A contract, Prudence thought, is not a clay bowl that may spring an occasional leak. It is a sieve, with no end of holes in it.
Prudence was sitting by a stream, far away from the road so that she could wash her face without being seen. She leaned closely over the stream, but still- when she cupped water in her hands, half of the water leaked out by the time her hands reached her face.
It is just like the blood oath Pius made, Prudence thought. Pius, she was realizing, would not have killed her or Celeste, simply because there was no advantage to be gained by doing so. When the deal had been struck, however, she had been so frightened that she had only thought to bargain for safety. She hadn’t even attempted to consider Pius’s true interests.
Now she was on her way back to del Sol, and any advantage the oath might have given had slipped away like water through her fingers. Pius had her in his grasp, and until she arrived at del Sol he could use her to trick, manipulate, or blackmail those she loved.
Prudence pulled the veil back over her face and stood, turning toward the road. There were carriages and carts backed up for a mile at least, full of people who had thought to flee Verdant City before violence erupted. As Grace had predicted, there were fewer available inquisitors, but the inquisition had not abandoned the checkpoints altogether. The result was at least a day’s delay for any traveler attempting to pass through.
Is this part of Pius’s plan, too? Prudence wondered. Does he hope this chaos will delay my return to del Sol?
Prudence turned away from the road and toward a grassy field, where Mercy and Celeste laughed and played. Prudence watched their merriment with a heavy heart. She was no expert, but she had seen Grace’s training sessions often enough to realize that the “game” Mercy had proposed was not a game at all, but rather a martial exercise disguised as a game.
The game was a variation of ‘tag’, in which Celeste must run and touch a tree at the end of the field before Mercy could catch her. Mercy started the game between Celeste and the tree, and performed a complex set of attacks that Celeste was forced to dodge as she ran.
When Celeste had declared that the conditions of the game were unfair, Mercy had only replied, “that is the game.”
Mercy was being gentle with Celeste, only impeding Celeste’s progress by blocking her path and tagging her with light touches. Still, Prudence felt a chill go down her spine as she watched, imagining a true assailant trying to catch her daughter.
Still, Prudence could not stop the game. She could not deny its necessity.
“You are very deep in thought,” Prudence heard Miss Taris call from behind.
Prudence turned to see the young lady, who was dressed all in white, with her blonde hair worn immodestly down to her waist and her face glowing with health and happiness.
Prudence turned away again, muttering, “I have much to occupy my thoughts.”
Prudence moved to join her daughter, but Miss Taris took her arm.
“Wait- I have some news for you.”
“Is it- the outcome of the trial?” Prudence asked hesitantly.
“The outcome doesn’t matter, anymore. Last evening, Wisdom’s followers stormed the dungeons and liberated all of the prisoners. They are, at this moment, being conveyed to safety. Lord Frey is on his way to del Sol.”
Prudence spun sharply to face Miss Taris. “Can we wait for him to catch up with us?”
Miss Taris shook her head. “He must go in secret; Order’s loyalists are still after him.”
Prudence clenched her fists in frustration.
“Have you heard anything about Lady Frey?” She asked slowly. “Is she still being kept in Verdant City?”
“No, she travels with Lord Frey. Don’t worry- both are safe. Wisdom is in control.”
Miss Taris smiled, emanating an aura of triumph and peace. Her magic was young, and so strong that Prudence could almost see it shimmer in the air around her- pink and blue and gold. Prudence could not help but be affected by the feeling, but knowing its source helped her examine her own thoughts more closely.
“So- Lord and Lady Frey are in the same predicament as me. We are all at Wisdom’s mercy.”
Miss Taris laughed, and a feeling of joy burst forth, flooding the field all around them.
“Have faith, Miss Goode. Yes- I know your true name, but you needn’t worry. Wisdom harbors no malice toward you, and so neither do I.”
Miss Taris stretched forth her hand, and the emanation of joy grew, until it was like a halo of gold all around her.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I am Wisdom’s angel, now, and I bear his goodwill. All you have to do is reach out and take his gift, and all of your cares will be over.”
Prudence took a step back from the offered hand. “What gift? What do you mean?”
“Worship him- sing his litany with me. Make Wisdom your God, and you will be free from your family’s condemnation. Wisdom has made his own heaven, and there is a place for you there.”
Prudence shuddered, but did not speak.
Miss Taris stood for a time, as still as a statue, with her hand outstretched. Then she chuckled a little and lowered her hand.
“You remember how it felt- the curse you suffered when you made your contract,” Miss Taris whispered. “That is only a taste of hell, Miss Goode. Would you really be willing to suffer that for eternity? Would you really allow your own daughter to suffer the same fate?”
Miss Taris turned toward the field where Celeste and Mercy played their game, and Prudence followed suit. Celeste was running past Mercy toward the tree once more, and when Mercy attempted to block her, Celeste used one of the techniques Mercy had shown earlier to get past. Then, with a cheer of triumph, Celeste reached out to touch the tree.
Before she could touch the tree, however, Mercy grabbed her from behind and tackled her to the ground, tickling Celeste until she shrieked with laughter.
“I cannot decide for Celeste,” Prudence finally said. “But I have chosen for myself. I will not worship Wisdom.”
“I don’t understand you at all,” Miss Taris said with a heavy sigh. The joy dissipated from the air around them, leaving only a quiet peace. “Is it pride that holds you back? Resentment? Wisdom offers you everything, and still you will not take it.”
“Wisdom only offers me eternal happiness. Eternal happiness is not what I seek,” Prudence said.
“Then- what do you seek?”
Prudence thought for a moment, and then a secret smile blossomed behind her veil.
“I seek myself.”
In the field beyond, Celeste dragged herself away from Mercy, and moved her arm just enough to brush the bark of the tree.