My Inadequate Epistemological Mess

I’ve been reading Eliezer Yudkowsky’s new book, Inadequate Equilibria, on LesserWrong as it’s been released, chapter by chapter. I have too many thoughts to politely fit into a comments section, so I will mull them over here. I urge you to read the original work before you continue. 

Yudkowsky’s reasoning cuts like a knife, presenting a compelling argument for why many systems fail to fulfil their stated purpose, and why it isn’t hubris for you or I to question the products of those systems or their experts. He introduces a concept of “modest epistemology,” in which intelligent people fail to grasp at low-hanging fruit because surely, if it were so easy someone already would have.

This work has had a profound impact on me personally. Line by line, the work severed mental ties that have bound me my whole life.

I’ve been juggling the arguments for and against this type of modesty for a long time, and I realized yesterday that this has been reflected in my work. Take, for example, the following two segments from my web serial/book series The Coven. In these sections, two different characters discuss the main character, Grace, who created a heliocentric model of the solar system and was subsequently reprimanded by a church authority.

 

The first scene occurs when Grace attempts to join a secret society of scientists:

 

“I believe I’ve worked out your character, Lady. You discovered an interesting puzzle and happily solved it, like any intelligent child would. Then, like a child, you ran off to tell someone, expecting praise. When you informed a learned cleric about your discovery, and he told you it was an error, you assumed he was right and you were wrong- even though you’d seen the evidence with your own eyes. Am I correct?”

 

I could feel my face burn with shame. “Yes, you are correct.”

Sir Silas continued. “You’re  not kind to your inferiors because you value them as equals, but because you don’t have the confidence to acknowledge your own worth. You may be sweet, and you may possess a unique genius, but you lack the strength to fight the forces of oppression.”

The next scene takes place during a later conversation about the same event:

 

“… In your presentation, you made it clear that you built your theory, and then tested your theory against Sir Boromir’s observations to see if everything fit your model . You made some mistakes along the way, but you arrived at the correct conclusion. If I’d judged you on your work alone, you would be a member of the guild today.”

 

“Then why-”

Sister Jubilee held up her hand. “Please allow me to continue. Sir Silas objected to your initiation because he felt you lacked courage, but my reason was quite the opposite. You are naturally timid, but I believe the caution this afforded you was the reason you were so methodical in your approach to science. Unfortunately, your timidity also denied you the chance to learn what the bold learn early in life- the necessity of resisting strong impulses.

Both Sir Silas and Sister Jubilee were correct in their own way. You must have humility to test alternatives to your own hypotheses and to learn from the work others have done- it’s a way to correct innate biases. Unfortunately, if you aren’t willing to question established authority, then you can never hope to do any better.

Discovering when it is appropriate to question established authority has always been a delicate matter. Yudkowsky presents a way to discern where inefficiencies in established systems exist, so we can do just that.

 

#

 

When I was in Junior High, I was a “hedgehog-” very much anti-empiricism. I was very fond of the greek philosophers, having recently discovered Plato, and I believed that anyone could arrive at the correct answer to any question if they used the correct system of reasoning. If someone ever arrived at an incorrect conclusion, the issue was never incomplete observational evidence; the issue was flawed logic.

For example, in the seventh grade I was forced to partake in the coming-of-age ritual we know as frog dissection. I was saddened by the prospect of cutting open an innocent animal, and like many others, wondered why it was necessary. I understood that our teachers wanted us to have a hands-on experience with anatomy, but I thought a model might be just as effective as an actual frog.

As it turns out, I wasn’t able to examine the frog’s anatomy very closely, because my lab partners decided it was far more amusing to throw frog guts in my hair than do the assignment.  Instead, I waited until my lab partners grew bored of flinging frog guts, copied the frog-anatomy diagram from the textbook onto my lab sheet, and got an A on the assignment, anyway.

This incident illustrated two points to me: 1. Not only is frog dissection inhumane to the frogs, but Junior High is inhumane to children. 2. Students don’t dissect frogs so that they will discover something new, but to prove that they can find what the book tells them. The textbook is the ultimate authority.

I wasn’t surprised that Junior High was just as inhumane as Elementary School had been, and I wasn’t surprised that the science textbook was supposed to be the ultimate arbiter of scientific knowledge, above observation. In my mind, grownups already knew everything, and all that was left for a student to do was to put the information together in the proper way. When  grownups seemingly made mistakes, like allowing a small girl to be routinely bullied by her classmates, it was for mysterious reasons beyond my ken, such as “tough love.”

If grownups already know everything, why bother with empiricism? Just build models based on what they already know, and hope you will gain wisdom about things like “tough love” in time.

The entire frog exercise seemed like a utilitarian 0. However, the assignment was given by the authorities, so in the end I decided that I must have had messed up the assignment in some way- nevermind that the authorities gave me an A. Some small part of my mind questioned the necessity of using real frogs, but I didn’t question any other aspect of the situation.

 

 

#

 

I told the frog story to illustrate how deeply modest epistemology can be ingrained. My thinking has matured a great deal since I was in the seventh grade. I understand now that there are still gaps in humanity’s knowledge, and that empiricism is a vital tool in making discoveries and testing the models we build. However, my habit of deferring to authority is so deeply ingrained that I have a tough time believing that I can do anything useful.

My deference to authority may have started out as an innate sense of my place in the social order that Yudkowsky discusses in the chapter Status Regulation and Anxious Underconfidence,  or I may have been indoctrinated to it in the school system- the function of which makes a lot more sense after reading the chapter Moloch’s Toolbox. Heck, a lot of my anxious underconfidence may be related to a lifetime of frog guts in my hair.

Regardless, Yudkowsky’s work has left me with a task- to overcome my habitual deference, so I can focus on analyzing when I can hope to do better than a system that allows bullying, dead babies, and a billion or so other daily tragedies. His final chapters give a rough set of ideas one can use to accomplish this, and a warning to those who would become overconfident instead of underconfident.

Yudkowsky’s best advice on how to calibrate one’s ability to predict when you can do better is, sadly, advice I cannot use: “Bet on everything where you can or will find out the answer.” One of my most annoying habits is apologizing to my friends for being right in an argument, and winning any zero-sum game makes me feel even worse than losing. I’ve gotten very good at knocking myself down the social ladder so that others won’t.

Instead, I am going to have to be methodical in my approach, to chip my way around my bad mental habits and to find ways to reward myself that don’t make me feel guilty. Most importantly, I need to find the strength within myself to look up at the giants around me and say, “you might be wrong,” and to do this without either experiencing a “slapdown” that will discourage further growth. I may even work myself up actually experiencing pleasure when I win.

To this end, I think it will be useful to look at the scenario as though I am a third-party observer and ask the following questions.

  1. Have I diligently researched the claim I’m questioning, as well as the system that produced it? This includes performing any feasable real-world test.
  2. Do I assume I can’t do better because I actually can’t, or because I fear the social consequences of my presumption?
  3. Is there a way I can improve things for myself or others and still avoid adverse social consequences?
  4. If not, are the potential rewards worth the social risk?

(As someone who flinches away from betting, I assume #4 is very similar to questions all betters ask.)

I have the mental tools I need to verify what works. I will simply need to make periodic checks to make sure I’m using them.My mental process is so automatic that I rarely notice it, so I will have to make a mantra to remind myself that it’s ok to win. Building new habits is difficult.

I see this book as a call to action- not just to me, but to the rationality community. You have to tools- now use them to start winning. I have been observing the online rationality community for some time, and I see some winning already occurring, but I wonder how many observers there are out there like me- timid armchair enthusiasts. If we all get out of our armchairs, what will happen?

