Miss Taris reached into her robes and drew forth a white envelope, sealed in red wax and bearing on its seal the symbol of del Sol.
“I traveled with Miss Goode until we reached the third checkpoint,” Miss Taris said. “There, I left her in the care of Brother Amicus, but before I departed, she gave me this letter.”
Hope reached out to take the letter, but Miss Taris held it out of his reach.
“Before you take the letter and run away, listen to my offer. You see, I no longer need to use letters to communicate with those I love. I pray to Wisdom, he hears me, and he speaks to his other Angels on my behalf- including Brother Amicus, who has recently ascended. With my help, you could speak to Miss Goode or Miss Celeste through Brother Amicus any time you wish.”
“How would I know that you’re really speaking to her?” Hope said.
Miss Taris arched her elegant brow. “The easiest way would be for you to pray to Wisdom, and to allow him to communicate the truth of my words straight to your heart. But if you are still not ready to accept Wisdom as your God, you may ask questions only Miss Goode would know, and I will answer until you are satisfied that I really am communicating with her.”
“That way, you get to hear our secrets,” I said.
“It’s a small price to pay for the assurance that Miss Goode and Celeste are safe. If you stay with me, you will be able to monitor their safety until they arrive at del Sol.” Miss Taris stepped past Hope and handed me the letter. “Consider this an act of good faith.”
She bit her lip as though to suppress a smile as I accepted the letter. Then she turned to Hope.
“You are free to stay or go. Let me know when you’ve decided.”
Miss Taris brushed past us, and walked toward the festivities in the square.
The alley did not reconnect to a main street on its far side, but rather, it ended in a small alcove containing a small, algae-encrusted fountain. Hope and I sat together on a dirty bench by the fountain, leaned our heads together, and read as the sounds of festivities echoed off of the stone walls.
My Dearest Hope and Grace,
Miss Taris has offered to convey this message to you, and though I long to communicate with you, I also wish that you would remain out of her grasp, and therefore never read it. If you do receive this note, know that Miss Taris plans to use me as bait to catch you. Do not listen to her offers and flee her grasp as soon as you can. Celeste and I are well-protected, and we are on our way to the safest place on Terra. You, however, are in constant danger from Wisdom’s manipulations.
I fear that, despite all the efforts of Prince Hadrian, the Aeternan church, and even Sancti’s army, Wisdom’s conquest will be easy. Wisdom’s powers grow by the day, and everywhere I go I hear the unconquered already singing his litany. Wisdom has given the downtrodden something that Order has denied for centuries; hope for a better life. Many of Wisdom’s followers may try to get you to sing his litanies, and I would not recommend that you not do so, even to pacify them (though, I must admit, I have a great curiosity to hear the litany sung in Grace’s unique voice.)
I don’t have much time to write, but I have several more messages to convey. First, Mercy has asked me to tell you that we have not encountered any danger so far in our journey, and that she has all the strength she needs to protect us if we do. Celeste has asked me to tell you that she loves you both, and hopes that she will see you soon. I find I can convey her feelings better than my own; for now, know that my greatest wish is that you both to remain free from Wisdom’s grasp.
Remain safe. All my love,
Hope and I looked up from the letter at the same time, and I handed it to him, reflecting on its contents as he carefully folded it.
“I would recognize her hand anywhere- this couldn’t have been forged,” Hope said.
“She seems just as strong as she did when I left her,” I said. “But…”
“I know. She could be wearing a brave face,” Hope finished my thought.
“She has given us a puzzle in this letter,” I remarked. “When she wrote of Wisdom’s litany, I got the impression that she knows some secret about it.”
“The power of Wisdom’s litany was apparent when I heard it on the road,” Hope said. “Her advice not to sing it was sound.”
“Yes, but her statement that she would like to hear it sung in my ‘unique voice’ was puzzling. There is nothing special about my voice.”
“I happen to like your voice,” Hope said. “It is very nice.”
“It’s not unique,” I said, waving aside his gallantry. “I have a voice that was trained by easily frustrated governesses, and nothing more. I am unique in other ways.”
Hope knitted his brow as though he began to see the puzzle. He took my hand and kissed it, and then he gently pushed back my sleeve, revealing the scar that remained there, pale white against my skin.
“There is a puzzle in this sigil,” Hope whispered. “Wisdom’s symbol, and the mark he’s placed over it, is imbued with magical meaning. This is indeed a mark of death.”
“Remember that magic can’t bind us,” I said, pulling my sleeve down to cover the mark once more. “He can try to bind my people with contracts, or sigils, or any other magic he chooses, but there is always the hope we may escape. In that respect, at least, we are free.”
Hope nodded, but the concern in his dark eyes deepened.
“Wisdom possesses military power, so there is still real danger to your people- and not only your people, but the world,” he said. “I don’t believe Wisdom will stop his conquest at Aeterna’s borders. Ultimately, there may be nowhere to run.”
Hope stood and dipped his hand in the fountain, allowing the water to drip off his fingers into the wide stone basin. He watched the water flow in silent contemplation, and then he turned back to me, his eyes filled with resolution.
