance, of a sort.”

“Did I ever return?”

“No. The Gods allowed me to go to your home a year later so I could… examine you,” Abbess Joy said. “I was able to use magic then, with the Gods’ blessings. Afterward, I was sent back to my sanctuary, and I was forbidden from interfering with you again.”

“I get the feeling that you did not obey,” I said.

Abbess Joy smiled- a sad smile that did not reach her wistful eyes.

“I am bound to obey. The Gods have laid a geas on me, and a geas cannot be directly broken. However…”

“You can circumvent a geas by acting indirectly,” Sister Jubilee added.

Abbess Joy looked sharply up at Sister Jubilee, as though she’d forgotten her presence.

Sister Jubilee shrunk back. “This is a rather personal conversation,” she demurred. “I will take my leave.”

“You have not yet questioned me,” I reminded Sister Jubilee. “It’s not fair that I should ask all the questions.”

Sister Jubilee nodded. “I’m afraid you won’t like what I have to ask.”

“She’s only just arrived,” Abbess Joy protested. “She’s been through so much.”

“I must question her as soon as I can because of what’s happened,” Sister Jubilee said firmly.

Abbess Joy nodded. “Very well. Lady Frey, I have some letters from your mother that I would like to give you. I will go through my things and find them. In the meantime, Sister Jubilee will question you on the guild’s behalf.”

 

#

 

The three of us climbed the spiral staircase past a room filled with strange instruments, some of which remained still, and some of which whirred and spun with no hand to move them. There was also a table covered with glass tubes and cups.

We could did not stop so I could examine the instruments, however. Abbess Joy opened a trapdoor on the ceiling and pulled down a ladder that led to the top story. We climbed up, and I found myself in a circular room with a segmented, domed roof. In the center of the room, on a platform attached to a series of levers, was a massive telescope.

I rushed to get a closer look, but I refrained from touching the metallic surface, however smooth and cool it looked. I walked all around the instrument, estimating the size of the aperture and the focal length, and I examined the eyepiece, which jutted from the side of the tube at one end.

“Does the instrument use mirrors to reflect light into the eyepiece?” I asked. “Mine used glass to refract the light- I was eventually able to persuade Mr. Filius to tell me how it worked. But this instrument seems-”

“No!” Sister Jubilee objected. “I’m sorry, but no more distractions. You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you, Abbess?”

Abbess Joy did not reply, but she went to the side of the dome and turned a crank. The segmented ceiling opened up, revealing the infinite black sky beyond. The clouds had thinned just enough to reveal the waning moon, leaving wispy shadows in their wake.

“I feel safe here,” Abbess Joy said in a reverent whisper. “When I stand under heaven and look up at that lovely orb, I feel as though there were no sin to mar my past, and no fear to cloud the future.”

There is only the infinity of now,” I recited. “Lord Aston said that- though I feel the same.”

Abbess Joy turned back to me. Her skin was pale pink in the moonlight, as though she blushed. “I thought you would.”

Sister Jubilee turned her veiled face toward the red moon.

“I always feel a little afraid when I look at the night sky. I feel insignificant. Even so, I always come back to view the heavens again. I must face my own impotence, if I can ever hope to master myself.”

We stood together for a few moments, silent as though in prayer, and then Sister Jubilee turned back to me.

“I have to ask you before I tell you anything more; are you a witch? Have you formed any sort of contract with a coven?”

“I am not a witch.” I said, “and I am not bound by any contract.”

“What evidence can you offer to assure me of this?” She flung my words back at me.

I hesitated. There was one way I could prove myself incapable of witchcraft, but…

“Will you show me your face, first?” I asked.

“No.”

Abbess Joy sighed. “I won’t tell you how, Sister- not until Lady Frey gives me leave- but I can assure you that it’s impossible for Lady Frey to be a witch. I do have evidence for this- not just faith.”

“That will have to do, I suppose,” Sister Jubilee said. “Don’t think I missed your wording, Lady Frey, that you are not bound by any contract.”