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Hiatus

Don’t panic! I won’t be gone long, and I certainly haven’t stopped working on The Coven. Some personal things have come up, however, so my next post will be delayed. My hiatus won’t last long- no more than a couple of weeks- and then I will return to my usual posting schedule.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of a giraffe’s tongue.

The Coven, Part LVI

The widow’s veil had reached its zenith, and Tigris had rolled away to the west. By the heavenly clock’s hand, we approached the dawn.

“I want you to hear the worst,” Prudence said. “I’ve been running from my past for too long, and I believe that you can help me find the path to the future.”

I looked back down at Prudence. Her expression was serene as she gazed up at the stars, and guilt wrenched my stomach once more.

“Why do you believe that? It seems irrational,” I said.

“You’ve said it yourself-we are connected.”

I jumped down from the platform and began to pace the circumference of the room. “We are connected, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how destructive that connection has been.”

“I see,” Prudence said quietly. “So you really do hate me.”

I spun back to face her. “Why would I hate you?”

“You might hate me because I was your husband’s mistress, however long ago it was. Or perhaps you hate me because I left him without explanation, causing him pain. Even if you can forgive my past sins, I am a hypocrite. I accused you of witchcraft when you first arrived, in your moment of pain, when I was a witch all along. Pick a reason- I daresay there are more.”

“You might not have had to make such difficult choices, if not for me,” I countered. “You don’t realize the extent to which I have destroyed your happiness.”

I began to pace the room again as I spoke. I first related the tale Hope had told me- that his ancestors’ refusal to fight the Ancients had condemned his family. Then, before Prudence could protest my innocence, I launched into an explanation of my father’s conspiracy with the Prince to trap the Frey family with their soulless gift, freeing the Freys from hell and securing the loyalty of a powerful noble family.

I spoke more and more quickly, purging, through confession, the guilt that I’d carried. I did not hesitate to express the hatred I’d felt for my father and the Prince when they’d revealed their conspiracy, and I admitted that I’d allowed Hope to carry out my vengeance by breaking their minds. In order to be thorough,  I made sure to explain the ill-advised blood oath Hope and I had made.

“This opened the way for Father Pius to seize power,” I said. “Without any further use for Hope, Father Pius used our blood oath as an excuse to betray everyone under coven law. Don’t you see? Your family was damned because of mine, you could not marry Hope because I was intended for him, and he sits in prison now because of my actions. I’ve done nothing but cause misery since I’ve been born. Perhaps- perhaps I should have remained alone.”

I stopped pacing; all of my energy seemed to have drained away. I looked up at the stars once more, and they shattered apart into a thousand rainbows. I wiped my eyes, and the stars coalesced into their proper shapes once more. I’d been weeping as I spoke, and I hadn’t even noticed.

Prudence stood and came to me without a word. She took the veil from around her shoulders and wrapped it around mine.

“You’re cold,” she said. “Perhaps we should go back inside.”

“I’m not cold,” I protested. In truth, I was too numb to feel the cold. “Please tell me; do you hate me? Is this the end of our friendship?”

“I’ve tried to hate you,” Prudence said. “Before you came to del Sol, I despised you. You had taken Hope’s love, you had stolen Celeste, Abbess Joy loved you devotedly, and even Mr. Filius admired you. I was sick with envy.

“But then I met you, and grew to know you. I realized that you’ve earned the love I envied, and that I had foolishly tossed away.”

I dried the tears that had fallen on my cheeks. “I’ve earned nothing but disdain.”

“You’ve described circumstances over which you had no control. You made one error in all of this, and that was the result of a weakness in character I already knew. Even so, you have so much more good in you than the villains in your story- can you clearly see who those villains are?”

“Can you see the villains in your own story?” I countered.

We stood a moment, gazing at each other in the pale light of the pre-dawn sky. Then Prudence spoke.

“I haven’t finished my story, yet.” Prudence sat on the platform again, and I sat beside her.

“There are two principal types of magic,”Prudence explained. “The first is spellcraft, which requires ritual action and is more easily performed with the help of a coven. The second is innate magic, which is a special ability each mage possesses and can be cast without a spell. A mage’s innate magic strengthens after they form a contract, and it usually manifests itself before the mage’s curse.

“My curse, however, manifested itself first. When most people look at me, they see…”

Prudence trailed off, biting her lip as she struggled with the words.

“Hope said that the curse stole your beauty,” I said, “but to me it seems unthinkable that no one would see the beauty I see.”

Prudence turned her head away from me. “It’s dark. You can’t see my face properly.”

I reached out and gently turned her face back toward me.

“The sky is getting lighter- I can see you almost as well as I did in the electric light. Your eyes are the color of bluebells, you have a smudge of ink on your cheek that has been streaked with tears, and you are lovely.”

She reached up to wipe her downy cheek, missing the mark entirely. “Most people see a twisted visage and dull, lifeless eyes. Hope tried to hide my reflection from me after I’d changed, but his efforts were futile. When I learned my curse, it was more than I could bear. I’d already been shunned from polite society, but my curse ensured I would be hated no matter where I went.

“My innate power revealed itself just when I thought my lot could not get any worse. To my horror and disgust, I learned that my power is seduction. With this face- it almost seemed as though I were a player in a cosmic farce.

“Monsignor Pius, who had previously been so kind and understanding, revealed his true colors to me. He tried to convince me to seduce his church rivals, and then expose them. Why not? I was already a fallen woman. He was certain that Hope would forgive me if I did it for the greater good.”

Prudence clenched her fists as she spoke, and I reached out to take her hand without thinking.

“I refused, and I went to Hope to reveal Pius’s treachery. Pius, however, had spoken to Hope already. He told Hope that the magic was driving me mad, and that I was becoming delusional. Hope, who had been so gentle and attentive since I’d changed, was easily swayed by his own worries. Now Hope stayed by my side day and night, guarding me from acting against the coven’s knowledge. Hope would not listen when I tried to warn him about Pius. Pius used Hope’s love as a weapon against me.”

“Father Pius is especially adept at turning people’s own strength against them,” I said. “I wish I could say I am surprised by his cruelty.”

I reached toward my pocket to get a handkerchief, but Prudence clung to my hand and would not let it go.

“Father Pius found my grimoire- the book of magic research I’d compiled.” She gestured toward the black tome with her free hand. “Thankfully, no guild members were referenced in my work, but he saw and recognized the guild’s symbols and methods. My involvement with the oculists, and my intention to reveal the secrets of magic to them, was a violation of the coven law. Pius betrayed me to the inquisition, and that might have been the end of my story, if not for Lux.”

“Lux helped you?” I said, unable to contain my surprise.

Prudence wiped her eyes with her left hand, and a small smile tugged at her swollen lips.

“Yes- Lux told me what Pius had done, and warned me that the inquisition was coming to arrest me. I had hardly any time to escape, and in that time I could not decide whether it was better to warn Hope of Pius’s treachery, or to try and distance Hope from any further involvement with a woman marked for death.

“ I allowed myself one last night with Hope. He didn’t understand that I was saying goodbye, and he didn’t hear my warnings about Pius. Instead, he thought I doubted his love. He tried to persuade me that I was still beautiful in his eyes, and that he could keep me safe.

“I would have stayed with Hope longer to try and save him, but my time was short. I suspected that I was with child- the very child Hope and I had wished for, so we could persuade the bishop to allow our marriage. Now, however, I had to leave Hope to protect our child. So I escaped, I gave birth alone, and though we survived, I’m still not sure I made the right decision.”

