You will tell Uncle Hope that I miss him, won’t you? And Uncle Just, too?”
Celeste had asked the same question three times already. She looked as anxious as I felt inside- she had long since given up picking at her breakfast, and was half-standing in her chair as though ready to jump up and leave at any moment.
I took a deliberate bite of scone, and then swallowed before I answered in as calm a voice as I could manage.
“I will certainly convey your message to your Uncle Hope,” I said. “I don’t know if the inquisitors will allow me to see the others, but if they do then I will give Captain Goode your message, as well.”
“I told Grandmaman to give Uncle Just my love, but she didn’t really promise that she would. She didn’t want to talk about Uncle Just at all. Do you think she is angry at him?”
“Your Grandmother isn’t angry at Just,” Prudence said. “She simply doesn’t believe that young ladies should discuss grown-up matters.”
“But we are still family,” Celeste said indignantly. “What does my age have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know,” Prudence said. Then she managed a lopsided grin and said, “I already agree with you, Celeste; you should argue with your Grandmaman, instead of arguing with me.”
For a moment, Celeste looked ready to argue further, but then she sighed, folded her napkin, and went around the table to kiss her mother on the cheek.
“I’m so glad to see your smile, now, that I don’t even mind you’re being difficult.”
Prudence raised her eyebrows, but leaned into the embrace. “I’m being difficult?”
“The world is full of miracles,” Celeste sighed happily, ignoring her mother’s words. “I’m sure that the trial will go well, and we will all be happy together at Rowan Heights again. But- quick! I just heard footsteps. Put on your veil!”
Celeste flung Prudence’s veil back over her face. In a few moments I heard the footsteps Celeste had heard, followed by Snowbear’s barking.
“Oh! That dog- Lady Fairfax will be cross if he isn’t quiet.”
Celeste left Prudence to straighten her veil and ran from the room. She returned a few moments later with Snowbear in her arms.
“Snowbear found an intruder,” Celeste said crossly.
Before I could ask who she meant, Brother Lux entered the nursery.
“Pardon me- I don’t mean to intrude,” he said with a bow toward Celeste. “I have come to escort Lady Frey to the cathedral.”
He turned to me and said, with another bow, “as soon as you are ready, I am at your service.”
Brother Lux spoke to me as he had all week: with a mix of his usual, gentle tone combined with a new air of overcautious formality. I wondered whether he was trying to ease his conscience or soothe my anger after I’d learned that he’d blinded Hope, but neither explanation made much sense to me given his present state of power.
“I am ready,” I said curtly. I brushed a few crumbs from my dress and stood. “Just let me get my things.”
Brother Lux turned to Prudence. “You will need your wrap, as well. It looks like it will rain again.”
Prudence shot up. “You mean- I might see him, too?”
“I’m so sorry; I thought I’d told you. Pius would like a private audience with you, so he’s asked me to take you to his office on our way to see the prisoners.”
Prudence turned her veiled face to me, but did not speak.
“There is no need to hesitate. Pius remembers his vow. He only wishes to speak with you.”
“I took the liberty of speaking with Miss Mercy. She’s agreed to stay and protect Celeste while you are gone.”
Prudence looked at me again. I could tell that she was making the same calculations as I, though we could not discuss them aloud. What could Pius have to discuss with Prudence? Was he separating us purposely? Finally, with no recourse, Prudence nodded and sighed.
“My things are in the cloakroom.” Prudence said, but before she could move Celeste threw her arms around her waist.
“Please- no. Don’t go.”
“It will be like before,” Celeste cried. “The night they took you, or the night they took Uncle Just and Chastity. All of the grownups said it was alright, but it wasn’t.”
Celeste’s eyes were bright, and in between her words she was taking short gasps, as though she could not breathe from fright.
“Darling,” Prudence said gently, putting her arm around Celeste’s shoulders. “What happened to the optimism you had moments ago? Don’t you believe in miracles, anymore?”
“I believe in miracles, but I know that bad things can still happen. I couldn’t stand it if something else went wrong just when- just when- when it seemed like things were going to get better.”