I kept my expression neutral and said nothing.

“You must have your reasons for trying to protect those who betrayed your husband, but-”

“Protect them? No- why would you say such a thing? I wish that I could fight everyone who is persecuting my husband, but I have no evidence I can use against them, and no power to hurt or compel them. I only have a mad story that no one would listen to, especially when told by a desperate woman.”

“I cannot take you at your word, given Lord Frey’s situation. If you’re consorting with witches you endanger the guild and, more importantly, you endanger Celeste,” Sister Jubilee said in a voice so fierce that I took an involuntary step back. I rallied, however, and raised my own voice.

“For someone so concerned with evidence,” I said, “you are very eager to condemn my husband before he’s had his trial.”

Sister Jubilee stepped back as well, putting a hand on her veil. “I don’t condemn him- I’m not in a position to condemn anyone. But Lady Frey, I’ve seen the devastation that witchcraft can bring. It’s a force that’s wielded blindly by the cowardly and the desperate, who are nearly always taken advantage of by those they contract with. My own family was torn apart by a coven.”

“I understand.” I looked up at the moon again. The clouds had shifted just enough to create a little hole for it to shine through, bright and clear.

“Sister Jubilee, I’m afraid I may bring the danger you fear. I’m not a witch, but I am a target. Father Pius is powerful, he hates me, and I can’t promise I won’t provoke him. I’ve hatched plan after plan to free my husband, and it’s only a matter of time before I go mad enough to try one.”

“All questions of his guilt aside- you really love Lord Frey, don’t you?”

“I love him as he is, sins and virtues alike.”

“I cannot interfere directly,” Abbess Joy said. “But is there any way I can assist you?”

I closed my eyes and thought for a moment. “I cannot leave the abbey, and that presents me with a great challenge. I need to hire an attorney for my husband, someone absolutely trustworthy, and someone who can examine contracts with a skilled eye. My husband’s case may hang upon a forged blood oath.”

“There is a pilgrim staying with us now who is in the guild,” Abbess Joy said, “and he has some contacts among the legal profession in the city. He can find someone for us, I’m sure.”

I nodded. “It will be difficult to coordinate our efforts, but this will have to do. I’m certain that Father Pius expects me to hire an attorney. I can’t neglect to help my husband’s case, but I know this won’t be enough.”

“It never is, in a case involving witchcraft,” Sister Jubilee said.

A shadow fell over us, and when I looked back at the red moon, I saw it was fully hidden behind a veil of clouds.

Part XLVII

The Coven, Part XLV

I went to sleep, and when I opened my eyes again, I was standing on a hill.

There were drifts of snow piled all around me, and when I looked down the hill toward the rolling valley below, everything was blanketed in white. Snow was still falling, but when I looked up, the sky was a clear, endless blue.

I immediately recognized the hills and the valley underneath the snow. I turned around slowly, and behind me I saw bluebell hill cottage, crowned with snow and decked with glittering icicles all around the low eaves.

The cottage door creaked open, and Hope stepped through. He smiled and waved, and then walked toward me as though nothing had ever been wrong.

I couldn’t move- I daren’t even breathe, lest I break the spell. When I’d left Hope behind in the dungeon, he’d been bruised, beaten, and shorn. Now, however, his unblemished skin glowed with health and his eyes glowed with happiness. Snowflakes were tangled up in his long, wavy hair.

“Grace,” he said. “Why do you weep? We are home now- happy and safe together. Nothing can ever separate us again.”

“Is this real?” I asked.

“Come with me, Grace,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let me show you what it means to have a soul. Do you trust me?”

“I do,” I said without hesitation, and I reached out.

In a flash, I was being held in Hope’s arms as we soared effortlessly together through the snow-filled air. Far below, the river was a frosted ribbon that looped through the valley, and the snow-covered hills were empty of flowers and sheep. Everything seemed strangely silent. Even though we were flying, I could hear no wind whistling in my ears. I couldn’t feel the bite of winter in the air, or even the snowflakes that should have blown into my eyes.