“Sometimes there is no right decision,” I said.

“Still,” Prudence looked down and sighed. “What must Hope think of me? I did try to send word to him, but it was risky. I only managed to send him one cryptic letter, and I don’t know if he ever received it. I was always running- for almost ten years, I ran. I went from the home of one oculist guild member to the next, picking up work were I could. I tried to make my way to del Sol, but every time I got close my way was blocked by inquisitors.

“Finally, I boarded a freighter that was bound for the nearby bay, but the ship carried contraband. Inquisitors seized the cargo, and me along with it. The inquisitors quickly uncovered my identity, and then they stripped, shaved, and tortured me. The worst thing they did, though, was take Celeste away. I didn’t know what had become of her, and I agonized over her fate when I was alone in my cell.

“The torture eventually ceased, and I thought I would be hanged before I would learn what had become of Celeste. The day of my hanging, however, never came. I was left in my cell without food, alone and forgotten. I was growing thin, shrinking, dying.

“One night- it seemed like it was always night in the tower- an old woman brought me a bowl of gruel. I barely had the strength to eat it, but she helped me. I can’t remember what happened next- I must have fainted- but when I awoke, I was dressed in pilgrim’s robes and riding a cart bound for del Sol. My wounds had been healed, and I was still thin, but no longer emaciated. There was a note in my pocket that informed me that Celeste was safe with her grandmother, and which gave further instructions to ask for Abbess Joy to grant me sanctuary.

“Only one person could have healed my wounds so completely- the same person who had written the note. Lux had saved me once more.”

“Do you believe Lux is trustworthy, then? I asked. “Do you think he may be working against Father Pius?”

“He would never work against Pius,” Prudence said firmly. “Pius and Lux’s very souls are entwined. They bound themselves together using an ancient ritual of blood, mind, and spirit. The reason they chose to bind themselves in such a way was pure, simple love.”

“If that is the case, then Pius must have been complicit when Lux saved you.”

“There can be no doubt of that. Pius knew that Lux did not wish for me to die, so he allowed him to save my life after I was no longer a threat. If Pius has one weakness, it is his bond with Lux. However, the bond works both ways, so we cannot completely trust Lux.”

“Lux told me himself that he was not Pius’s weakness, and I believed him.” I closed my eyes. “I can still see Lux’s eyes, empty of any warmth or compassion as Hope begged him for mercy. After such a display, l could only see Lux’s pity toward me as a farce. Lux is loyal to Pius, and Pius has thoroughly expressed his hatred for me.”

“Then why did you go away with Lux the night you arrived at del Sol?”

“Lux asked me to help him retrieve the Frey family writ of condemnation. I had already deduced that it may save Hope, since he had yet to produce the requisite heirs, and the High Priests seal cannot be broken by anyone. Lux promised me that he would use it to help Hope, and he gave me a weapon to use against him if he betrayed me.

“Even with the weapon he gave me, however, I cannot fully  trust Lux. Lux admitted to me that the witch trial is a farce that Pius is using to serve his own goals.”

“Do you have any idea what Pius’s true goal is?”

“I’ve only gathered hints so dark that I cannot repeat them.”

Prudence shivered, and then stood, walking slowly around the platform. The first rays of morning light shone against her red hair, setting it aglow like molten copper.

“One thought gives me comfort; Lux’s curse is the inability to kill. Knowing Lux’s curse, Pius still made him high inquisitor.”

Lux could kill me, if he chose, I thought. He could kill any Ancient, and Pius would watch him do it gladly.

“There’s so much more you need to know,” I said. “But first, please answer one question honestly. Don’t try to spare my feelings.

Prudence stopped walking and sighed. After a few moments, she turned back and gazed at me so intently that I began to feel oddly naked.

“Very well,” she said. “I love him. Despite all of these years, I still yearn for him. Hope will always be a part of me.”

Without thinking, I stood and embraced her.

Prudence flinched at first, and then she relaxed and wrapped her arms around me.

“You silly girl,” she said. “We’re supposed to be rivals.”

“Our rivalry will have to wait until Hope is free,” I said. “I’m too relieved to find someone else who is on Hope’s side.”

“You trust me, then?”

“I already trusted you. Now we’re more than friends- we’re allies.”

“Not even the Gods could halt your madness,” Prudence said with a laugh. “Pius doesn’t stand a chance.”

 

The Coven, Part LV

Prudence and I climbed the spiral staircase to the observatory together. I clutched Sir Boromir’s treatise in my hands as I walked, and Prudence clutched her own black tome, stopping periodically to make notes as she went.

She closed her book and laid it aside when we arrived. The room was dark, but I turned the crank near the wall, and the ceiling parted to reveal the clear, starry sky above.

I walked around the instrument slowly, examining each crank and lever in the dim light to try and work out the function. “Sir Boromir’s treatise is incomplete,” I said. “The church stopped his work before he could plot the star’s courses- he had only completed his framework. I wish to complete his model using the most accurate observations possible.”

“I won’t stop you,” Prudence said, “and if you need any assistance, I will be here. It’s the least I can do, after making you the subject of my own work.”

“Why are you so keen to make me your subject?” I asked.

“My field of study is metaphysics. I’ve been chasing the secrets of the human soul for years, and if your claims are true then you have presented me with my first viable control; I will explain what a control is as we work. Surely you can guess why I would long to know more about the soul- why some are saved and others damned.”

I turned away from the telescope to regard Prudence. She was standing in the shadows, and was partially shrouded in darkness as though she had donned her veil again. I relaxed into a sense of familiarity as Prudence and Sister Jubilee blurred into one being in my mind.

“I believe so,” I said, sitting on the edge of the telescope’s platform. “You must have wished to free your family from damnation- the same as Hope.”

Prudence nodded and sat beside me. I hadn’t noticed the chill winter wind that leaked in through the ceiling until I felt her warmth beside me, and I instinctively drew nearer. We looked up through the observatory ceiling to the starry sky above, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. Dim stars grew bright, and invisible ones appeared- the universe’s vibrant dance stretched into infinity.

“They’re beautiful,” Prudence said. “They seem so unreal- or perhaps they make the earth and its troubles seem unreal. Why do you study them so seriously, instead of merely admiring their beauty?”

“Unending envy,” I answered. “Look how vast it is- full of mysteries we cannot touch. How I’ve longed to break free from the confines of this petty world and explore the heavens unrestrained! ”

“Then you love learning for its own sake.”

“Learning is both the means and the end. I use my mind to fight for my life and the lives of those I love, but I live so that I may learn as much as I can- to see and know the universe. I am my mind and my mind is me, so how can I separate its use and desires? Perhaps that is what it means to lack a soul.”

“Perhaps not- I have sometimes felt the same way. In my youth, when I ran wild through the hill country with my band of brothers, the world was mine to explore. Painful experience has changed me. I stopped running toward adventure and began fleeing danger, instead. Perhaps this is why I wished to warn you; I see the spark that I once possessed within you, and I couldn’t bear to see it extinguished.”

“I don’t believe your spark has been extinguished,” I said.

Prudence shook her head. “My innocence is lost forever. I can see clearly by starlight what I once missed by daylight. I can see every mistake I made along the way. I trusted my friends when they swore to protect my innocence, but now I understand that I should have relied on myself.

“I don’t mean to imply that my friends failed me- there was nothing they could have done differently. My brother, Justice, was strong and sensible, and when he could not steer our merry band away from danger, he would confront it for us. Serenity- who became Brother Lux after he joined the church- was able to soothe any hurt feeling and repair any broken friendship.” Prudence stopped and laughed a little. “So of course, I fell in love with my one friend who always made mischief among us- Hope. My happiness turned to bliss when I learned that he loved me in return.

