My dearest Grace,
I’ve never received a more welcome surprise than when my brother brought me your letter. I have been left alone in my cell for so long that I’d begun to think nothing could ease my loneliness. Yet, when I read your letter, I could almost hear your sweet voice in my ears.
I rejoice that you and Celeste have been reunited, and that you are safe. I wish that I could fulfil my duty as husband and father, and protect you both, but circumstance has forced me to rely on the kindness of strangers. Del Sol has a good reputation for providing protection for all who seek sanctuary; still, I urge you to exercise every possible caution. I know that you have reason to love Abbess Joy, but her past and her motivations are shrouded in mystery.
I realize this statement may be fruitless, but do not worry on my behalf. I am not exactly comfortable, but I have not been subjected torture. I am being given the first degree of questioning, which is more tedious than painful. My only real hardship is a lack of sleep, which my troubled state of mind will hardly allow.
But I have found a greater rest than sleep, dear Grace. Instead, I close my eyes and summon your image to my mind. I remember the morning we spent in each other’s arms, the evenings we spent dancing together, and the nights that you showed me the majesty of your beloved stars, and suddenly I am transported to a heavenly realm. Despite my current position, I am a very lucky man. I have a well of happy memories to draw from- from the memories I’ve made with you and Celeste, to the childhood with my brother as a boy and those golden years that I had Prudence by my side. Though some of my loved ones have passed on, I am blessed with their memories forever. I could not ask for a greater gift.
You must see, my beloved, that there is no need to weep for me. Even though I long for you with every fibre of my being, you are always with me in my mind. Things may be difficult, but you are safe and free, so do not neglect to cultivate your own happy memories.
My vision blurred with tears, and I could not read any further. I had read the letter three times already, and had composed my reply, but the power of Hope’s words had not waned in the least. I kissed the paper and pressed it to my aching heart, allowing the tears to fall from my eyes.
Your faith shames me, I thought, as though I could speak to the image of Hope’s smiling face that my mind had conjured. From now on, I will do my best to indulge only in happy memories.
My dreams of Hope had continued since the night I arrived at del Sol. They always began happily, like the dream of flying through the snowy hillside by Hope’s side. But my dreams would inevitably turn dark, and Hope would be torn away from me. How could I continue to complain about such dreams, when Hope literally saw hell every time he slept?
Even so, Hope’s words were still happy, and his thoughts were with me.
How harshly I’ve judged you in the past! How could I have doubted your virtue? Your character shines through your every word.
.”Excuse me, my Lady,” A soft voice interrupted my reverie.
I sat up quickly, dried my eyes, and put my false spectacles on to hide the tears.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the young man continued. His inquisitor’s robes glistened like fresh blood in the light that spilled through the cloisters, but he approached me slowly, as though afraid that I’d shy away.
I stood to meet him, putting the letter in my pocket. “How may I help you, Brother Amicus?” I asked in the strongest voice I could manage.
“Good Afternoon, Lady,” the inquisitor said with a slight bow. “Have you finished your reply to Lord Frey?”
“I have,” I said. I drew the letter from my pocket, and looked it over briefly before handing it to Brother Amicus. “I have yet to affix my seal, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, does it?”
Brother Amicus took the letter, and ducked his head as though in shame. “I am so sorry, Lady Frey. I promise to ensure the letter is treated with the utmost respect-”
“I cannot trust your words, when I’ve so recently been abused and insulted by your brethren.”
Brother Amicus straightened and stared at me, his innocent eyes wide with shock. “What do you mean, my Lady?”
“I’m referring to my recent correspondence with Brother Gaius- the inquisitor who has made himself at home in my husband’s estate,” I said. “When I inquired about the wellbeing of the estate and tenants, he replied with a letter so vile that I cannot repeat its contents. I’ve since discovered that the tenants are being neglected, and the staff falsely imprisoned.”
“I see,” Brother Amicus sighed. “Lady, please accept my apology on behalf of Brother Lux and the inquisition. Brother Gaius is a remnant of the old order, and we have not yet been able to purge the old order’s corrupt practices. I assure you that, when Lord Frey’s trial begins, we will do a full inquiry into Brother Gaius’s conduct.”
