The Coven- Part XXVIII

Hope led me into the adjacent dressing room, and behind the wardrobe where his trunks were stowed. He dragged the bottom trunk forward and undid the latches. When Hope opened the trunk, it appeared empty, but he removed the trunk’s satin lining, and then lifted a false bottom, revealing a hidden compartment.

He took out a large silver locket, embossed with an eagle, and held it out to me by its ornate chain.

“Have you ever seen Prudence’s likeness?”

“No- I have not.”

Hope nodded encouragingly, and I pressed the latch to open the locket. Inside was a miniature of a woman with blue eyes and a wild tumble of red hair crowned with bluebells. She did not sit in the proper posture of a young lady, but leaned forward, seeming almost to laugh.

“She’s beautiful,” I said.

“She was beautiful then,” Hope said, taking the locket back. “When this likeness was taken she was just a girl, and she was still happy. She loved me as I loved her, and that was enough.”

Hope closed the locket and placed it back into the trunk.

“A year after that likeness was drawn, our fathers went to the bishop and sought permission for Prudence and I to marry. The bishop denied our petition. At the same time, my brother came to me with his monsignor to offer me a place in the coven. Prudence and I wished to fight the corrupt forces that had damned our families, and were now keeping us apart, so we both agreed to join. We both believed that we had nothing to lose, but we were wrong. There is always a price for power.”

“The curses,” I said.

Hope put a finder on his chin and looked up in thought. “The curse is one price, but there is another. The costliest price of power is the obligation to wield it.”

Hope sat down heavily beside the trunk and placed his chin in his hands, as though is exhaustion. I knelt beside him, my skirts billowing around me like a cushion.

“Prudence found the price too dear?” I prompted him.

Hope nodded, his chin still in his hands. “When Prudence left me, she was no longer the girl in that picture. The curse stole her beauty, and the price- well, I believe that the burden of power stole her smile.”

           I wished I could have found words of comfort or wisdom, but I had none. I didn’t understand Hope at all when he spoke about power’s price, and I didn’t know how to ask.

“We didn’t quarrel before Prudence left,” Hope said. “She withdrew from the world after she gained her powers, even avoiding her fellows in the coven. I brought her to Rowan Heights and promised to marry her, no matter what.  I told her that she would always be beautiful in my eyes, and that I wished to protect her. She seemed content. We made love, and the next day she was gone.

“I don’t know why she left. Perhaps she wanted to hide her face from the world, or perhaps she didn’t believe she could escape her own powers while she remained by my side. I suppose I will never know.”

“I’m sorry-” I began.

“No- Grace, I’m telling you this so that you might understand. This occurred 11 years ago, and even though I still love her- I will always love her- our story has ended. I offered my love to her, but she chose to leave. Of course I wish that we’d been able to marry, and that we could have raised our child together, but I’ve come to terms with what is. Prudence is gone, and I have mourned her.”

Hope leaned forward and took my face in his hands. He kissed me slowly, lips touching lips- wet and soft and real. He broke the kiss and looked into my eyes.

“I’m ready to love again, Grace, if you will allow me.”

I looked down, unable to meet his earnest gaze.

“You once compared me to her. You said I was ugly and spiritless…”

Hope sighed. “Don’t remind me of what I said that day. It was the anniversary of her death. I was grieving and hopelessly drunk. Since that day, I’ve grown to understand who you are. The more I see of you, the more I like.”

Hope was sincere; I could not longer doubt his feelings. There was no artful flattery and no flirtation. He’d laid his heart at my feet. Even so, my habit of flinching away from his honeyed words would not stop.  

“Grace? Please look at me. How do you feel?”

I looked up into Hope’s face, again. His beauty was striking, and I was suddenly very aware that I was just an awkward girl in clownish makeup.

“I don’t know how I feel,” I said. “I must have time to think.”

“You don’t think about love, Grace. You either feel it, or you don’t.”

“But I must- I know nothing of love. I don’t understand how I feel at all.”

Hope didn’t say anything. He took me into his arms, resting his cheek on my head, and we sat together in silence until morning.

 

#

The next morning, I sat alone in prayer.

I didn’t know to whom I prayed. I was in the still-empty chapel, kneeling in front of the ornate, high-backed pew. My eyes were focused on the massive symbol of Order, which dominated the wall before the altar, but Order was not the god I needed. Temperance seemed more appropriate, but still was not right. Chastity was precisely the god I did not need.

