windhover: (bioshock ❧ elizabeth)
[personal profile] windhover
Title: Understanding
Word count:2,942
Warnings: (non-graphic) talk of flaying, some probably xenophobic thoughts on behalf of the viewpoint character
Summary: A young witch has certain expectations of her guard. It's exactly as things should be.
Notes: Not really a sequel or follow-up, but another story set in the same world as this piece and centered around some of the same characters. (Also the same world of origin as [ profile] feycarved I'm RPing over at [ profile] ilpromenade, for those who care.)

“Gregory, would you come with me for a moment?”

Sophia doesn’t need to ask him, nor does she intend to keep him for only a moment. He knows that, and she knows well that he knows that. But still he nods in silent agreement and goes where she leads him. This is but one of the many understandings that passes between them in a day, one of those for which she is ever thankful.

But she chooses not to show that gratitude at all times, particularly not at a time like this, and instead mains her lofty air as she beckons him into the study. She sets the worn tome she’s been carrying on the low table in the center of the room, and she hears Gregory close the door behind him—another of their understandings.

There is so much that passes between them that remains unsaid that many of the coven sisters have accused them of doing uncouth things with each other. Sophia finds the notion quite frankly absurd; Gregory has served her for much of her life by now, and he is the closest thing she has—or may ever have—to a dear friend. How could she even consider sullying their relationship in such a way?

Now, however, is not the time for such thoughts. She sits on one of the divans facing the table and pats the empty space beside her, to which Gregory responds with a courteous nod before following suit. The answer and movement is practiced but fluid, graceful and yet elegant in its simplicity. It is like nearly everything he does, everything which Sophia finds beautiful about him.

“May I ask why you have brought me here, my lady?”

Gregory’s voice is a low, soothing rumble, accented but even and sure in speech. He has called her his lady for as long as she can remember, and it has never occurred to her to ask him to call her by name. He would surely comply if she truly wished it, but it wouldn’t feel right.

“I’ll need your help,” she says simply, reaching for the tome and leafing through its pages, “for a vital but most dangerous endeavor.”

“And in what capacity am I to aid you?”

As much as Sophia would love to simply hear him speak on end, their understanding does not allow for too long a pause in such conversation between them. “I’ll need your eyes, your senses, your wits—no skill in particular, but you are the only one whom I can trust not to use me for your own gain.”

He nods again and turns his attention to the tome. “And this, my lady?”

“This is an illustrated compendium of notable grimoires—see?” She stops on a page, Douglass, to show him; though apparently of notable enough origin to have been included in such a tome, the rendition of the grimoire itself appears boxy and plain to her, and fails to hold her interest. “Not the most recent edition, but recent enough for our purposes.”

It is clear that Gregory has never seen this book before; indeed, the very existence of such compendiums was kept closely guarded in most other covens, not just their own. But he keeps his surprise and curiosity restrained as ever, for which Sophia is again grateful.

“And what might our purposes be?”

And, and, and. All he says is dependent upon her word. She isn’t sure whether this is deliberate of him, but she likes to think it is.

“Do you know of the three most coveted grimoires in this country?”

His brow furrows as he gives it thought—or appears to give it thought, for she knows he already knows how the proper response. “I am but a warlock to this coven, my lady. I am not privy to knowledge of such things.”

“Of course,” she says with a small, almost contrite nod of her own. “This is why I must show you…”

“Do you covet these grimoires, as well?”

The question nearly startles Sophia, its timing and content well outside their understanding. But she won’t bring herself to protest, lest she derail it even further. “Only for our coven,” she answers, managing not to hesitate, “and for our matron. Any witch who brings her such a powerful grimoire is guaranteed a hefty share of her power and wealth.”

She doesn’t have to explain her reasoning any further than that. Gregory has known her long and well enough to know exactly why she would covet that power and fortune.

“And these three are the most powerful in the country?”

To that, Sophia gently shakes her head. “It’s more than that. While that holds true in at least one case, they are most coveted primarily because they are believed to be lost.”

His brow furrows again, this time in clear confusion. Sophia will permit it of him at least this once. “If they are lost, then how are they to be gained for the coven?”

Presumed lost,” she corrects. “Francesca hired a soothsayer today. They may not be so lost after all.”

She doesn’t mention how Francesca had turned the meeting into a tea party. She doesn’t trust herself not to speak against her sisters’ frivolities, especially not in Gregory’s presence, and she doubts he would really want to hear of them, either.

“And this soothsayer gave you their whereabouts?”

“Not precisely,” she says, pairing her sentiment with an appropriate moue of disappointment. “But that’s just how soothsayers work. Merely knowing that they’re out there may be all I need.”

“Of course, my lady.”

“And I’ll need you to help me keep an eye out for them.” Her and is not an indicator of any dependence on his word, she’s certain, but a mere continuation of her earlier thought, which Gregory had politely interrupted. “That’s why I need to teach you to recognize them.”