“Hope and I didn’t even think to ask permission to marry. Our families were so close that we didn’t expect any opposition- only joy. After Hope and I announced our engagement, Lord Frey and my father called all of the young ones together- Hope, Serenity, Justice and myself. When we were assembled, Lord Frey told us everything they’d hidden from us when we were children- our families’ condemnation, our obligation to continue bearing damned children, and Hope’s obligation to serve the church. Word by word, Lord Frey stripped away my happiness until it seemed that nothing was left.

“Serenity proved his strength in the face of despair. He declared to his father that he’d never intended to marry, and offered to serve the church in Hope’s place. Lord Frey agreed to the compromise, Serenity went to the monastery and became Brother Lux, and Hope and I were free to marry.”

“And yet-” I felt an irrational guilt pierce my heart as I spoke. “And yet you were not able to marry.”

“No. I don’t know why- perhaps he did not want us to confine the family curses, or perhaps it was because I am not a member of the noblesse– but the bishop forbade our marriage. My only chance for happiness in this life was destroyed, and Lux’s sacrifice proved to be in vain.

“My brother left amidst all this on a tour of duty, and shortly afterward my beloved father died. My father had been so kind, so wise, and had worked hard all of his life to instill the best values in his children. Now that beloved soul was truly, irrevocably damned.

“Please understand how wretched I was when I tell you the next part of the story. Imagine my agony before you judge my actions. Hope’s mother died soon after my father passed, and Lord Frey retired to Verdant City for the sake of his health. Hope was as desperate in his misery as I was, and he had to bear it alone. Therefore, against my parents’ guidance and in the face of society’s condemnation, I moved to Rowan Heights to become his mistress.”

Prudence looked back at me with an expectant expression. “You have nothing to say?”

“I might have done the same if I’d been in your situation.”

Prudence smiled wryly. “Most people see things much differently.  My own mother would not see me after I became Hope’s mistress, and when I went into town-” she stopped and shivered. “I would rather not recount exactly what happened, but Mr. Filius came to my rescue.

“After Mr. Filius rescued me, we became friends. I could not visit him in town, so he would come to Rowan Heights for tea. He exposed me to many strange, new ideas. He declared that- far from being a fallen woman- I was virtuous for disobeying an unjust order from the bishop. He talked about science- about seeing the world clearly through your own eyes using only the lens of the method instead of what he called the blindfold of the church. I relinquished my anger and rebellion, for they were extensions of the church’s darkness. Mr. Filius exposed me to the light of reason.

“I decided to shine that light on my predicament. I began to study the human soul and its path to the gods in the hope that I might find a way to break my family’s condemnation. My initial research suggested a very strong connection between the soul and magic, so when Lux introduced Pius at Rowan Heights, I was ready to join the coven.

“Mr. Filius had never believed magic was real; he called it ‘superstitious nonsense’ that was used to label any malcontent as a witch and execute them without evidence. He claimed that the few holy mages that exist used advanced medicine to perform healing, and used trickery and theatrics to perform showier feats. I made a wager with him that I could verify that magic was a separate and unique phenomenon. This bet later became my test to join the oculist guild.”

“So when you gained your powers, you began a scientific study of magic,” I said.

“I began beforehand, while I was still an acolyte. Everyone, present company excluded, has some latent magical ability, but it must be strengthened before one can form a contract-” Prudence stopped and laughed. “I shouldn’t be able to speak of my contract so freely- my knowledge of demonic contracts is bound by the coven’s secrecy gaeas, to which I’m still subject.”

“You aren’t the first to mention it to me,” I said. “The others were familiar with my magical resistance, but none of them ever seemed concerned.”

“That is more evidence in your claim’s favor, I suppose,” Prudence said before continuing.

“I soon became completely engrossed in magical study. I was able to keep up with Hope, whose innate magical ability was so strong that he easily surpassed Lux and the other acolytes, whose names you may be able to guess.

“It seemed that, bit by bit, I was regaining what happiness I’d lost. When my brother came home he and Hope fought, but Hope gained his forgiveness. Afterward, Hope brought Justice into our circle. It seemed everyone else’s motives for joining were political- they wanted to wrest power away from those whose who had persecuted us and seek vengeance. I was too wrapped up in my own experiments to pay much attention to the circle’s plotting, and no one asked me about my own work or ambition.

“Soon, we were ready for initiation, and I realized too late that I did not want it. The process of forming a contract is very painful- it feels as though you are being ripped apart and invaded by a foreign entity. I was repulsed by the sensation of exposing my soul to a demon, or even to my friends in the circle. When the contract was sealed and the pain was over, everyone else became enthralled with the sensation of magic. I was different. When I discovered my curse, combined with my innate power, it became too much to bear.”

Prudence wrapped her veil around her shoulders like a shawl, shivering.

“We should go back inside-” I said gently.

“No-” Prudence looked back up at the sky, which had shifted as we spoke. The widow’s veil had reached its zenith, and Tigris had rolled away to the west. By the heavenly clock’s hand, we approached the dawn.

“I want you to hear the worst,” Prudence said. “I’ve been running from my past for too long, and I believe that you can help me find the path to the future.”

The Coven, Part LVI

The Coven, Part LIV

In life, Prudence was even more beautiful than she’d appeared in miniature. Her cheeks were flushed, her full lips were parted in an expression of shock, and her eyes- the exact color of the bluebells that grew on Rowan Heights- grew wide as she stared at me.

Then Prudence blinked, seeming to snap out of a trance, and stood so abruptly that her stool fell over with a clatter.

“Why would you call me by that name?” she said. “Prudence Goode is dead.”

“A part of me already knew,” I said, “and now that I see you, there’s no denying it. Hope’s miniature was a near-perfect likeness.”

“No.” Prudence took my shoulders and pulled me up to face her. “Look at me. What could you possibly see in this face that resembles the miniature?”

“Everything- your red hair, your bright blue eyes, your complexion-”

Prudence pushed past me and went to one of the glass instruments, gazing at her reflection in its shining surface. After a few moments she turned back to face me.

“Why would you tell such lies? I don’t look like the miniature- I am as grotesque as I have been for years.”

Her expression of resentment was so close to the one Celeste had directed at Hope on Prudence’s death day that the rest of the puzzle fell into place.

”-my mother wasn’t a bit pretty. Her eyes were dull and gray.”

“-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.”

“-Oh, how pretty she was! But- why did she change?”

 

“You’ve inadvertently revealed your secret to me,” I said. “I owe you my secret in return, as I promised.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mother was an ancient, so curses and magic have no effect on me. That’s why I can see your true face.”

“Ridiculous! You’re piling lies on top of lies,” Prudence said. “The ancients were all killed centuries ago.”

“I can provide ample evidence,” I said. “Ancients have been bred in secret as slaves for centuries, and I possess my mother’s contract, which is bound by the high priest’s seal. Also, Abbess Joy can verify my story; she knew my mother intimately.”

Prudence turned to pace the circumference of the room, wringing her thin hands. “Abbess Joy assured me that it was impossible for you to be a witch, but wouldn’t tell me why.”

“Abbess Joy tested me when I was a child, and she verified that I possess the same magical resistance as a full-blooded ancient. It would be impossible for me to wield magic.”  

Prudence stopped pacing and spun back to face me.

“Hold out your hand,” she said.