“Why wait until the trial? The tenants and staff are suffering now.”
Brother Amicus’s shut his eyes and bowed his head again. He stayed in this posture some time- motionless, except for the occasional shuddering of his shoulders. Just underneath the breeze that swept through the cloisters, I thought I heard his breath catch.
However, when he raised his head again, his eyes were clear and his expression resolute.
“Believe me- I don’t wish for anyone to suffer. I joined the church to help relieve human suffering, and during my time at the monastery, I was able to work to that end. Under Monsignor Pius, the brothers never strayed from the highest ideals of our faith.
“Since I’ve joined agreed to work with the inquisition, however, I’ve seen such egregious acts of cruelty and corruption that I nearly resigned. But after many hours in prayer, under the guidance of wisdom, I realized that this would have been a grave error. Brother Lux and Father Pius need my assistance if they are to draw all of the poison out of the church. They are treading carefully because the poison runs very deep.”
“Given Father Pius’s position, why must he tread carefully? His power on this earth is above even princes.”
“Before he can eradicate the corruption, he must find it. If he can gather enough evidence to do a proper, public inquiry, not only will he uncover all of the misdeeds of Father Sauris’s men, but he will ensure the the public will accept the purge. He must protect not only those who suffer now, but those who may suffer if the corruption is allowed to spread again.”
Brother Amicus came closer and pressed my hand. “In the meantime, my Lady, keep your letter from Brother Gaius safe, along with any other evidence you have against him. I know I speak for my true brothers when I thank you for your strength and sacrifice. Bless you, Lady Frey.”
Brother Amicus smiled, sunlight seeming to glow in his sky blue eyes. He made a sign over my head- not the symbol of order, but the sign I’d seen the strange pilgrims make in the Cathedral. Then he bowed to me and walked away- though the cloisters and out of sight.
All week, del Sol had been subject to unusually warm days followed by nights of bitter cold. Each day, sunlight melted the ice that the evening sleet left thick on the ground, and then when evening prayers began, I would hear the wind whistle outside of the calefactory, and winter clouds would gather in the sky outside.
The evening I received Hope’s letter, Sister Jubilee, Celeste and I sat alone together. Sister Jubilee taught Celeste a complicated stitch while I carefully embroidered a yellow sol flower onto a new, white pilgrim’s robe.
The Pilgrims had collected enough alms for Sister Love to purchase yards of fresh broadcloth in addition to the salt, spices, tallow, lamp oil, and bandages she bought in the Hill Country village. Because of this, we were able to give the pilgrims new robes in addition to housing and caring for them.
Coming to del Sol, I thought, had been like being cast out of heaven and falling to earth. At St. Blanc, all of the work necessary to maintaining the palace was easily hidden in its splendor. At del Sol, however, almost everything we enjoyed was the fruit of our own labor, and even the things that we purchased from town were carefully accounted for.
Seeing need, labor, and reward so closely tied together made me eager to prove myself useful. Despite my hatred of needlework, I had agreed to help with the task when Sister Jubilee requested it. Now, despite the temptation to return to my cell and brood over Hope’s letter, I was determined to keep my mind on the task. This was a difficult task; the pleasant sounds of teasing and laughter from Sister Jubilee and Celeste proved a jarring contrast to my troubled thoughts.
Brother Amicus seemed sincere,I thought as my mind took a brooding turn. But his kind intentions are useless as long as his loyalty lies with Father Pius. I must continue to rely on myself.
“Loop the thread like this,” Sister Jubilee was saying, “Like a rabbit’s ears.”
“I’ve never seen a rabbit with three ears,” Celeste giggled.
Distracted from my useless thought, I began to stitch once more.
“The fairies’ rabbits have three ears,” Sister Jubilee insisted. “Now, let me see the back.”
“Why does the back matter? No one will see it.”
“You’d be surprised what can show through, if you make enough of a mess,” Sister Jubilee said, taking the embroidery hoop from Celeste.
How much of the inquisition’s corruption is being hidden from me, I thought as my mind wandered once more. If nothing is being done to stop the inquisitors at Rowan Heights, the interrogators are likely being given free reign. Hope said that he is not being tortured, but I have no doubt he’s being treated more cruelly than he admits.