“Understood,” answers Gregory, expression turning to one of concentration and attention turning to the tome once more. “What are their names?”

“Wilkins, Hutchinson, and Doyle.”

Even the youngest witch or warlock of any coven would have instantly known those names, or at least the latter two, but Gregory shows not the slightest hint of recognition. It’s to be expected; despite his many years in America, he is still a foreigner, and so has not been raised in American magick society well enough to know these things.

Sophia flips the pages to Wilkins, and tilts the book towards Gregory so that he can better see it. The Wilkins grimoire had always been considered unusual for its design—overlapping spirographs set in large circles that ringed and mirrored each other perfectly, flanked by long, swooping lines and arcs like vine tendrils, or stems to the flowering shapes above—but Sophia finds it a beautiful representation of the magicks contained within, magicks of empowerment and imbuement and shifting the whims of fortune to one’s favor.

Gregory studies it for some time, reading over the notes on the suspected magicks it contains, and turns to Sophia again. “Is this not dangerous?”

She blinks, once again startled by how well outside their understanding this question could be. “What do you mean?”

“Having a drawing of one’s grimoire in such a place, for all to see. How is that not dangerous?”

When he says that, she very nearly breathes a sigh of relief; for a moment, she had mistaken his meaning. “These are only artistic renditions,” she answers, being sure to give extra emphasis where it counts. “While they’re based on the real thing, they’re only intended to give a general idea of what sort of magicks the bearer might hold. They aren’t nearly so detailed as the genuine article, nor are they large enough to be easily forged. Besides, the names that are notable enough to be included in a collection like this usually have large enough covens behind them that they won’t really have to worry about showing off like this.”

Gregory nods once, but doesn’t speak until after he’s looked over the rendition again. “And what of this one, this…Wilkins?”

“Florence Wilkins was the last known daughter of the Wilkins coven,” Sophia replies, remembering first what she learned from coven gossip and then what she learned from the soothsayer. “But she left the coven shortly after she inherited her grimoire, supposedly wishing to pursue a life outside magick society entirely.”

Again Gregory looks confused, but his expression this time is milder, just as Sophia had anticipated. “I had not thought that an unusual occurrence.”

“It isn’t, really. But most witches sacrifice their grimoires when they do that, since they won’t be needing them anymore.” And to keep them from being flayed, she thinks, but finds it unnecessary to add. “Not only did Florence Wilkins keep her grimoire, however, she completely vanished without a trace. Even the most skilled hunters couldn’t track her down.”

“And this soothsayer has?”

“Not exactly.” Sophia repeats her earlier disappointed expression. “She went west, but the soothsayer couldn’t tell how far; she could have gone to Kansas, California, or even China for all we know. But at least we know she’s still alive.”

Gregory nods again. He doesn’t look impressed, and Sophia doesn’t expect him to. She wasn’t all that impressed when she first heard it herself, either.

“Really,” she continues, “the same thing is what happened to the other two: they decided to leave magick society and just up and vanished. Like Hutchinson—” She flips to the appropriate page as she speaks. “—Annemarie Hutchinson. It happened a very long time ago, but nobody ever found out why she left.”

She pauses there, giving him an opportunity to study this grimoire. Its form is impressive in its uniformity, comprised of rigid, perfectly-aligned six- and five-sided figures, varying in size but never in shape, with daunting spikes along its outermost edges—a shield and phalanx for magicks of warding and banishment. Though such magicks were considerably common, nobody had mastered them into an art like the Hutchinson line.

“And what did the soothsayer tell you of this one?”

“Not much that we didn’t already know,” Sophia answers, allowing her brow to slightly crease. “It was widely known that she ran off to Vandalia.”

“And why did no one follow her?”

Again, his foreigner’s naïveté. “Vandalia is no place for outsiders to tread,” she says, slowly and with extra gravitas. “The mountains there are practically teeming with monsters. Annemarie Hutchinson probably only stood a chance because of her magic, but apart from the people who already live there, there aren’t many witches who could survive that kind of gauntlet.”

Francesca held a significantly lesser opinion of the region, if her lightly-made comments on its inhabitants’ supposedly incestuous mating habits were any indication. The other witches had tittered and wondered if that was the life Annemarie had truly wished to lead. Sophia hadn’t seen the humor.

“And she is still there?”

Sophia pauses, turns her glance down and folds her hands in her lap. “No,” she says softly, trying for a delicate tone. “She died many years ago.”

The soothsayer hadn’t been nearly so delicate. When asked of Annemarie Hutchinson’s present whereabouts, her answer had been “scattered by the fey amongst the wood, having long ago provided sustenance to the wilds.” The other witches had laughed at this much more heartily than at Francesca’s earlier jokes, until Francesca calmly inquired as to the present whereabouts of the Hutchinson grimoire. Then nobody laughed.

Sophia hasn’t looked back up at Gregory yet, but she can tell the look of mild confusion has returned to his face. “If that is true, then how is her grimoire not lost?”