I did as she bid, and Prudence stepped forward slowly, as though frightened of me. She reached out, took my hand, and stared directly into my eyes.

We stood together in silence as the seconds passed. Prudence’s gaze grew more and more intense, and it took all of my will not to quell under her gaze.

After some time, she frowned. “Do you feel anything?”

“I find your expression rather intimidating,” I admitted. “Mostly, I’m uncertain how to convince you of the truth, or what you expect of me.”

Prudence drew closer, her eyes darkening. “But do you feel any heat? Any desire? Don’t you wish to be closer to me?”

I dropped her hand and backed away in astonishment. “What are you saying?”

She sighed and shook her head. “Nevermind- that was a test, and you’ve passed. It was an ill-performed test, but I will perform better ones in time.”

“Did you attempt to use magic against me?”

“I did. I made an honest attempt, but the spell’s failure may be my fault; my power has waned from neglect. Even so, I can feel the magic I’ve used. You should have reacted.”

Prudence wiped her hand across her pale brow. “You said that a part of you already knew my identity. How?”

“I wasn’t certain, but there were many small clues that seemed to fit. Your connection to Celeste was the largest clue, but your connection with Mr. Filius was another. He’d once told me he was very fond of you. Your familiarity with my situation might have been explained any number of ways, and the interest you’ve taken in me might have merely been friendship. However, on the first night you brought me here, you said you liked me against your will, which seemed very strange.

“The hints all coalesced when I suggested a possible connection between you and the Frey or Goode family, which you were desperate to silence.”

“I must learn to govern my responses as much as you must govern your tongue,” Prudence groaned.

“I didn’t examine these clues too closely,” I continued. “I was afraid I would lose your friendship if I uncovered your identity without your consent. Instead, I wished to earn your trust- to form a deeper alliance.”

“Why? With all of my deceit, you had no reason to trust me.” She looked up at me tentatively, as though awaiting some judgement.

“I had ample reason to trust you,” I protested. “When Celeste called you her guardian angel, and when Abbess Joy gave such a warm account of your character, how could I help but see you as a friend?”

“All of this is evidence against your claim,” Prudence said. “How could a soulless being feel trust, faith, or love?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been aware of my ancestry for very long, and I’m still discovering what it means to lack a soul. After all- I cannot miss what I never had. All I can do is baldly assert that I have no soul, and yet I feel.”

Prudence put her finger to her lips for a moment in thought, and then went to the bookcase, where she opened a little door that was set into the wall. She drew forth a battered, black book, which she dropped onto the table. Then she sat down with pen in hand and scratched notes onto a blank page with a steady, efficient hand.

“The subject claims to be of ancient descent,” she muttered as she wrote. “May be soulless… verify ancestral claims and perform the following tests…”

“I had worried you would react in horror when I told you I was an ancient,” I said. “I didn’t expect to be made a test subject.”

Shush- I’m thinking,” she said. “The subject shows complete range of emotional behavior. A preliminary test indicates magical resistance…”

She continued to write for a few more moments and then stopped, looked upward while tapping her fingers together as though doing a mental calculation, and added another line. Then she tossed her pen back onto the table and leaned forward on her elbows.

“I cannot teach you,” she said. She leaned her chin on her hand as she regarded me, and her inky fingers left black smudges on her flushed cheeks.

“Because of who I am?”

She smiled a little, and her eyes glittered in the clean electric light. “Tonight, my intended lesson lacked impact without the weight of my curse. You were supposed to look at me in horror when you saw my face, not immediately unravel all of my secrets. Just when I think I have the advantage of age and experience, you rush ahead. No- I’ve decided; If we work together, it must be as equals.”

Part LV

The Coven, Part LIII

The next two days passed quietly at the seaside shrine. During the day I kept vigil with Abbess Joy beside my mother’s grave, and at night Dare told me the stories that had been handed down from ancient to ancient over the centuries.

At first, I tried to compare Dare’s tales with the ones I’d read in the stolen book, and to compare both against the litanies and the historical record in order to deduce an accurate history. However, as I listened to the dreamlike cadence of Dare’s voice under the starlit skies, I realized that I was being foolish.

The different versions of history I’d read did not vary because of mistakes they had made- they were not meant to be an accurate record. Each story was a message for the listener, like a myth or a fairy tale, and my desperate search for accuracy was deafening me to the intended message.

“… and so Julia loved Death with all her heart,” Dare concluded on the final night, “but she could only be with him once she’d given birth to Jealousy’s child.”

I wiped a tear from my eyes, but I was able to keep from sighing aloud. Nevertheless, Dare turned toward me and smiled.

“Why do young people always cry when they hear this tale? Julia was happy, in the end.”

“I understand the story’s intent,” I said, wiping away another tear, “but I can’t help but cry. Julia didn’t lose herself to someone else’s desires, but death is also a way to lose oneself.”

“Then how would you chose, if you were given the same choice?”

“I don’t know. I wish I could have everything; I wish I could possess an immortal soul and remain true to myself.”

Dare gazed at me for a long time in the starlight, her pale eyes flicking back and forth as though searching for something.

“When you were born, it seemed like a sign from the Gods. You are half-blood, but you are still the first ancient born free since the war ended. I wondered if you might free us all, some day.”

“I will try. The current danger to the Ancient race is far worse than I’ve conveyed to you. Not only does Father Pius hate us, but he knows a dangerous secret; he knows how to use magic against us.”

Dare’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never heard of such a secret. Magic can’t hurt us.”

“That’s what I believed, too, but Father Pius was able to turn my own resistance to magic against me.”

Dare shook her head. “These are dangerous times. I will warn the others.”

“Thank you. In the meantime, I will think of what else may be done.” I stood and looked up, where the path of souls shone clearly against the velvet sky. “I swear on the earth below and the heavens above that I will try to free our people and all others who are enslaved.”

 

#

 

The next morning, Abbess Joy stood and walked away from my mother’s grave. Together we bid farewell to Dare and returned to the abbey.

Abbess Joy had regained her composure- her eyes were as clear as the blue sky, and her countenance was serene once more.

“Grief never really diminishes,” Abbess Joy said as we walked along the shore, “but we grow strong enough to carry it. I’m sorry I haven’t been stronger for your sake. I’m sorry I let you see my grief so plainly.”

“On the contrary- you have given me what I longed for most. You’ve shown me who my mother was, and the love you expressed for her showed me more than the pictures or letters.”

Abbess Joy paused and took my hand, giving it a quick squeeze before she dropped it to continue.

“When Harmony died, she left a hole in the world. I wish I’d had the power to grant her a soul.”

“Abbess, I’ve heard all of my life that a soul is the essence of a person’s self. But my own feelings and Dare’s stories tell me something else entirely- that it is quite possible to be whole without one. Do you know what a soul really is?”

Abbess Joy looked toward the cathedral spire, which loomed higher and higher in the sky as we approached the abbey. She slowed her pace, as though to prolong our conversation.

“I know what a soul is, but it’s difficult to explain in words you will understand. As you advance in scientific understanding, perhaps I will be able to give you a clearer idea, but for now all I can express are feelings.”

She pushed back her cowl, running her hands through her shining hair in thought.

“You are quite right that a person can be wholly oneself without a soul. To have a soul is to be more than oneself.”

“Dare said that a person’s soul will join with all other’s souls after they die. She spoke of this as a kind of violation.”