“Here, Celeste. Undo these stitches and try again.”
Celeste sighed and took back her hoop, and Sister Jubilee turned to me.
“Is the design too difficult to follow?” she asked, taking my work to examine. She looked at the design I’d stitched for a long time before going to the fire. Then, with her back to me, she threw back her veil to get a closer look.
I found myself leaning forward in anticipation, but Sister Jubilee lowered her veil before she turned around again.
“Why did you tell me you had a little experience with embroidery?” she asked in quiet, neutral voice.
I gazed at her, trying to see the disapproval through her veil, but as usual I could see nothing.
“I’m sorry; I did try,” I said. “I have been a little distracted, tonight Can it be fixed?”
Sister Jubilee came closer and thrust the robe into my hands. “You aren’t at St. Blanc anymore, so there’s no need for false modesty. Your stitching is perfect. This work is exquisite.”
The sincerity in Sister Jubilee’s voice was so warm that I felt my cheeks grow warm in response.
“It isn’t, really,” I protested. “I’ve done better work that my governess made me undo, and this isn’t half as fine as Miss Taris’s-”
“I haven’t seen Miss Taris’s work, Lady Frey; I am speaking of yours. It’s beautiful. Why did you tell me that you could only sew a little?”
“I did not believe that I could do more,” I said.
“I see,” Sister Jubilee said quietly. She sat down beside Celeste. “You have grown a great deal since our first meeting, but some habits don’t die easily. You should learn to trust yourself.”
“Your praise has more weight to me than my governess’s censure,” I said quickly, “but I must have some guidance; no one can honestly judge their own work.”
“I’ve redone my stitches,” Celeste said, handing her own work back to Sister Jubilee. “I did very well.”
“You did,” Sister Jubilee confirmed. She held out the hoop to me. “What do you think, Lady frey?”
I took the hoop and saw a straight row of heart-shaped stitches. The middle one was slightly crooked, and the stitch on the end had uneven sides, but the row was straight and the back was tidy.
“You did very well,” I said. “You’ve improved a great deal.”
Celeste smiled and took back the hoop. “Lady Frey, since I finished my work, may I read my letters, again?
“Your letters?” Sister Jubilee asked.
Celeste nodded. “My uncles wrote back to me. Lady Frey gave me the letters this morning.”
“I see,” Sister Jubilee said. She took her own work from a common basket and threaded a needle. “I am glad they are able to write to you.”
The calefactory door opened, and Celeste ran to greet the sisters who were returning from confession as she left.
Miss Taris came to sit beside me while the others chatted with Celeste at the door. She was just as pale as she had been when we arrived at del Sol, and even her thick spectacles could not hide the dark circles under her eyes.
“Miss Taris,” Sister Jubilee said gently, handing Miss Taris a cup of hot, black tea. “I wish you would allow Abbess Joy to examine you.”
“She already has, as a matter of fact,” Miss Taris said. “There is nothing physically wrong with me- not that she can find. I just need some more time to rest.”
Miss Taris turned to me. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. There is an empty cell near yours, on the quiet side of the dormitories. Would you object if I took it?”
“As long as Abbess Joy doesn’t mind, I have no objection,” I said. “Of course, you may not find it very quiet. Mercy…”
I trailed off, struck by a sudden thought.
“Miss Taris, why don’t you join Mercy and me in our morning exercise? I’m sure it will do you good.”
Miss Taris leaned back in her chair, blinking owlishly behind her spectacles.
“Are you certain?” Sister Jubliee interjected. “The exercise looks very… vigorous, to me.”
“I wasn’t very strong when I began- I could only do stretches and some of the simpler forms. My strength increased very quickly, though.”
“Perhaps your strength increased, but you already had the courage to persevere,” Miss Taris said, looking down at her thin hands. “I’ve always lacked courage of any kind.”
“You have more courage than you think,” I said. “You found the strength to defy your father, after all. What are a few exercises, in comparison?”
“Mercy will never agree,” Miss Taris said. “She views me as her enemy.”
“I will speak to Miss Mercy, if you like.”
Miss Taris bit her lip and looked to Sister Jubilee, as though for help. Sister Jubilee continued to do her needlework, and said nothing.