I needed a human god- one who could see into my heart and see where it was malformed.

“Why can’t I let myself love him?” I prayed.

I closed my eyes and, as I could think of no god to petition, sought the answer myself.

When I’d first met Hope, I’d feared him. Later, I condemned him as a sinner and a witch. Now, morally, I was no better than he was. I was damned- I had entered into contract with a witch, promising to keep his secrets. Still, some part of myself- a part I wanted to label a hypocrite- could not respect him, even though I desired him.

Hope and I both wished to liberate our world, but I could not ignore the difference in our methods. Hope manipulated people’s minds against their will, he killed, and these were not things I could condone. I wondered if I could continue to go along with his intrigues and still gain the virtues that would make me worthy to join the Oculist Guild.

Courage, curiosity, and equality- were these virtues I saw in Hope? He was not an evil man. I knew that he committed his evil acts to protect those he loved, and to fight a corrupt power.

            I was wise enough to know that if I held out for perfection, I would live a lonely life. The problem was, my happiest moments had all been lonely ones. I realized, with chilling clarity, that I could live alone and be happy in my own way.

I was brought out of my reverie by a creaking door, followed by the sound of footsteps. I sighed, disappointed that my reverie had been interrupted.

“Please,” Miss Taris said in a small, plaintive voice from far behind my pew. “Have you no words of guidance? I depend on you for council.”

The footsteps stopped, and Brother Lux’s warm voice replied.

“Miss Taris, you have no reason for such despair. Sir Montag is a kind-hearted man who can provide you with ample financial support. With your father’s  title and Sir Montag’s wealth, you will be secure for the rest of your life.”

“But-” Miss Taris’s voice faltered, and then she seemed to rally. “Isn’t love more important than security?”

“If love provides you comfort, then yes. Are you distressed because you love another?”

“No- there is no one,” Miss Taris said.

“Then you have every reason for joy. Marry Sir Montag now, and love will come later. If you obey your father, the Gods will bless you.”

“I- I think I understand,” Miss Taris said.

“Good girl.  Now, dry your eyes, and smile for me.”

“Yes, Brother Lux. Thank you for your council.”

I sat, trapped behind the pew. My cheeks were burning from the embarrassment of having heard such a private conversation, and I dare not stand and expose myself. I held my breath as footsteps retreated, and the door creaked open and shut.

“Thank you for your council,” Miss Taris, still in the cathedral, said in a stronger voice. “But I will never marry Sir Montag.”

 

Link Rundown: Positive Change

Saving the world doesn’t always involve inspiring acts of bravery; the project needs funding, as well.

If you are interested in giving, and would like your dollars to do as much good as possible, here are some resources that may help.

GiveWell

Centre for Effective Altruism

Animal Charity Evaluators

Cool Earth

Also, here are some links for those who want to give a little extra to help some worthy institutions.

PBS

NPR

NEA

National Parks

Better is Enough

The world will probably never be perfect, but it can always be better.

 

There is a certain attitude pervasive in social discourse, which seems counter to the concept of optimizing the world. In social discourse, politics, and the media, any new proposal or solution must meet a standard no lower than perfection. There doesn’t seem to be an official name for this attitude; system justification doesn’t seem to encompass the issue.

Many are understandably reluctant to update what seems to be a perfectly good system, but the problem is that people easily become complacent with flawed but familiar systems. Any flaw in a new system is pointed out as evidence that the new system does not work, and that it was hubris to mess with the old. The problem is that, even if there are flaws with the new system, it may be more effective overall than the old.

It may not be worth it, in the long run, to implement a new system whose benefits are so small that the time and expense it costs to put it in place is not worth the gains. However, politicians, pundits, and the newspapers hardly seem interested in sitting down and running a cost-benefit analysis. The public, I’m sure, is even less interested in reading a cost-benefit analysis. Newspaper sales rise when two sides are pitted against each other, and policy disputes are great for ratings. Politicians gain office by making the other side look bad. Sales of old technology is protected when new technology is attacked.

Take, for example, automobile technology. No matter how safe a Tesla might be overall, problems with the new technology can linger in public discourse.

In such cases, it’s important to remember that better is ok. In fact, better is great. Any lives saved by implementing new systems still carry great moral weight. It’s still good to scrutinize new technology. It’s important to roll out new systems slowly and carefully, to rule out unforeseen consequences in a complex system. We must not, however, hold back significant improvement in the name of impossible standards of perfection.

As long as it’s possible, let’s try to do better.