“I understand why the idea is frightening to the soulless,” Abbess Joy said. “Perhaps that fear is what made the ancients reject Order’s gift. There is really nothing to fear. I know because I am a part of something bigger than myself, and yet I am still me. I feel infinitely loved, and can give my love freely in return. Yet-”

Abbess Joy stopped and sighed. “-yet since Harmony died, I’ve lost a small part of that feeling. Perhaps that is why I fell.”

We continued to the abbey in silence. The sun was high in the sky when we reached the narrow, gravel path, but the Cathedral bells were ringing. When we arrived in the abbey courtyard, Celeste ran to meet us, followed closely by Mercy.

“Come quickly,” Celeste said, taking my hand and tugging me along. “Sister Love said we shall sing a re- a requirement, but we won’t start until you both come to the cathedral.”

“Do you mean to say ‘requiem?’” Abbess Joy asked with a small grin.

“Yes, something like that,” Celeste said. “Hurry!”

I followed Celeste into the cathedral, passing some pilgrims on the way. Some ignored my presence, and some stopped to stare, but I did not attempt to hide my face.

Sister Love smiled and gestured to Abbess Joy to take her place directing the choir, but Abbess Joy shook her head, and joined the ranks of the chorus. I followed suit, and Sister Meek shared her litany with me as we swelled our voices in song.

The melancholy notes hung in the air above me, mingling with the sunlight that poured in through the clear windows. As I watched and listened, surrounded by friends and loved ones who sang alongside me, the storm that had been brewing inside me seemed to subside.The flame in my heart did not extinguish- it was bright as the sun, and the vow I’d made to free my people burned like a brand.

My mother was gone forever, but those who loved her remained. I was alone, yet not alone. I was free, yet bound by purpose.

I knew in that moment that no one, be they a God or a demon, an angel or witch, would ever deter me from my chosen path.

 

#

 

Sister Jubilee was notably absent from the requiem, and no one whom I asked afterward had seen her all day. Still, I trusted that Sister Jubilee would be true to her word, so when the sun set I went to the tower to await her return.

The tower was empty when I arrived, but I was content to wait alone. A book on one of the forbidden laboratory shelves caught my attention, and I was completely absorbed in its contents when Sister Jubilee finally arrived.

“There’s no greater enjoyment than reading a book you’ve been told not to read,” she remarked from the doorway.

I closed the book halfway, marking my place with my finger. “Why didn’t you tell me Sir Boromir’s lost treatise was here?”

Sister Jubilee sighed and walked around the table. I could tell she was fatigued from the slump of shoulders and her slow, deliberate steps. She pulled a wooden stool toward her and sat down hard.

“I’ve been at pains all day to avoid you,” she said. “I needed to make my decision free from the disruption your presence usually causes to my rational mind.”

“I don’t mean to be disruptive,” I said. I slipped my finger from the book and set it aside. “If you wish to postpone our meeting, I understand.”

“No,” Sister Jubilee said quickly. “I will tell you my decision now, while I still have the resolve.”

She stood, straightening her shoulders and turning her veiled face toward me.

“Let me first explain why I decided the way I did, so you won’t misunderstand my intentions. You made a strong impression on me when we first met, and though I’ve learned more about your character since that day, nothing has counteracted that impression.”

“In other words; if you were to vote on my initiation today, you would still oppose it.”

Sister Jubilee nodded. “You are brilliant, Lady Frey- at least as brilliant as Mr. Filius is mad. You have an intuitive sense for the method that most of us take years to learn. Mr. Filius told us, before he brought you to defend your project, how you proceeded after you made your first observation of Lystra’s phases. He said you asked others to confirm your observations, and that you asked Mr. Filius to test your telescope’s integrity without first telling him why. In your presentation, you made it clear that you built your theory, and then tested your theory against Sir Boromir’s observations to see if everything fit your model . You made some mistakes along the way, but you arrived at the correct conclusion. If I’d judged you on your work alone, you would be a member of the guild today.”

“Then why-”

Sister Jubilee held up her hand. “Please allow me to continue. Sir Silas objected to your initiation because he felt you lacked courage, but my reason was quite the opposite. You are naturally timid, but I believe the caution this afforded you was the reason you were so methodical in your approach to science. Unfortunately, your timidity also denied you the chance to learn what the bold learn early in life- the necessity of resisting strong impulses.

“Because impulsiveness is so foreign to you, you cannot control it when it appears.You rushed to join the oculist guild before you knew what we were. You accepted and looked through your telescope without questioning why the church forbade it. You were right to look, but if you had questioned the church’s motives, you might have known not to give your treatise to a cleric to review.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that you’ve learned to govern your impulses, yet. Therefore, I cannot trust you to act in accordance with the guild’s highest ideals or to protect the knowledge we’ve fought for.”

I wanted to defend myself, but I could not. Sister Jubilee’s words stabbed me to the heart as they forced me to recall the hatred I’d felt toward my father and the Prince, my impulse to vengeance, and my immediate remorse. The truth of Sister Jubilee’s words was clear.

“You have judged me very harshly,” I said. “Thank you. I see my mistakes in a much clearer light.”

Sister Jubilee sat down very close to me, and the fabric of her veil fluttered against my knees as she leaned forward.

“I will not tell you my secret,” she said, “but I will give you a warning. Lift my veil.”

I reached out, and then hesitated.

“Are you sure?”

“I am. You need to see this, so that you won’t repeat my mistakes. Hurry, before I lose my courage.”

I took the thin fabric in my hands and lifted it, revealing the face beneath.

My breath hitched as my mind attempted to reject what I saw. Then everything I’d hidden in the dark corner of my mind flooded to the surface.

 

When this likeness was taken she was just a girl, and she was still happy.”

“…there is some connection between you and Celeste.”

“I can be brave because I’ve just learned that miracles are for real.”

 

I wanted to cry out that it was impossible. Instead, a single name came to my lips.

“Prudence Goode.”

Part LIV

The Coven, Part LII

The woman attacked me so swiftly that her movements blurred together. I was hit by a flurry of blows, only half of which I could deflect.

My heart was racing as I scrambled to counter-attack, but through my panic a part of my mind remained observant. The woman’s blows were faster than Mercy’s, but they were also gentler. Rather than counter with my own blows, I allowed her to overextend herself, hooked the back of her knee, and took her down as gently as I could.

She countered and pulled me down with her, and I lay prone as she jumped to her own feet. She looked down at me in triumph, and then threw back her head and laughed.

“You haven’t been studying long, have you? You fell for the oldest feint there is.”

“Dare, really- I think that’s enough,” Abbess Joy admonished.

“I wanted to see if they’d turned her into a lady,” the woman replied. Then she offered me her hand. “You walk like a lady, and you look like a lady, but you have your mother’s spirit.”

In my confusion, I took the woman’s hand and allowed her to help me stand.

“You know who I am?” I said.

The woman laughed. “Oh, child! I would know Harmony’s girl anywhere. She was like a sister to me, and I see her in your eyes.”

Abbess Joy stepped forward. “This is Dare- she is caretaker of this sacred space.”

Dare nodded. “Come child. I will take you to your mother.”

 

#

 

Dare led the way through the ruins and behind the wooden chapel, to a field of brown sea-grass and white tombstones. The stones at the back, closest to the dunes, were worn smooth by sand and wind, and some had crumbled away to almost nothing. The tombstones closest to the chapel, however, were square-cornered and new. Each of the new stones were carved with a single name and no other embellishment- not even the symbol of order.

We walked to the end of the first row, where we found a stone carved with the name Harmony. Beneath the name, a short epitaph had been scrawled in black ink.

Eternally lost.

Eternally loved.

