Miriam, Lystra, Terra, Mari, Tigris, Surra, Astra…
I spoke each word of the mantra under my breath, yet each one seemed so sharp and clear that I felt as though I might have shouted. Once every so often, my awareness would expand, and I would realize how luminous the room was, how calm my heart had become, and how easily my breath cycled. Then I would turn my mind back to the words- not the planets they represented, but just the words. How could something so simple be so powerful? It grew easier and easier focus my mind, until I knew nothing but the words.
This luminous place seemed a thousand miles away from the dark bedroom where I’d been moments before. Prudence and I had spent the night conspiring together, as we always did. We had speculated who the stalker on the road from the cathedral might have been, we had composed letters to Hope’s attorney, to my solicitor, and to Prudence’s mother, and then, as the new day had begun to dawn, we’d talked about Hope.
“Pius still won’t let you see him?”
“No. He says I’m not ready. Hope has altered, and Pius is afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the alteration.”
Prudence had shuddered and drew her knees to her chest as she gazed at the orange embers that lay dying in the grate. “Oh Hope- Hope. What have they done to you?” she’d whispered.
We had ceased to be any help to each other- we were lost together in the same tumultuous waters of anxiety and grief. We sat side by side, we held each other’s hands, and yet we had no strength between us to share.
Prudence had been first to emerge from our mutual stupor. She stood suddenly and tore back the curtains, letting the dull orange light from the rising sun inside. Then she turned to me with a frown.
“I need to get out of this room. Is there anywhere else we can be alone?”
I had stood slowly, and it had taken a few moments for me to emerge from the darkness enough to speak.
“Come with me- I know a place,” I’d said.
I took Prudence upstairs to the garret, where we sat in my fortress of books. There, Prudence had given me another lesson in meditation as the morning light spilled unfiltered through the skylight.
I was improving, but I was not able to focus on my mantra as long as Prudence could. While Prudence continued to meditate long into the morning, I and allowed my mind to drift, enjoying the clarity of thought the exercise had provided.
I picked up the old collection of fairy tales and puzzled over the Tale of the Magi. The tale that had frustrated me so long ago now seemed simple- the mage’s soul and his strength of will were entwined. Could this be a clue for the nature of the soul, I wondered? Could a person merely will their own soul into existence?
This brought a memory, unbidden, to the front of my mind- a cruel taunt that Pius had used against me. “You want to obey me, but your will means nothing. You aren’t free- just powerless.”
Does Pius really believe I possess no will of my own, or did he only mean to torment me? I thought. I knew I had a will of my own, but it seemed strange- unfathomable. When I merely think about moving my hand, my hand does not move. The movement only comes when I somehow force it to act. When I considered this, the moment between thought and action seemed as thin as a knife’s edge. What was there? How could I see it?
I thought of reaching out, and then I reached out. I could not see the moment of will. I thought of picking up a book, and then I picked up a book. Still- I could not see- could not feel what had happened. I thought of dropping the book and then I dropped it. That time, I thought I’d felt something akin to the tightening of a string.
Then the garret door swung open, and my thoughts were interrupted by the pattering of feet, followed by laughter.
“I’m sorry- I didn’t know anyone was here,” Celeste said, reaching down to pick up Snowbear. “I couldn’t keep Snowbear quiet any longer, so I brought him up here. He needs to go for his walk, I think.”
“Then we shall take him,” I said, standing. “Do you think he would like to see the avenue?”
Prudence opened her eyes slowly, as though emerging from a deep sleep, but she stood and said, “yes, a walk will do us all good.”
Prudence flung on her veil, and we all went downstairs together. As we were putting on our wraps, however, Mercy rushed out.
“You must not go out alone,” she scolded. She put a very close bonnet over her cap, as though to protect from the sun, and then checked that snowbear’s lead was secure.
“We must stay on the avenue and then come straight back,” Mercy said as she opened the door. “Lady Frey- Lady Fairfax asked me to remind you that you have another obligation this morning.”
“Ah, yes. I remember,” I said.
“It may be best if you stay here with your father. We will be back shortly,” Mercy said, eyeing me from underneath her bonnet.
“I understand,” I said. “I’m sorry, Celeste.”
“That’s alright. Give your father my love,” Celeste said, reaching down to pat Snowbear one more time before they left.
The party left and shut the door behind them, their laughter seeming to echo in the empty foyer behind them.
I went upstairs and found my father alone in his bedroom. He was awake and sitting up in bed, staring blankly out the window at the quiet street below. He did not seem to notice when I sat beside him, and he did not respond when I bid him good morning.
“I brought you the Gazette,” I said as I settled myself in a chair beside him. “You always preferred the Gazette to the Post, did you not? I hope you will forgive me if I skip the lead story.”