I was warm, comfortable, and safe in Hope’s arms.

After a few moments, the sound of church bells echoed over the hills, growing louder by the moment. The bells played a melodic and whimsical tune- it should have been soothing, but instead the sound shook me to my core.

Something wasn’t right. When I looked down, I could see the snow begin to melt, and as the chimes grew louder, the hills themselves seemed to melt away. I felt Hope release me, and when I looked up again I saw that Hope was drifting away from me into the endless blue sky.

I tried to reach out to him, but my arm would not reach. I was falling further and further toward the valley until I could not see him any more.

Then I opened my eyes and the sky, the hills, and the snow were gone.

I was in a small stone cell at the Abbey del Sol, where I’d been sent after Hope was arrested for witchcraft. The cathedral bells from my dream continued; they were the bells of the Cathedral del Sol, calling the pilgrims and the Sisters to prayer.

I looked up at the small portal that was carved into the stone wall over my bed. Outside, the sky was soft pink and purple, and the sun hovered over the strip of blue sea in the west- so the bells I’d heard must be the evening bells. I had slept all day after taking my ill-advised journey with Brother Lux.

I was fully awake, but I could not stir myself. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the beautiful dream I’d had- tried to imagine Hope and myself flying through the air- but I could not. Loss settled like a stone on my chest, and I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed, let alone soar through the sky.

“I want to see if Lady Grace will come, too,” a high voice called outside my door.

“She is sleeping,” another, deeper voice replied.

The door to my cell creaked open, and Celeste crept up to my bed.

“Lady Grace! Lady Grace!” Celeste sang in time to the chiming bells. “Time to wake up! Time to wake up!”

As though Celeste’s simple, childlike song had been a powerful spell, the heavy stone on my chest lightened and I had the strength to push myself up. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

“Good morning, Celeste.”

Celeste was standing close to me, wearing a small, white pilgrim’s robe. Her wavy, brown hair was loose around her shoulders, making her look like a minature version of Hope. A veiled sister, whom I guessed to be Sister Jubilee, stood in the doorway behind her.

“It’s not morning,” Celeste protested.

“Celeste, don’t bother Lady Frey,” Sister Jubilee sighed.

“But she’s been asleep all day,” Celeste said, and turned back to me. “Lady Grace, you’re supposed to be the sensible one.”

“You’re quite right,” I said, getting out of bed. “Does this mean that you’re ready to recite your lessons?”

“Not now- it’s time for prayer, and you aren’t even dressed yet.” Celeste took my hand and dragged me to the end of the bed, where a white robe lay folded on top of my trunk.

“Look- Abbess Joy gave you one, too. Hurry and dress, so you can hear Abbess Joy sing. Just wait- she’s wonderful.”

“I will hurry, but I have already heard Abbess Joy sing.”

Celeste frowned. “You have? When?”

I knelt by Celeste and whispered. “She’s sung to me since I was little. You see, Abbess Joy is my guardian angel.”

 

#

 

Celeste’s efforts turned out to be for naught; I had awakened and dressed too late to go to evening prayer. I took Celeste to the refectory where we dined together, and afterward I took her to her room, where she told me everything she had learned under Miss Marin. As she recited her times tables her voice drew low and heavy, her eyelids fluttered, and she finally sighed;

“Nine times six is 54, nine times seven is …63, nine times… nine…”

Sister Jubilee, ever present, pulled up Celeste’s blanket. I extinguished the light.

After we shut the door, Sister Jubilee gestured for me to follow, and led then me to the center of the abbey’s starburst, where the calefactory lay.

“I must say,” Sister Jubilee said, “you have a peculiar way of putting a child to bed.”

“Do I? I used to recite the times tables to fall asleep when I was her age.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, of course,” Sister Jubilee continued. “I generally mean ‘peculiar’ to be a compliment.”