“It’s simple enough,” she says, maintaining her soft tone but choosing this moment to look up again. “She must have passed it on before she died. Perhaps she bore a daughter.”

Other comments had followed this conclusion at the meeting, mostly incredulous and wondering how such an esteemed grimoire could have ended up in the hands of such uncouth, uncivilized, possibly inbred mountain folk. Whatever humor remained in the conversation had vanished entirely when Francesca repeated her question to the soothsayer.

“And where is it now?”

“Somewhere to the east… Across the Atlantic, for sure.”

Gregory appears to consider this. “That would make acquiring this grimoire rather difficult for you.”

Sophia sighs and tries not to sound too bitter; even with something like this, only a minimal amount of bitterness would be acceptable. “It will surely return to our shores, but there’s no telling when that might be.”

Whatever pleasantry remained in the atmosphere at the meeting had vanished just like the earlier humor, replaced by tension upon Francesca’s reaction of silence to this revelation—until she smiled again and asked to move on to the next.

“And what of the Doyle grimoire?”

She nods and once again flips to the appropriate page. The Doyle grimoire had long been renowned for its incredible power and the generations of magick wisdom contained within, and it had long been said that only those witches of the Doyle line could possibly be able to wield its strength without being completely consumed by it. Its power is evident in its design, which has always been one of Sophia’s favorites: a mass of flowing lines with crystalline and sparking offshoots, twisting and curving endlessly upon itself along diamond and spiraling frames, chaotic and yet perfectly arranged, embodying each element, each force, each incantation under the Doyles’ mastery.

“Aline Doyle, daughter of the Doyle line, also vanished in similar manner to the others.” She smoothes her hand out over the page, tracing over the thorny, serpentine lines as she’s done so many times before. “Many pursued her, but none succeeded… Some never even came back alive.”

Gregory nods sagely, concentrating on the pages before him; accordingly, Sophia moves her hands away from them. “And she is dead, or alive?”

“Dead,” she answers, not quite as delicately as before. “But not dead nearly so long as Annemarie Hutchinson. Furthermore, the soothsayer was able to give us her exact fate, from which the fate of her grimoire is easily deduced.”

To that, he raises an eyebrow, yet another expected reaction. “Is that not unusual for a soothsayer?”

“Highly, but I have little doubt as to the veracity of her information.” Very little, as she hopes is evident in her confident tone. “Apparently, she ran off and changed her name by becoming a housewife. Can you believe that?”

She doesn’t actually expect him to give his opinion on the matter, and he doesn’t. Admittedly, that was a slip on her part; she’s gotten too used to exchanging gossip with the other sisters. But she knows he won’t think poorly of her for it—right?

“And you know what name that was?”

“Most definitely,” she says with an emphatic nod. “Aline Doyle became Eleanor MacGuffin, and bore a daughter named Lenore MacGuffin.”

That name garners another expected reaction from him: a distant look of realization, a creased brow, and a meeting of her gaze. “Lenore?”

His reaction was not all that she had anticipated. Sophia suspects he had recalled the same memory as she, one from her youth, long before her mother pledged them both to the Murphy coven—a memory of a neighbor child, a girl not much younger than herself…

Sophia nods and turns her gaze downward again. The gesture is less to seem contrite and more to avoid his gaze. “The very same. The Doyle grimoire must be in her possession.”

Gregory doesn’t answer. When Sophia looks up again, he has turned back to the illustration; his expression is thoroughly unreadable, which unsettles her more than she likes.

“It’s rather unlikely,” she continues, hoping her voice won’t hesitate, “but it seems the most powerful of these grimoires may be the easiest for us to obtain. It will be no difficult task to locate her once again—”

“Was she not your friend?”

A dear friend once, her only friend—apart from Gregory, of course. But although Gregory had been young in those days too, he hadn’t been nearly so much fun to play games of tag or hide-and-go-seek with, at least not until it occurred to them to team up on him.

The question gives Sophia more pause than she had anticipated, and she very nearly flounders for an answer. “Of… Of course she was. I said locating her would be no difficult task, not…not the act itself.”

He turns to her again, eyes narrowed. The accusatory look in them sends a strange feeling down to the pit of her gut. “And to make a present of her grimoire for matron Murphy, you would take knife to her flesh? Could you?”

She looks down again. She can’t bear for him to look at her like that, no matter how justified in this she may feel. “I… It isn’t a question of whether I can or can’t. I have to, or else someone else will.”

He doesn’t answer for some time. When Sophia finally gains the courage to look up at him again, he merely sighs and shakes his head. “Do what you must, my lady. However I may feel has no bearing on this matter, and however you choose to act, I will protect and aid you regardless.”

A wave of relief overcomes her; were she a woman of lesser restraint, she might even hug him. But she instead smiles warmly and reaches to take his hand. Their understanding is now restored, and she must be more careful than ever to stick to it. “Thank you, Gregory.”

“You are most welcome, my lady.”
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