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…”
The ever-present Sister Jubilee pulled up Celeste’s blanket, and 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 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.”