The lead story was a rather threadbare article on the upcoming trial, in which the author only offered the opinion that “the Gods’ justice will no doubt be served when the truth comes out,” with no speculation about what the truth may be. The second story, which I read aloud, was about a merchant ship loaded with expensive spices from the wildlands that had been lost at sea. This was followed by slanderous gossip about the behavior of the merchant’s seventeen-year-old daughter, which I skipped in disgust.
With a couple more omissions, I read to the end of the paper without inspiring so much as a twitch from my father. There was noteworthy absence of gossip about the dealings of court or the Prince, though I was almost tempted to invent something with regards to the Prince to see if that would provoke my father to react.
The temptation was fleeting. Instead I reached for one of the books in the stack by father’s bed, a tome titled, Wars of the Piscina Islands, and began to read once more.
I had only read a few pages when there was a soft knock on the door. Before I could answer the knock, Brother Lux opened the door and entered.
“How is my patient?” Lux asked as he entered.
At this greeting, a hot wave of anger washed over me so suddenly that it seemed almost irrational. I turned away and took a few moments to calm myself.
As much as I hated Brother Lux, the hatred was not new or fresh enough to provoke my anger. The new anger that existed was toward myself- Brother Lux had only served as a mirror.
“There has been no change,” I said finally, and I remained in my seat as Brother Lux came into the room. Brother Lux moved around the bed and briefly examined my father, and then he sat in a chair across from me.
“Has your father been sleeping well?”
“I don’t know. You had better ask Lady Fairfax or Mr. Smith.”
“Have you been sleeping well?” Brother Lux asked, turning to me with raised eyebrows. “You seem in a poor mood, this morning.”
“On the contrary; my mind is very clear. It’s only just occurred to me what a hypocrite I’ve been- what hypocrites we all are.”
I put the book aside and folded my hands, looking into Lux’s eyes.
“Why do you continue to care for my father when you know nothing can be done for him, and when his improvement would be against your own interest?”
“Your father is human, and he is suffering,” Brother Lux said. “I know that you don’t believe it, but everything that I have done, and continue to do, is to end suffering on earth.”
“I thought you might say so,” I said. “You believe what you say, too. You are like me, in a way. It’s human nature.”
Brother Lux tilted his head and graced me with a condescending smile. “You are young. I recall how profound everything seemed when I first discovered human nature. It’s easy to let yourself grow cynical.”
“I’m not only being cynical. Remember that I have been to court, and I made friendships that I value quite highly among all of the intrigue. Take Lady Innocence, for example: she is a kind and gentle girl, and a loyal friend, but in her mind life is a story, and she is the heroine.
“Lady Innocence must have earnestly believed the stories she told herself, because she gave up her homeland, her people, and her property to further the plot. Even so, she left her place at court and gave up her new alliances when she saw that the Prince was going to fall. This almost broke her spirit, until she was able to tell herself a new tale, and fit it with the old one. She still sees herself as a lady, even as she toils at del Sol. She is still the heroine of Aeterna and the flower of the court, even though she acted to save herself when it was rational to do so. At del Sol, she can still serve Order, Aeterna, and the greater good.”
“I don’t doubt what you say, but you and I bear very little resemblance to Lady Innocence.”
“Don’t we? Most people are the heroes of their own tales. Most people think that they are ‘good.’ When they act cruelly, they formulate rationalizations to explain away the inconsistency of their character. I have done this myself- I see myself as the victim of the cruel villains around me, and I’ve blinded myself to the villany I’ve committed.
“If I don’t change the pattern of my mind, I will continue to destroy the goodness within myself until nothing remains of me but a story.”
Brother Lux leaned back in his chair, and though he did not break my gaze, he seemed almost to squirm under it until my father cried out, and he was forced to look away.
“It has come for me- the destroyer of souls,” Father cried. “It is here! My fate has come for me.”
“There is nothing here,” Brother Lux said, and he stood to go to my father. “Go to sleep. There are no monsters.”
Brother Lux tried to press my father back against his pillows, but my father fought back, kicking at Brother Lux until his own legs became tangled in the bedclothes. I went to my father’s other side and took his shoulders, but though he was not as strong as I had remembered, he squirmed so much that it took all of Brother Lux’s and my combined effort to subdue him. Finally, Brother Lux placed his hand over my father’s head while I held my father still in a grip of Iron.
“Go to sleep,” I said in frustration.
My father sighed, lay back on the pillow, and closed his eyes.
I wiped the sweat from my brow. Struggling with my father in the close little room had proven far more exhausting than sparring in the cool sea breeze at del Sol. I went to the window and threw open the sash.
“He- he is resting,” Brother Lux stammered. “I think it would be best if we did not disturb him any further, today.”