“I was not offended,” I said. “I don’t consider the term to be either a condemnation or a compliment. The best among us are outliers, as are the worst.”

“True, but there’s always some advantage to be had in defying expectations.”

We had come to the calefactory entrance, where Sister Jubilee paused to open the door and gestured for me to go inside.

The calefactory was a circular room that gave the impression of snugness despite its great size. Like the refectory, there was a huge stone fireplace at each side of the room, but in the calefactory, comfortable, threadbare chairs were crowded around each fireplace. A circular stone table stacked with odds and ends stood in the middle of the room. On the back wall, there was a set of bookshelves that reached so high a rolling ladder was attached to reach the upper shelves.

“The other sisters make confessions to Abbess Joy after prayer. They will be finished, soon.”

“Am I keeping you from confession?” I asked. “If so, there’s no need to-”

Sister Jubilee interrupted me with a wave of her hand. “I never confess. I’ve already achieved perfection, you see, so there’s no point.”

I could not think of a rejoinder to such a remark, so I held my tongue. Sister Jubilee seemed content with no reply. She busied herself by stoking the fire and placing the kettle on the hob.

“There’s still water- good. I don’t want to go to the pump, and you don’t know where it is. Fetch me some cups and the blue teapot from the table- oh- and the red tin, too.”

I fetched the things from the table, and then Sister Jubilee measured some tea from the tin into the teapot.

“You aren’t wearing a veil,” Sister Jubilee remarked as she worked. “I saw Abbess Joy leave one for you.”

“I am not a sister; I didn’t think it would be appropriate.”

“Don’t you worry that a pilgrim or a sister will recognize you?”

“I didn’t come to del Sol to hide from the world,” I said. “I came because Father Pius sent me into exile.”

Sister Jubilee shrugged. “Lord Frey’s arrest has been published- every priest, plebeian, and prince will know his sin and your connection. Abbess Joy can protect you from harm, but not from slander and hate.”

“I can withstand both,” I said, “but if my presence at the cathedral becomes disruptive, I will avoid it.”

Sister Jubilee laughed. “That’s a fine excuse to avoid church. I suspect that you are like me- already perfect.”

A sharp whistle cut through our conversation as the kettle boiled, and at the same time the Calefactory doors opened. Veiled sisters filed inside, one by one throwing back their veils and revealing the faces of Sister Blessing, Sister Love, Purity and Innocence, and four more sisters whom I did not recognize. Mercy followed a few moments later, already bare-faced.

“Have you been to confession, too?” Sister Jubilee asked Mercy, handing her a cup.

Mercy stared down at her teacup for a moment, as though checking it for poison, and then she took a tentative sip.

“If you must know,” Mercy said, “I’ve been scouting the perimeter of the abbey. There’s a clear view of the harbor from the cliffs, and I can see the road that leads into the lowlands, but the road into the hill country is well-hidden. I suggest that Abbess Joy find an opportune place to launch her fireballs from, should the need arise.”

I nearly choked on my own tea. “Fireballs?”

Mercy arched one elegant eyebrow. “You can’t have forgotten the fireballs that Abbess Joy cast at the bandits, last night. She scared me almost to death- I had nightmares about them.”

I thought back to the previous evening, when we had fled a group of bandits on our way to del Sol. Abbess Joy had met us on the road, raised her staff, and everyone had started as though terrified of something. The enemy horses had turned and fled. This, I thought, must have been when Mercy saw the fireballs.

Abbess Joy was a practitioner of holy magic, and my father had used her to test my magical resistance as a child. I was a half-blooded ancient, which meant I was both soulless and immune to the effects of magic. If Abbess Joy’s fireballs had been an illusion, it would stand to reason that I wouldn’t see them.

“Of course I remember,” I said quickly, “but I’m sure that Abbess Joy is familiar with all of the sanctuary’s weaknesses, and can defend them appropriately.”

“She can,” Sister Jubilee confirmed.

The doors opened again, and Abbess Joy entered, followed by Miss Taris.