Monday Link Rundown: Attention Citizen Scientists

If you are a layperson, there are still opportunities for you to contribute to scientific progress. Below are some links to interesting research projects where amateur scientists can contribute.

 

The 4*P Coma Morphology Campaign is asking for amateur and professional images of comet 45P/HMP and comet 41P/TGK.

 

4*P Coma Morphology Campaign

 

You can do comet hunting with the SOHO mission- instructions are found here.

 

Guide to SOHO Comet Hunting

 

Also for amateur astronomers, the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA). By timing and observing lunar and asteroid occultations, scientists hope to discover double stars and understand the lunar terrain better, among other benefits.

Citizen Science Alliance

IOTA

 

This project also caught my eye, as the last time I went down to a local park for some stargazing, I was assaulted with a cacophony of frogs.

 

FrogWatch USA
These are just a few projects, but there are many more available here.

 

 

The Coven, Part XXVII

The Grand Duchess’s chamber was so vast that, even filled with women of the court, it still felt airy and open. The Grand Duchess sat on the edge of her bed as though it were a stage, and allowed her servants to dress her while the rest of us stood in attendance like spectators in the audience below. Periodically she would call on one of her favorites, sending them to fetch things for her. Each lady she called upon breathlessly answered, as if her simple commands were an honor beyond anything.

I had stayed up all night reading, and was feeling too exhausted for the choreography of favors and positioning that was going on around me. It was far too complex for me to follow, as unschooled as I was. Hope had not returned to our rooms all night, and it took a great deal of mental effort to keep myself from thinking of the implications.

“…do you not agree, Lady Frey?” Lady Fairfax asked, holding a necklace against her dress.

“Oh yes, certainly,” I said automatically.

“Indeed.” Lady Fairfax handed the necklace to her maid, and then said, “Miss Taris, as you happen to be in the back of the room, can you fetch me that hat box? Yes- the one on top. There’s a good girl.”

My cheeks burned on Miss Taris’s behalf as she fumbled to reach the hatbox and then scurried past the court ladies toward Lady Fairfax. I knew that Lady Fairfax was trying to overcome Miss Taris’s shyness, but calling her to public attention only made things worse.  Miss Taris’s unofficial rank, being the heiress of a duke, afforded her some protection at court, but it did not stop the ladies from laughing at her behind their fans.

I turned and gazed at the other ladies, marking those who had laughed.

After the Grand Duchess was dressed, she invited Lady Renoir to join her for a tete a tete. The rest of the ladies curtsied to the Grand Duchess and turned to leave.

I turned toward the back of the room, seeking Miss Taris, but I felt someone link their arm with mine and lead me to the door.

Lady Innocence, who had taken my arm, walked with me as though in affection, leading me down a seldom-used hallway and into a small alcove. Then she turned to me, revealing teary, red-rimmed eyes.

“Nothing happened between them, Lady Frey. It was only flirtation, so please tell the Prince that you were mistaken, and bring Lady Purity back.”

“Bring her back? Back from where?”

The Prince sent her to del Sol, last night, after he found out about her indiscretion with Lord Frey. He’s even hinted that she may lose her rank- everyone was talking about it this morning. Please, if you were the one who complained to the Prince, tell him that you were mistaken.”

“Lady, I am as surprised at this news as you. I haven’t complained to the Prince. Indeed, I haven’t spoken to him since I was presented.”

Lady Innocence fell against the wall and began to sob, letting fat tears streak her powdered face.

“Then tell your father- he must have spoken for you. I’m begging you, Lady Frey.”

“I haven’t sent my father, or anyone else, to speak to the Prince. I don’t know what happened between Lady Purity and Lord Frey, but I am not jealous of my husband.”

Lady Innocence’s sobs began to subside. She sniffed and blotted her tears with a handkerchief.

“If what you say is true, then why did the Prince send Lady Purity away?”

“I don’t know.”

Lady Innocence stood a little taller, and tucked her handkerchief into her sleeve. “Very well. If you won’t help me, I will get her back on my own.”

Lady Innocence exited the alcove and walked away, her silken skirts rustling with each determined step.

 

#

 

“How could you be so careless?”

I couldn’t stop the sharp words from escaping my lips. I’d spent the day trying to dodge malicious gossip, and the pomp at dinner had gone longer than usual. Now, back in my apartments, the sickeningly pervasive scent of roses filled my head until it ached.

Hope threw himself onto his favorite sofa and regarded me with a sour expression. “What have I done, now?”

