The crowd backed away and gave Brother Lux room. He knelt down to press a cloth against the assassin’s open wound, blood staining his white robes.
“Lady Frey- go.” He repeated.
“I will not leave my husband’s side,” I said. My voice sounded like it was far away.
“Go with her, my King, if you must,” Lux said to Hope as he worked. “Make sure she is calm before she returns.”
I scanned the crowd for any other sign of danger, and then looked back to the boy who lay bleeding in Lux’s lap. My heart would not stop pounding- my nerves were on fire with anger and fear.
Why didn’t Brother Lux heal the boy, like he had the other soldiers?
Hope reined back his horse and reached out to me with his free hand. “Grace?”
Then I realized.
I pulled back on the reins, turned, and spurred my horse to a gallop. I rode as fast as I could, away from the crowd and the smells of gunpowder and the boy who lay bleeding to death. My wicked heart continued to pound inside of my chest as the horse’s hooves pounded the dust underneath.
I was on the other side of the river, near the road that wound toward the hill-country, before my heart stopped pounding. I took a deep breath, and then another, but my nerves still burned just under my skin.
“Grace,” Hope said, dismounting his own horse and coming to stand beside me. “Are you alright?”
“You were wrong about me,” I babbled as Hope helped me dismount. “You were wrong. I am a monster. I am death.”
“Grace, you protected me,” Hope said. “I owe you my life, yet again.”
“I had disarmed him- there was no need to follow through,” I gasped. “And then- Lux was trying to heal the boy, and he couldn’t because of me. Because I was so frightened and angry- I could not reign in my feelings to let him do his work. It was my will that interfered, don’t you see? It was my will that the boy die.”
“It’s alright,” Hope clutched my hands in his. “Look at me- this is a power like any other. It can be dangerous, but you can learn to control it.”
I looked up into his warm, brown eyes, and then they blurred out of sight as tears formed in my own.
“You can control it,” Hope repeated. He sat on the grass, and brought me down to sit beside him. “Close your eyes. Clear your mind. Let yourself be calm.”
I closed my eyes, summoning the image of the stars I had used so long ago to clear my mind. This time, however, the stars seemed impossibly distant, and I felt impossibly small beneath them.
I breathed in time to his instruction. After a few, deep breaths, he asked.
“What do you see?”
“I see the stars, and I see…” I stopped and sighed. “I don’t know. I cannot think.”
“That’s ok,” Hope said. “If you cannot think, just breathe.”
He came closer, and his voice took on a familiar, hypnotic cadence.
“It’s alright,” Hope repeated. “Listen to my voice. You are safe, here. You can trust me. Be calm. Breathe. Be calm.”
I could not focus on his words, or let myself slip into that pleasant calm I had so long ago. All I could do was breathe mechanically, in and out.
We sat together as the sun rose high in the summer sky. Sweat gathered under the collar of my greatcoat, and I longed to remove it and allow the slight breeze to cool my skin. I could not trust myself to move, however, so I merely sat and breathed.
Long after my heart stopped pounding, and my nerves stopped humming, I heard the pounding of hooves in the distance. Two horses drew near; Miss Taris rode one, and Brother Lux rode the horse my father had taken to the Cathedral.
I shied away when I saw Brother Lux approach. His white robes were still covered in blood, and he fixed me with a grave look as he approached. Hope, however, held my hand with such strength and steadiness that it felt like an anchor.
Brother Lux and Miss Taris dismounted, and approached Hope and I by foot. Hope and I did not stand to meet them. I continued to breathe, in and out, as the others talked.
“The boy is alive,” Lux said. “I was able to heal him as soon as you had passed the first bend.”
“I examined everyone else in the crowd,” Miss Taris added. “Two more false converts were found and imprisoned. It is safe, now, if you wish to return to the Cathedral.”
A strange sensation stole over me- a feeling that something was wrong with these words- but I could not think clearly enough to discern what.
Hope was gazing at his brother with an inscrutable expression. “You went to a lot of trouble to heal an assassin and a traitor. Are you really trying to stage a deathless revolution?”
“I am responsible for the outcome of the war on both sides,” Brother Lux said. He came and knelt on the grass, near where Hope and I sat hand-in-hand.
“A schism is a dangerous time for the souls of men,” Lux continued. “And I would not add to the people’s distress. I drew a line in the sand where the suffering would end, and that line has been passed. This should be a time of joy.”