Miss Taris was wearing the same white robes as the other sisters, but she was barefaced. Her long blonde hair was unbound, and she looked almost as pale and unwell as she had when she had gained her powers. She followed Abbess Joy over to our little cluster of chairs and sank down into a seat, closing her eyes as though in relief.

“Please, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said gently. “Have some tea.”

Miss Taris kept her eyes shut, and for a few moments I thought she must have fallen asleep, but then she heaved another deep sigh.

“It’s quiet here,” she said. “My headache is going away. I think I can manage some tea.”

“I’m sorry to see you are unwell, Miss Taris,” Sister Jubilee said, handing Miss Taris a cup. “Your journey must have been very trying.”

“I hope you didn’t catch a cold,” Mercy said. “I’m feeling perfectly well. How are you, Lady Frey?”

Miss Taris opened her eyes to glare at Mercy, who smiled back.

“Thank you for the tea, Sister Jubilee,” I said, ignoring Mercy’s remark. “I have a letter to write, so I will retire. Miss Mercy, is there anything you would like to include?”

“Just say-” Mercy looked around, and then leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Tell him that I miss him, and that I swear I’ll protect you and Celeste.”

I nodded, stood, and turned to go.

 

#

 

I spent well over an hour composing my letter to Hope. I didn’t know if this letter would be my last opportunity to send him a message, or even if he would receive it at all. I knew that I must be careful not to write anything incriminating, for no doubt the inquisition would read all of his correspondence. My biggest problem, however, was to convey how much I loved and missed him without causing him any pain on my account. I assured him that Celeste and I were safe, but I could not honestly assure him that we were happy.

After wasting too many sheets of paper, I finally settled upon a letter worthy to send. I folded it carefully, but did not bother to seal it. I tucked the letter into my sleeve and went to find Brother Lux.

I hoped I wouldn’t need to go far to find him, but I put up the cowl on my robe in case I had to venture as far as the pilgrim’s quarters. It was a measure that proved unnecessary, as Brother Lux was waiting for me under the cloisters, leaning against one of the white columns.

“I need to return to Rowan Heights tonight,” he said, “but I have a promise to fulfil. I already have Celeste’s letters- all I lack is yours.”

I reached into my sleeve and handed him the letter.

“Lady Frey, I am in your debt. I will do what I can to alleviate your pain-”

“Please don’t,” I said. “Don’t make such promises when it’s in your power to free him. He’s your own brother, and he is no more guilty than you.”

“Lady, it’s not in my power to free him, now. Everything is already in motion, and all I can do is ease his way. I will allow you to correspond with him, but be mindful that the inquisition will read all of his letters. Also…”

Brother Lux paused and gazed over my shoulder, as though distracted.

“What is it?”

“I thought I felt- no, it’s nothing. I wanted to warn you that Abbess Joy is in no position to help you. She can keep you safe as long as you remain at St. Blanc, but she has no authority in the church. Even the Gods will not answer her prayers. She must remain here in penance for her sins. What’s more, if you tell her anything incrementing, she will be obligated to inform the church elders.”

“She wouldn’t-”

“She would, my Lady. I must go now, but I will send a courier with a reply to your note. Until we meet again.”

Brother Lux bowed slightly, and then turned to go.

When he was gone, I heard Sister Jubilee behind me. “He’s only half-lying about Abbess Joy. She can keep your secrets safe, just as she can keep you safe, but she cannot do much more.”

I spun to regard Sister Jubilee, who was striding toward me from the other side of the cloisters.

“How much did you hear?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear anything incriminating, but I already know a great deal about your situation. Don’t worry- your secrets are safe with me. In secrets, there is trust.”

Sister Jubilee laughed at my shocked expression- a sound that seemed too warm and alive for a woman in a shroudlike veil. Then, before I could protest, she took my hand and led me away from the cloisters.

“You don’t trust me at all, do you? Come- I’ll give you one of my secrets.”

Part XLVI