“Thanks to your intrigue with Lady Purity, we are subject to all manner of vicious slander. Lady Innocence came to me this morning, convinced that I had asked the Prince to send Lady Purity away. Despite my denials, nothing has stemmed the rumors of your dissatisfaction and my jealousy.”

Hope lay back on the sofa and put up his feet. “You knew that this would be difficult, Grace. I need to take advantage of my proximity of the Prince, and use my influence before he begins another war. Lady Purity is the Prince’s mistress, so when she came to me I was obliged to take advantage of the opportunity.”

I dropped onto a chair and put my hand to my head. “She was the Prince’s mistress- so of course he sent her away.”

“I just need to rally. Lady Purity isn’t the only one with the Prince’s ear. Of course, if I anger him enough, perhaps he will call me in to berate me.”

“Do you know who told him about the tryst?”

Hope mouth stretched into a maddening smirk. “I would hardly call our encounter a tryst. I took her behind the library, at the edge of an empty field, and mesmerised her. The only people in the library were you and Miss Taris.”

I opened my mouth to protest my innocence, but Hope waved his hand to silence me.

“I trust you, Grace, and I know you aren’t so petty. I know nothing about Miss Taris.”

“Miss Taris couldn’t have seen you, though. She was in the back of the library, hiding behind the tall shelves.”

“She could hear Lady Purity and me, just as I could hear her cries.”

I stood and began to pace, trying to clear my head. My headache lingered, and as the scent of roses grew ever stronger, I  felt almost dizzy.

“I have been presented to the Prince, so why must I remain? Why can’t I leave you to your intrigues?”

“The Prince wishes for you to remain. He and your father want something from you.”

I turned back to Hope, but I spun too fast. My knees bucked, but Hope rose and caught me before I hit the floor.

“Grace- are you unwell?”

Hope’s words were muffled, and everything seemed strangely soft- his soft brown eyes, his soft waves of dark hair, his soft skin, his lips…

Hope helped me stand, and led me to bed, but I turned and pushed him, and we tumbled onto the bed together. I pressed my lips against his again and again, running my hands through his soft hair, and drinking in the sensation. Hope responded, raising his own hand and touching my hair.

At that moment, the world seemed to right itself again, and I pushed away from him.

“Forgive me,” I gasped. “I am unwell- I forget myself.”

“Don’t beg my forgiveness. I’ve been longing to feel your kiss again. Look at me.” He gestured to his own figure, prone on the bed. “I am yours. Do as you will.”

“No- you aren’t mine,” I said. “You never will be mine. Your heart still-”

“Ah- I see.” Hope slid off of the bed. “Unreasonable girl, I thought you weren’t jealous.”

“Not of Lady Purity,” I said quickly. “I know you don’t love her.”

“I know.” Hope stood and took my hand in his gentle, familiar grip. “Come with me. I wish to show you something.”

 

New Legislation Stops Climate Change

Today, the president has signed a new law banning climate change.

Putting aside questions of emissions standards, this sweeping legislation seeks to settle the environmental issue once and for all. The new law, called the Climate Change Abolition Bill, simply makes it illegal for the climate to change.

“Finally, both parties have found something they can agree on,” said Rep. Lisle, a Dempublican from New Hampshire. “Whether climate change is happening, whether it’s caused by the actions of humans, or whether industry should be held responsible for climate change is irrelevant. Climate change just shouldn’t happen. Period.

Despite Rep. Lisle’s assertion, there are some who oppose the bill.

“This is ridiculous,” said Sen. Minks, a Libertericrat from California and one of the bill’s most vocal opponents. “You can’t just ban climate change. What are you going to do- arrest the climate if it changes?”

“Sen. Minks is a huge hypocrite,” the President said in a statement on Friday. “He says he cares about the environment, but he voted against the most tremendous climate change bill ever.”

The public, for the most part, has supported the bill. According to the latest Phew poll, 73% of US voters are against climate change.

“I support the bill,” said Mary Parker, a schoolteacher from Oregon. “I’ve been saying that we should outlaw climate change ever since I saw that movie with the polar bears.”

At this time, the polar bears could not be reached for comment.

The Coven, Part XXVI

Before my arrival, I had heard that there was a vast library at the palace that the courtiers were free to visit. The library, however, was not housed in the palace proper. Instead, it was housed in a building annex that lay at the end of a long gravel path, which wound behind the shrubberies to the west of the main building.