I stared at the stone, trying to force some deeper part of myself to comprehend the moment’s significance. I had finally returned to my mother, but I didn’t feel anything. My eyes only saw a stone engraved with her name.

After some moments of silence, Dare spoke. “I will bring some fresh water from the cistern. Do you need a cloth?”

“No thank you, Dare. I have rags with me.” Abbess Joy placed her bundle on the ground and gently lay the sol flowers aside. “I will clear the weeds while you are gone.”

Dare bowed low to Abbess Joy, and then departed.

Abbess Joy bent down and began pulling the weeds that grew around the tombstone. I knelt beside her and untangled the weeds that had put tendrils over and around the stone itself. We worked silently and efficiently, and by the time Dare returned with a bucket of water, the weeds had all been cleared away.

Then each of us took a rag and scrubbed the dirt and salt away, rinsing it with fresh water. When we’d finished, I noticed that the epitaph had washed away, but Abbess Joy dried the stone with a fresh cloth and penned it again.

I arranged the flowers on top of the grave, and then Abbess Joy knelt beside it. She did not make the sign of order, bow her head, or fold her hands in prayer. Instead, she placed her hand on the tombstone and spoke.

“I’m sorry I haven’t brought Grace home sooner,” Abbess Joy said. “I’m sorry I failed to protect her as you wished.”

I almost protested that I was safe at present, but her words were not for me. Still, it seemed strange to speak those words to a stone.

“Your girl is strong, Harmony,” Dare said thickly beside me. “She reminds me of you. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of you in some way.”

Abbess Joy turned and looked at me. Her blue eyes were clouded with unshed tears, like a winter mist over a blue sky.

“Don’t be afraid to speak, Grace, if you have anything you wish to say,” she prompted.

“I-” I hesitated as I stared at the stone. How could I speak, when I knew she could not hear me?

As I hesitated, the silence seemed to stretch on and on around me. Everything was as still as stone- even the wind was still. Minutes passed, and I felt as though I had to do something to shake the stillness into life, so I spoke.

“I wish I could truly speak to you,” I said. “I wish I could see you. I would thank you for giving me life. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, but I do cherish life.”

Abbess Joy put her arms around my neck and held me. Dare sniffed loudly behind us, and the scene wavered through the tears in my eyes.

When my eyes were dry again, Abbess Joy sat back on her heels and rummaged through her fur bundle. She pulled out a lacquer box, kissed it, and opened it.

“I’m sorry this took so long,” Abbess Joy said, removing a bundle of papers from the box. “These are the letters I promised you, and some pictures- here.”

Abbess Joy handed me a picture from the top of the stack, and I stared in astonishment. The picture was so vivid that I thought that the wild-haired girl would move at any moment.

“This is masterful,” I said. “Who painted this?”

“It was painted by sunlight,” Abbess Joy said, “another technology I’m forbidden to reveal.”

Dare chuckled.

“She was lovely,” I said. “She looks-”

“She looks like you,” Dare said.

The expression in her eyes, I thought, was fiercer than mine, though just as dark. Her hair was curly like mine, and her smile- no, her smile was not quite the same. We did have the same cheeks, the same nose, and the same brow.

Before I could take everything in, Abbess Joy handed me another picture. This picture showed her holding a spear, poised to strike. I had often thought that Mercy possessed the most graceful form I’d ever seen, but my mother’s put it to shame.

“She was talented,” Dare said. “She wasn’t as strong as me, but she had grace, speed, and the most polished technique I’ve ever seen in one so young. Of course, at the time I was not much older than she was.”

“Your mother had courage, as well,” Abbess Joy said. “The first time I met her, she saved my life.”

“She did?” I looked up from the picture in astonishment.

“Yes. Back then, there was an upsurge of demonic activity in Aeterna. I was confident that I could counter any magical attack on my own, so I traveled to the capital alone on business. The High Priest, however, insisted I travel back with a trained ancient.  I agreed, and your mother joined me on my journey from Bridon to del Sol.

“It was a clear day, and we appeared to be the only travelers for miles around. Even so, Harmony kept eyeing the woods with a suspicious air. Soon, three assassins emerged from the woods, casting magical attacks and wielding swords. She shielded me from the magical attacks with her own body, and after they’d exhausted their powers she defeated them singlehandedly in combat.”

Abbess Joy leaned back on her hands and looked up at the sky, smiling as though she could see the entire scene playing out in the clouds.

“Harmony and I had traveled all through Aeterna and beyond on the church’s orders,” Dare said. “Harmony was a rebellious girl, constantly provoking punishment from our masters, but as long as I was with her, I could keep her under control.

“After Harmony saved her life, Abbess Joy invited Harmony to stay at del Sol, out of the reach of our masters’ punishments. Harmony accepted, but I didn’t think the arrangement would last long; I worried day and night that Harmony would cause trouble at this dull old shrine.”

“She never made trouble,” Abbess Joy said. “She was just what this ‘dull old shrine’ needed.”

Abbess Joy looked back down at me. “Harmony asked as many questions as you, Grace- her mind was full of energy.”

“That was the trouble,” Dare said.

“No- I’m the one who caused trouble.” Abbess Joy looked up at the clouds again. “I was always at odds with the Gods and the High Priest, but I had grown accustomed to a certain amount of indulgence. I’d always thought that the Gods’ laws were too harshly enforced. To satisfy my concerns, I was given del Sol- a place where the repentant could seek refuge and forgiveness.

“For a long time, I was content to aid the pilgrims who came seeking absolution.  I dreamed that my work here could truly change the world. I realize now that I had been asleep, and when Harmony came into my life with her fire and determination, I awakened. I began to question not just the harshness of the Gods’ punishments, but the laws themselves. I questioned whether the ancients should still be enslaved for the sins of their forbears, and whether Order’s hierarchy was just.”

“You went too far,” Dare said.

“The High Priest believed that Harmony had corrupted me, so he invited us to the Cathedral Lux under false pretenses and separated us after we arrived. Harmony had saved my life, but I failed to protect hers.”

Dare drew closer to Abbess Joy and, in a bold gesture, wrapped Abbess Joy in an embrace. Abbess Joy leaned her head on Dare’s shoulder, accepting the comfort without hesitation.

“Is that when the High Priest sent her to my father?” I asked.

Abbess Joy nodded. “Harmony contracted her illness shortly after she was married, and she was allowed to come back…”

Abbess Joy’s voice caught, and she sighed deeply before she continued.

“There was nothing I could do to help her- my healing magic was useless.”

“She didn’t expect you to save her,” Dare said gently. “She just wanted to see you again.”

I turned to the next picture on the stack, of the same young woman looking pale, subdued, and heavy with child.

“I still hoped,” Abbess Joy said, tears returning to her eyes. “After you were born, Grace, I thought she might recover. She looked at you with such joy in her eyes that I thought the worst was over.”

Abbess Joy pulled away from Dare and knelt by the tombstone once more.

“I never knew loss before Harmony died. I was always able to commune with the souls of those who had passed. I’ve always been able to hear their voices in my prayers. I will never hear Harmony’s voice again.”

Abbess Joy leaned her head on the tombstone and wept once more.

I knelt down to hold Abbess Joy, to comfort her as she had once comforted me, but she seemed oblivious to my presence as she continued to weep. After a few moments Dare helped me to stand and, with a sad shake of her head, led me away from the graveyard and back to the worn chapel.

The chapel was not filled with old pews and and a rickety altar, as I’d imagined. Instead, there was a comfortable sofa, desk, and a large, black stove that filled the back part of the room.

“Have a seat,” Dare said, pointing to the sofa. “Read your mother’s letters, and I will make us some tea.”