And you are the final arbiter of when we should feel pain or joy? I might have said these words had I spoken to Lux the day before. Now the sentiment felt so hypocritical that the words tasted like poison in my throat.
“I had intended to make you hurt the next time I saw you, Brother,” Hope said. “Now that you are here, I realize I haven’t thought of any punishment I am capable of inflicting that would serve justice.”
“When you are ready, name your punishment; I will suffer it,” Lux said, bowing his head.
“How humble you are,” Hope said, an edge of sarcasm creeping into his voice. “So sincere in your efforts to help others. You quite astound me.”
Miss Taris started to laugh so hard that she doubled over, clutching her stomach.
“Are you serious, Lord Frey?” she gasped. “You pledged your soul to the demons, murdered the High Priest, broke the Prince’s mind, ruined a lady’s position and reputation at court- and these are just the sins I know! Of course, you did it all for the greater good. You should have known that others were just as willing as you to dirty their hands. At least we seek redemption instead of vengeance.”
Hope looked coldly up at Miss Taris. “You know nothing about me.”
“I know that you’ve lost sight of the greater good entirely. Wisdom is healing the world as we speak, and you refuse to join him. You refuse to use his power to do something good for the world, instead of just lashing out at it.”
“Even if-” I started to speak, and then my voice failed.
“Yes, Lady Frey?” Miss Taris said, arching a brow.
I shook my head and took another deep breath.
Miss Taris knelt beside me, cocking her head curiously. “You were going to argue with me, weren’t you? I’m used to the lash of your sharp tongue; do not worry about sparing my feelings now.”
I am the only one here with no chance at the redemption Miss Taris spoke of, I thought.
“It is nothing,” I whispered.
“Grace,” Hope said, drawing nearer. “It is alright. The boy is alive.”
I turned to Lux. “Thank you for saving him. I’m sorry I…”
My voice failed me again.
“My brother is alive,” Lux said. “I am grateful that you acted.”
“Your powers are growing,” Brother Lux said. “Remember how you felt, today. If it happens again, get away from people- as far as you can- until you regain control.”
I nodded, swallowing back tears.
“You’re frightening her,” Hope hissed at his brother.
“Good. She should be frightened,” Lux said evenly. “If she does not learn to control her power, someone could die.”
I shuddered. “Might it not be best if I- if I traveled alone? I don’t wish to accidentally hurt anyone.”
“No- it will be safer if they can watch you,” Lux said. “It will be a small party from now on- just you, my brother, Miss Taris, and her companion.”
“Are we going to del Sol?” Hope asked.
“Yes- eventually,” Miss Taris said quietly. “Celeste and Prudence are waiting for you there.”
“They made it?” I said. “Is Mercy safe, as well? Is Brother Amicus still with them? Can we still communicate with them?”
“Yes, but not until we reach Rowan Heights,” Miss Taris said quietly. She looked at Hope. “I’m told you are familiar with the last length of tunnel. It goes through your land.”
“I am,” Hope said sharply. “How soon can we go?”
Miss Taris stood and scanned the horizon. “In just a moment.”
Soon, we could see another figure approach the party. It was a woman, wearing white pilgrim’s robes, with loose hair that shone like bronze in the sunlight.
“Mirth- Mirth!” Miss Taris called, waving her arm. Then she broke into a run to meet the woman in the field as she walked.
The two embraced and laughed together with such obvious affection that I felt I was intruding on their private joy, and I had to turn my face away.
Soon, Miss Taris returned with the woman, arm in arm.
“I am free to join you,” the woman said. Her face, like Miss Taris’s, was flushed with joy, but her expression was sheepish, and she looked down at her feet as though struck with sudden shyness.
“Sir Beaumont? Is it you?” Hope said, standing.
“Call me Mirth,” she replied. “I’ve lost my title. The dragoons have decided to choose another leader. I’d hoped they would accept me but… well, perhaps that was too optimistic. I’ve changed.”
“They are fools to cast aside such a capable leader,” Hope remarked.
“Thank you,” Mirth said, smiling at Hope. As she looked up, I saw that she had changed only a little. Her face was rounder, and she seemed a little smaller in the loose robes she wore, but her eyes and her smile looked the same as always.
“It is alright,” Mirth continued. “I promised Miss Taris that I would guard her, and I intend to keep my promise.”
Mirth gestured to the polearm that was strapped to her back.