“You know that I long to grow stronger, but lately it seems as though I’ve reached my limit. If Mercy agrees to teach me, then I will try to learn. If I fail, please don’t think any less of me.”
“I wouldn’t- I promise,” I said. “But I believe that you will surprise yourself.”
“I daresay she will,” Sister Jubilee said. “Most people are capable of more than they believe.”
Sister Jubilee’s hands paused in their work as she spoke, and I imagined that she gave me a knowing smile from behind her veil.
Mercy entered the room, then, with Abbess Joy and Sister Blessing close behind. The room had slowly filled while Miss Taris and I were talking, and now all the sisters were present, working and chatting merrily in the firelight.
I stood and went to meet Mercy. “Good evening.”
Mercy smirked in reply. “You have the air of someone about to ask a favor. What is it?”
“Well- I hate to ask after you’ve done so much for me, but-”
Mercy Laughed. “You really must be more aggressive when you attack. As it happens, I’ve just received a very nice letter from your friend, Mr. Sutton, regarding my wages. Now I’m in a mood to grant you anything you ask.”
“I’m glad Mr. Sutton is acting as he promised,” I said. “But please- don’t think I am trying to bribe you. Everything he offered is your just due.”
Mercy sat down with her back to the hearth. “Hurry and ask, then, before my mood sours.”
“Would you be willing to take another pupil?” I asked.
“Oh! Yes,” Sister Love, who had been sitting on the opposite side of the hearth, picked up her work and came closer. “I’ve enjoyed watching your morning lessons, and I must admit that I’ve tried to do some of your forms on my own.”
“As have I!” Sister Blessing said. “Miss Mercy, if you would just show the beginner’s form a little more slowly, I’m sure I could get it.”
“Perhaps we all should learn,” Sister Purity said quietly.
“Really?” Innocence said, letting her own needle slip through her fingers.
“Yes, really,” Sister Purity said, picking up Innocence’s needle. “There are no men present at the Abbey, and most of the pilgrims who come here are old and infirm. The bandits are getting bolder, and it isn’t fair that we all rely on Abbess Joy’s magic to protect us.”
Sister Love nodded in agreement. “Abbess Joy cannot come with us when we go to town for supplies, either.”
Mercy’s lips twitched, as though she were stifling a laugh. “I’m perfectly willing to teach, but would it be proper for holy sisters to practice such a brutish, manly art?”
Abbess Joy, who had been sitting at the center of our circle and watching the conversation with the air of a queen, dropped her work and gave Mercy a sharp look.
“Abbess?” Sister Love said tentatively.
“Miss Mercy, I’ve held my tongue long enough,” Abbess Joy said. “I can tell that you are a skilled martial artist- skilled enough that you should be able to train my sisters how to fall gracefully, to pull their punches, and then return them to me after their lessons without bruises all over their arms and legs.”
Mercy’s cheeks grew red.
“I don’t know what lesson you’ve been trying to teach Lady Frey, but she seems to understand. Nevertheless, I will only allow you to conduct your classes if you promise that Lady Frey will get the same treatment as everyone else.”
“Abbess Joy, I-”
“No, Lady Frey. She’s right,” Mercy interrupted. “I’ve tested your strength, and you passed.”
“You helped forge my strength,” I said.
Abbess Joy took up her needlework again. “I’m going to the south dunes on week’s end, and I will stay for three days. When I return, you may start your lessons.”
“Mercy- will you teach everyone?” I asked.
“Everyone but Celeste- she is too young,” Mercy said.
Miss Taris caught my eye and smiled.
The other sisters began to talk excitedly amoung themselves, and Abbess Joy moved her chair closer to mine.
“I go to the south dunes every year, on Harmony’s death day,” she whispered into my ear. “Will you come with me this year?”
“Oh- may I?” I breathed.
“The south dunes are on the abbey’s sacred ground, though they are on the outskirts. There’s something I there that I wish to show you.”
“I will come. Thank you.”
Abbess Joy pressed her hand against my arm briefly, and then fell silent.
I put my work away and took one more look around the warm, cheerful circle of friends around me. Then I excused myself and went out into the cold winter wind to return to the dormitories, where Hope’s letters awaited me.