“Should we leave Abbess Joy alone?” I asked. “I don’t mind going back-”

“She prefers to be alone,” Dare said, feeding driftwood into the stove. “Her kind aren’t often this emotional, and I think she’s ashamed. She always insists that she be left all night to keep vigil.”

“But it’s so cold,” I said. “She will need shelter.”

“It doesn’t matter. Be there rain or ice, she never feels the cold.”

“Does she use holy magic to protect herself from the elements?” I asked.

Dare put the kettle on the hob. “I don’t know much about magic, child. Sometimes I wonder if magic is nothing but madness, and our people are the only ones left who are sane. Still, I can see that Abbess Joy is different from us. I’ve watched with envious eyes as she has stayed young and beautiful while my hair greyed and my skin wrinkled. If I can see it so plainly, then it’s probably something other than magic.”

“You said that ‘her kind’ aren’t often emotional. What is her kind?”

“Abbess Joy is a fallen angel,” Dare said. “The rest of her kind are in heaven.”

I had a hundred more questions, but before I could ask, Dare excused herself to collect more driftwood, and I was left alone with my mother’s letters.

 

#

 

Dare returned to the chapel within a few minutes, but by then I was too wrapped up in my mother’s letters to question her further. The light outside grew soft as I read, and I used the scattered clues inside to piece together a mosaic of who she was.

The writing style was simple, and many words were misspelled. She had not been highly educated, but she was literate- a rare quality in one enslaved. I wondered if she’d been given just enough education to follow written orders, since she’d been trained as a guard and assassin.

Abbess Joy had described my mother’s mind as active, and I imagined I could see why. In her letters to Abbess Joy, she always wrote about the future- “When I’m sure you are safe, I will put away my spear forever.” “ One day, I will show you all of the places I’ve seen. Promis you will do the same.” “I will see you soon at del Sol.”

I read the final letter several times, which ended with her last future hope. “Lord Ainsworth told me I may come to del Sol. I will spend my last days with you, and you will meet my child.”

When I looked up from the letters, I noticed that Dare had left the chapel again. I folded the letters carefully and placed them back in the box before I went outside.

The sun had set and the moon cast red light over the ruins. There were no clouds, there was no frost, and the barest of breezes brushed my skin. Overhead, the winter constellations glittered, beckoning my eye.

I turned away from the moon and traced the dragon toward the eastern horizon, which was partially blocked by a cluster of broken pillars. I saw Dare in the center of the pillars. She was moving in a soft, slow pattern that seemed too gentle to be a martial form, but too purposeful to be a dance.

Dare looked in my direction, but her movements did not cease. Instead, she twitched her fingers in a beckoning gesture, and smiled at me as she continued.

I joined her in the center of the rubble and copied her movements as best I could. The form was slow enough to follow even in the dim moonlight, but it required far more strength than I’d anticipated to sustain the poses. We went through the form once, and then, with seemingly infinite patience, Dare cycled back to the beginning.

“I’ve never seen Miss Mercy do a form like this,” I said.

“This form is part of your heritage, Grace. It’s been passed down from ancient to ancient for centuries. The Church gives us martial forms that teach us to kill, but this form grants us the strength to live.”

I moved through the form again on my own, committing the moves to memory. After I finished, I turned and bowed to Dare.

“Thank you for teaching me,” I said.

“This form is just one piece of your birthright. There are stories that you’ve never learned. Tell me, what do you know of the ancients?”

“I know that the they- we– are soulless. Because of this, we are unable to do magic, and we are barred from eternal life. We warred against the Gods, and were defeated by man. Most of us were killed, and the remaining few were enslaved.”

Dare nodded. “It’s a familiar story- one that our masters tell to remind us that we deserve our enslavement. We are owned by the Church, you see, and the High Priest issues our commands through his bishops. Father Sauris always promised that if we worked hard for absolution, we would one day be free.”

“Has Father Pius made any such promises?” I asked.

“Father Pius has not spoken to any of us yet, even through the bishops,” Dare said. “The young ones who should act as his guards have been sent back to the ancient temple, and are awaiting orders. I suppose this is because there may or may not be war between Aeterna and Sancti.”

“Perhaps,” I said. “Still, be cautious; I have reason to believe that Father Pius harbors a special hatred toward the ancients.”

“Oh?” Dare sat on a broken pillar and put her chin in her hands. “I won’t be summoned to the ancient temple- I am too old to be useful, now. But when one of our people comes here to mourn, I will tell them to spread the word. We are usually cautious when the priesthood changes hands, and moreso when there are whispers of war.”

“Thank you. I wish I could give more than a warning.”

“I can tell that you plan to give more, in time,” she said. “I doubt your father taught you to fight. You are preparing yourself.”

I sat on the pillar next to Dare, taking the time to order my thoughts, and looked up at the stars. The moon had set as Dare and I spoke, and the sky was so dark that the path of souls- which usually stretched like a dim ribbon of white across the sky- seemed to glow.

“I am woefully unprepared,” I finally said. “All of the histories I’ve read contradict each other, and I need to see the past clearly to understand what is happening now. Tell me- do the ancient tales explain why the Gods made war against us?”

“Oh, yes,” Dare said. She leaned back to gaze at the sky, and the starlight reflected in her pale eyes.

“In the beginning, the ancients, humans, and Gods were one race,” Dare began in a singsong voice, as though reciting a litany. “We were all equal, possessing bodies and minds without souls. We enjoyed a golden age of peace and prosperity on Terra.

“The golden age was destroyed when Order discovered the secret of the soul. He gave souls to his friends and companions, and they became the Gods and angels. He promised everyone else that, if they pledged their faith to him, they would one day gain a soul as well.

“The ancients, however, rejected Order’s gift. To escape retribution, we bound ourselves to the earth, making us free of souls and magic forever. Order declared war on the ancients, but soon after there was a schism among the angels, and his loyal angels were needed to make war in heaven. The humans, eager to earn their souls, slaughtered the ancients on the Gods’ behalf.

“The humans earned their souls, the remaining ancients were made the slaves of the Gods, and Order won the war in heaven, casting the rebellious angels into hell. This is the order of the universe we know today, and the only way to escape is through the Gods’ forgiveness.”

“Why did we reject Order’s gift?” I asked. “Why refuse the ability to use magic, and the chance to live forever?”

“The price of a soul was too high,” Dare said.

“Do you mean obedience to the Gods?”

“Obedience is bad enough, but we can endure it for a greater prize. No- the price of a soul is the loss of loneliness.”

“What do you mean? How can the loss of loneliness be-” I stopped as Dare looked back down at me with her shining eyes, and a faint, knowing smile on her lips.

“I know you’ve felt it, child. You’ve spent happy hours by yourself, building castles from your thoughts, and drifting peacefully in your own universe. Sometimes, someone will interrupt you, and you feel as though your world has been shaken to its core. Even if the intruder is a loved one bearing pleasant news, the invasion is painful.”

“Everyone must feel that way at times- even with a soul.”

“Perhaps, but very seldom, and only in their earthly life. After death, the souls of the faithful are bound to the Gods, to each other, and to the forces of nature itself. The universes they’ve made in their minds are opened, examined, and invaded as they become one with all. That is what it means to have a soul. That is magic.”

I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself, as though to protect myself from more than the wind.

“I wish that we were immortal, Grace. I wish your mother were still alive somewhere. But I understand something that Abbess Joy, in all her wisdom, never will. Nothing can ever take away what belonged to Harmony alone- not even the love of an angel.”