Brother Lux stepped forward. “Breathe, Miss Celeste” he said. “I have no intentions of-“
“I can’t,” Celeste said, gasping harder. “I can’t breathe- if- you- say…”
Brother Lux stepped closer and put his hand on Celeste’s forehead. “Breathe,” he simply said.
Celeste’s breathing slowed a little, and she shut her eyes for a moment.
“Please,” Celeste said heavily. “Don’t take her away.”
“I will not,” Brother Lux said quietly. “With your leave, I will bring Father Pius here, instead.”
Celeste looked up sharply. “You will?”
Brother Lux nodded. “How could I possibly say no when you look at me with those brown eyes. You needn’t worry today. I hope that I will earn your trust in the future.”
Brother Lux lowered his hand and stepped back. “I must still take Lady Frey to the Cathedral. I hope you trust that I will bring her back safely.”
“Lady Frey can fight bandits,” Celeste said, raising her chin a little. “I’m sure she can fight you if she needs to.”
Brother Lux turned his dark eyes to me, and nodded sharply.
“You may be right, Miss Celeste.”
The carriage ride to the St. Blanc Cathedral was excruciatingly long. It wound through the slick city streets and then onto a muddy path that connected Verdant City with St. Blanc.
The length of the ride made me feel more acutely how long I’d been gone, and the anticipation of what I would see on my return was awful. I knew I would weep, but seven so- I would see Hope again.
When the ride was finally over, the carriage pulled up to the cathedral door where two men stood ready to meet us- Father Pius and an inquisitor I recognized as Brother Amicus.
“The coachman will be ready shortly,” Brother Lux said with a bow to the two men. “He wishes to clean the horse’s hooves, and then you may be off.”
“Of course- thank you,” Brother Amicus said with a smile that was as bright as sunlight breaking through clouds. “We should have plenty of time, but if we are late we can only offer the lady the cart- everything else is being used, at present.”
Brother Amicus turned and looked at me shyly. I quickly assured him the cart would be fine, and he bowed deeply in reply.
I felt a new sympathy for Prudence and Mercy when I watched brother Amicus and Father Pius enter the carriage. I understood how they must have felt when I went to meet Pius alone, and why they always asked so many anxious questions afterward.
Prudence will be alright- remember Pius’s vow. I reminded myself. You must think of Hope.
Brother Lux offered his hand, but I brushed it aside and picked my way through the puddles to the cathedral door on my own.
Brother Lux did not take me into the dungeons. Instead, he led me downstairs into a small room adjacent to the dungeon entrance. He left me in the company of red-robed inquisitor with a promise that he would return shortly.
I sat in silence for what seemed like hours, but my pocket watch only ticked past a quarter-hour. My red-robed guard did not seem disposed to make conversation, though I attempted to engage him twice before I gave up. I strained my ears to for any sound that would indicate Hope’s approach- the creak of a stair, or the sound of heels on stone- but I heard nothing. Finally, when it seemed as though I would sit in anticipation all night, the door creaked open.
Brother Lux entered first, walking backward as he led his prisoner by the hand. For a moment I could hardly recognize the prisoner he led inside- the prisoner’s hair was closely-shorn, and he was shaven, yet he was covered in grime and filth. His brown robe hung on his frame as though it had been draped on a skeleton.
Then my heart seemed to leap into my throat as I recognized the prisoner’s face. His sunken cheeks had made his cheekbones and his high-bridged nose more prominent. His mouth was dry and cracked, but is was still full and warm as it mouthed his first words.
“Is she here?”
I could not speak, for fear I would cry aloud. The only answer I could make was to rush forward, and to take his free hand in mine.
“Grace!” Hope clutched my hand with surprising strength. “Oh! Speak. Let me hear your voice.”
I swallowed hard and spoke. “I am here.”
Hope was alive. I hadn’t realized how little I truly believed that he was alive until I could see him- touch him. I took him in my arms, gingerly, and allowed my tears to flow.
Hope was with me again, but nothing was the same.
I dried my eyes as soon as I could manage. I had three gifts to give Hope, and two of these gifts would have to be given in secret before the guards’ eyes.