The last stretch of path was lined with free-standing white columns, and ended in a set of square concrete steps that led to a square granite building. Two spear-shaped feather trees stood on each side of the library door, but the building was otherwise unadorned.

Inside was none of the splendor I had expected of the palace library. Instead, dusty tomes were stacked on simple wooden shelves, which were shoved against bare stone walls. My heels clicked against the stone floor and echoed through the building.

Hope, who sat at a center table, looked up at the sound of my footsteps. He let the letter he’d been reading fall to the table, and smiled at me in greeting.

“She’s safe,” he said as I sat beside him. “For now she is safe, and she’s trying to stay cheerful. I suppose I should be content with that.”

“It’s only natural that-” I cut myself off before finishing my statement, that a father should miss his daughter. My own father’s words seemed to echo in my ears.

Hope leaned his cheek against his palm and regarded me with heavy-lidded eyes.

“You seem cross. Have I offended you, somehow?”

“No. I’ve just had a disagreeable interview with my father.”

Hope frowned. “What did he say?”

“Nothing important. We quarreled about my mother. He seems to think that I have no reason to miss her at all.”

I looked down at my hands, which were twisted together. “I’m sorry. None of this interests you.”

“Feel free to vent your frustrations,” Hope said. “I daresay I’ve burdened you with enough of my troubles.”

I sighed. “Well, he doesn’t matter to me anymore. He seems happy enough that I belong to you, now. He wasn’t even angry that I failed to answer his letter.”

“Your father spoke to me in passing last night. He called you his ‘gift’ to me. Does this strike you as odd?”

“No. When have women ever been anything other than chattel?”

At that moment, a faint cry echoed through the library. I sat up and looked around, but saw no one else around.

“Did you hear…” I said.

“Yes?”

“- Nothing. I came here to find Bannon’s Western History, so I’ll leave you to your letter.

I left Hope and wandered among the bookshelves, walking in the direction where I thought the cry had originated.

I peeked around the edge of a narrow row and spied Miss Taris, who sat alone beside one of the few windows. She turned her head toward the sound of my footfalls, so I quickly shifted my gaze back to the bookshelves.

I saw a jumble of history and apologetics, piled in no particular order. I ran my finger along the spines, searching for Bannon’s history, and saw a titleless book with a picture of an eye printed on the spine.

I peeked at Miss Taris, but she had turned back to her book, so I reached out and took the book with the eye, grabbing two other random books to carry on top of it.

A high-pitched laugh caught my attention, then, so I hoised my books and moved back toward the sound. I peeked around the edge of the bookshelf toward Hope’s table and saw him standing with Lady Purity.

Lady Purity laughed and simpered and fluttered her fan, and Hope leaned forward and whispered something into her ear. Lady Purity fluttered her fan a little faster, and then took Hope’s arm.

The two walked toward the Library door. Hope turned his head as he walked and spotted me by the bookshelf. He winked, put his finger to his lips, and left.

My grip on the books tightened, and I rushed forward and dropped them on the table with a loud thump. I sat down and resolutely opened my book. After all, I had no reason to think about Hope’s exploits, just as he had no reason to think of mine.

I flipped a few pages, and began to read.

 

The Tale of the Brothers Smith

There once lived two brothers, Service and Fervor Smith. One brother, Fervor, was a hunter, and the other, Service, was a carpenter. One day, while hunting, Fervor came across a magic circle, inside of which was a book. Fervor, overcome with greed, stole the book.  He could not read the book himself, so he took it to his beloved brother, Service.

Fervor and Service read the book, uncovering arcane secrets previously lost to time. They used these secrets to gain great wealth, and buy power and influence beyond their station. Fervor, true to his name, craved more money the more he obtained. However, as his Service read the book, and used the dark magic contained within to feed his brother’s greed, he began to change.

Fervor, distracted by the women and wine his new wealth could afford him, did not notice Service growing sickly and wan. Service aged at an unnatural rate, growing wrinkled and grey before his time. He grew thin and hungry, and yet could not eat. One day, when Fervor went to seek his brother’s help, he only found a pile of his brother’s clothes sitting where his brother had once sat. Service was no more.

Fervor sought frantically for the magic book he’d entrusted to his brother, but it was nowhere to be found. Having eaten away at Service, it, too, vanished. So Fervor, without Service to help him, lost his wealth, his health, and his loved ones. He died alone, wishing he had never reached beyond his station, and wishing he had acknowledged the value of his brother, Service.