Miss Taris squeezed Mirth’s hand, and then turned back to Lux.
“Will you come with us? The battle is over, and Brother Fortune is capable of administering what little healing is still needed.”
“I must stay behind, for now,” Brother Lux said. “Wisdom still needs me to help secure and reorganize the Cathedral. I will join you later at del Sol.”
“So- it’s just the four of us, then?” Mirth looked from Hope to me.
“Yes,” Brother Lux answered for us. He stood to go, and then turned back to Hope and me. “Lady Frey, I will make sure your father and cousin remain safe at Willowbrook. Brother- until we meet again.”
I watched Brother Lux lead the horses back toward the Cathedral, and when he was out of earshot, I turned to Mirth.
“Do you…” I took another breath to steady my nerves before I spoke again. “Do you feel capable of fighting, Mirth, or are you still fatigued from battle?”
“I don’t feel the least fatigued,” Mirth said. “Wisdom’s miracle not only changed my body; it renewed my health and vitality. I’m not sure if I will fight as well as I once did. I have not had the chance to try, yet. I will do my best.”
“I’m sure you will do well,” I said, “but let’s hope you won’t need to try.”
I doubted I would be able to draw my sword if we encountered trouble again, but I lifted my chin, summoned all the false self-confidence I could, and told Hope I was ready.
The party followed an exposed path through the plains to the rolling hills, beyond. Two times, Miss Taris hissed at the party to hide, and we lay down in the grasses while dark figures passed in the distance- men who moved like shadows against the bright horizon.
“They are opportunists,” Miss Taris whispered as the last group disappeared into the west. “Their feelings are repugnant- like the bandits we met before, Lady Frey. They will flee like rats when Wisdom’s soldiers march east.”
The rest of our walk passed uneventfully, and we reached the hills as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon behind us. We stopped at an old, crumbling well that jutted off the side of the lowest hill. I looked into the well, but the setting sun cast shadows so deep I could not see more than a few feet within.
“I can sense the seal- it is all the way at the bottom,” Miss Taris said, peering into the well. “How in the world do we get inside?”
Hope gazed evenly at Miss Taris as she searched for a way to climb inside. Then, after it was clear she’d given up, he spoke.
“Technically, we have arrived at Rowan Heights,” he said. “This hill is part of my property. Let me speak with Prudence now, and I will show you the way into the tunnel.”
Miss Taris narrowed her eyes. “You are trying to deceive me. It won’t work. I will let you speak with Prudence once we are inside the house, and not a second before.”
“You tried to deceive me first,” Hope said, fixing Miss Taris with a look of steel. “I will not invite you into my home until I know the truth.”
“We are exposed, here,” Mirth interjected, scanning the horizon. “Can we continue this discussion inside the tunnel?”
“No- we cannot,” Hope said. “If Miss Taris won’t cooperate, I will continue on foot through the hills to del Sol, never mind the tunnel. Del Sol isn’t far, after all.”
“Oh yes, del Sol is very close,” Miss Taris laughed. “-just a few miles through the bandit-infested midlands, or else through the narrow valley, which is guarded by inquisitors. Remember that Prudence was unable to get through, even with all her cleverness, and was diverted for ten years.”
“In that case, our endeavor is hopeless, anyway. The tunnel goes to the cottage on bluebell hill, and not beyond. You can’t guarantee safe passage to del Sol through the tunnel.”
“If you submit to Wisdom’s will, you will reach del Sol safely,” Miss Taris promised. “If you run now, you risk never seeing your child or your mistress again.”
Hope stared at Miss Taris for a few more seconds, and then he smiled. “Ah- good. We have the truth at last.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Miss Taris sputtered indignantly.
“I sealed this tunnel myself. I can sense that it’s been changed. Only two people I know could break my seal. The first,” he said, gesturing to me, “has been with us the whole time, and cannot create another seal. Wisdom himself must have changed the seals on the tunnel, and once I am lured inside, I won’t be able to escape. Wisdom is at Rowan Heights, waiting to meet me so he can make me submit to him. The trap is set.”
Miss Taris gaped at Hope, who nodded as though in satisfaction.
“Good- I was hoping the trap would be sprung soon.” He walked around the well and then stopped, pushing one of the loose bricks back into place. There was the sound of shifting stone, and then a ladder sprung out from the side of the well.
“Don’t dawdle. Wisdom is waiting for us,” Hope said cheerfully.