I looked over Hope’s shoulder, and I saw that Brother Lux had backed away and stood against the wall. I leaned closer to Hope, closed my eyes, and concentrated.
I was able to find my new power quickly. It was getting easier with practice, and Hope’s trembling, suppressed sobs helped me to steel my will. I thought of the despair he’d first shown me on Prudence’s death day, and the cries he’d uttered in his sleep every night I’d let go of him. I thought of the false images he’d described- the illusion of hell- and I could feel the place where the curse resisted my will.
My will was like iron. I hardly had to move before I could feel the curse shatter into pieces.
Hope gasped aloud, and then his gasp turned into soft laughter.
“My brother is still here, isn’t he?” Hope said. “He’s trying to be quiet, but I can hear his breath. He’s here with guards, who are waiting for me to betray myself.”
“Brother Lux is still here, and there is one guard with him,” I confirmed. “Never mind them. Here- there is a chair here, and I will sit next to you. There is so much I wish to tell you, and wish to hear.”
“How are you?” He asked as I helped him to sit. “And, please, how is Celeste? Are you both well? Are you both happy?”
I sat beside him and clutched his hand to my heart. Here was the second gift I had to give- one that could be given freely. “Celeste is well, and she has grown considerably since you last saw her. She is almost to my shoulder, now. She has devoured all of the primers, and she is tackling complicated books. She will soon be ahead of me.
“She’s asked me to tell you that she loves you. I am a poor messenger- I cannot convey how much she loves you.”
“No- no, you are perfect. I can hear the truth in your voice. I would trust no one else.”
Hope leaned toward me earnestly, and clutched my hand in both of his.
“What about you, Grace? I’ve been anxious about your health since my brother told me you had been ill at del Sol. I can only imagine what sickness you may have been exposed to, in a place where the ailing flock for healing-“
“I’m perfectly well- please don’t worry about me. I only caught a small cold, and had to stay in bed for a couple of days. I was well over the cold by the time we came to Verdant City.”
“You are quite sure?”
“Perfectly sure,” I place Hope’s hand on my cheek. “My only concern now is that you remain strong, and that your suffering is not beyond what you can endure until you are freed.”
“I can feel how strong you are,” Hope said, stroking my cheek. “I am glad. You must take care of yourself, for there is little chance I will be freed.”
“I do not agree- and I am not only speaking with a wife’s bias. Your solicitors believe that you have a case. Trust me- you have more support in the public than you can possibly realize.”
“That- that is surprising to hear. But there is no point in trying to save me. I am a broken man,” Hope touched the edge of his blindfold with his left hand. “I didn’t wish you to see how broken-“
“It’s ok- I already know.” I kissed Hope’s hand and then held it in front of my heart.
I had sat with my back to the guards on purpose, and I hoped that, from where they stood, it would look like I only stroked Hope’s hand in affection. In reality, I was tracing letters onto Hope’s palm, over and over, with a practiced motion.
“I cannot promise the recovery of anything permanently lost,” I said as I traced the letters, “but when I was at del sol I saw how remarkable a recovery people can make from starvation, depravation, and even torture.”
I continued to trace the letters as I spoke. The third time I completed the words, Hope seemed to understand. He gasped and clutched my hand.
“Are you- are you quite sure?” he said. “You are not attempting to give me false hope?”
“You know my character too well to ask,” I said. “You know I always examine all available evidence as carefully as I can before I reach a conclusion, and that I would not make such claims lightly. In this case, there can be no doubt.”
Hope took a deep breath, seeming lost for words. He had received my third and final gift.
My vision blurred for a moment, but I blinked the tears away.
“You are well loved,” I said, hardly able to keep my voice from trembling with emotion. “Many people are fighting for you, and I convey their love as well as my own. I promise that we will not stop fighting for you.”
“I- I believe you,” Hope said breathlessly. “I love you, Grace. Please give Celeste- give everyone my love, as well.”
I leaned forward to kiss Hope. Hope kissed me back, deeply, drinking from my lips as though they were a fountain of life.