“Wisdom is using my own child and the woman I’d lost to entrap me, but this time, at least, I will enter the trap with my eyes open. If he plans to glean my secrets, perhaps I can glean his in turn. Perhaps by keeping my enemy close, I will discover the means to fight him.”
I hesitated, torn between keeping Hope safe and keeping Prudence and Celeste close. Finally, I spoke. “I wish to fight him too, but is knowingly entering a trap the wisest course of action?”
“I was never afraid to fight Order. Why should I be run away now, when Wisdom’s rise is so much more my responsibility?”
“I don’t believe you are responsible,” I said. “But that won’t sway you, will it?”
“I won’t abandon Celeste and Prudence to an evil God when I might still save them.” Hope dried his hand and held it out to me. “Will you stay with me, Grace? I will not press you, if your conscience leads you elsewhere.”
This time, there was no hesitation. I stood and took Hope’s hand. “I will follow you, and I will fight.”
Miss Taris was standing near the alley entrance as we emerged, hand-in-hand. She smiled knowingly and gestured for us to follow.
She led us into the alley and back to the alcove, where she sat on the bench as tall and elegant as a queen.
She closed her eyes and hummed a little prayer to herself. When she opened her eyes, they glowed soft white.
“I am ready,” she said. “Ask any question you wish.”
Hope stepped forward and cleared his throat. “I stole something when I was thirteen years old. Prudence caught me, but she swore she would keep it a secret. I release her from her oath. What did I steal, and what did I give her in return for her silence?”
Miss Taris closed her eyes again and sat in serene silence for a time. Then she opened her eyes and laughed.
“I- I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you, but-” she suppressed her smile. “When you were thirteen there was a farmer near Hill Country Village, Mr. Alder, who grew a rare variety of golden apples. One day you climbed his orchard fence and stole a basketful of the apples, even though Mr. Alder had already whipped three other boys for committing the same act. You hid in the cottage on bluebell hill to eat them, but Prudence- who had run to the cottage to cry after a fight with her mother- found you.”
Hope’s expression was stony, but his eyes grew red as he listened.
“Prudence was still angry from the fight, so she scolded you for stealing the apples, and threatened to tell. You offered her an apple in exchange for her silence, but Prudence claimed another prize- your first kiss. You gave Prudence the kiss, and afterward you shared your apples with her, anyway.”
Hope turned his face away from us. His voice was hoarse when he said, “it is really Prudence.”
“Prudence would also like to add that Celeste heard everything when she told the story to Brother Amicus, and now Celeste won’t stop giggling. She asks that from now on, you ensure your questions are appropriate to be answered within the hearing of a young lady.”
“Of course,” Hope replied. “Grace, is there- is there anything you would like to ask?”
I felt something familiar when I heard the emotion in Hope’s voice- something I could not discern as either joy or pain. It was the same feeling I’d experienced the day I sang by Hope’s and Prudence’s side.
I reached out to caress Hope’s shoulder for just a moment, and then turned back to Miss Taris.
“I trust my husband’s judgement- I believe it is Prudence. Are she and Celeste well? Are they safe?”
Miss Taris smirked. “Prudence says that she has been guarded more closely than the crown jewels, and that you are a pair of fools for staying with me instead of fleeing.”
“Tell Prudence that I’m sure that she is right- that we are fools- but I’m still grateful that she can tell me so.”
“Prudence reluctantly admits that she’s grateful to be in contact with you, as well.”
Miss Taris leaned back and sighed deeply. “This is fatiguing; is there anything you would like to add before I break the connection?”
“Please convey my love to Prudence and Celeste- and my gratitude to Mercy for guarding them,” I said
Miss Taris turned to Hope. “And you, Lord Frey?”
Hope smoothed his robes and turned around once more. His eyes were red, but dry.
“My love and gratitude as well, if you please. Oh, and tell Prudence-” He paused, and then smiled a little. “Tell Prudence that it was good to remember.”
The crowds in the square had grown while we’d hidden in the alleyway. As soon as we emerged, we were surrounded by revelers, who crowned us in flower garlands and swept us into a circle of dancers.
It was easy to dance with Hope, now- easier than it would have seemed before we’d communicated with Prudence. Though Hope and I found ourselves caught in another trap, Prudence and Celeste were alive, and that was reason enough to celebrate.
Hope wore a wistful expression in his dark eyes as we danced, and knowing the expression’s origin inspired that strange feeling to swell in my heart. I puzzled over the feeling just a little; if the emotion was jealousy, then it was nothing like the jealousy that was described in books.
A tiny voice in the back of my mind spoke, telling me that if I would just look a little closer at the feeling, I would see something I’d overlooked, and everything would be clear. Therefore, I ignored the little voice and the feeling, and simply danced.
I had not danced with Hope since the ill-fated revelry at St. Blanc. The present dance was just as intoxicating, just as ill-advised, and just as wonderful as the last one.
While the people danced and sang around the square, the men in the center continued to work. Soon, a voice cried out “the monument is complete- look!”
Music grew silent, feet grew still, and everyone looked up to the monument, which now bore the small alterations that changed the symbol of Order to the symbol of Wisdom.
“This symbol will endure,” the tallest workman called out to the crowd, placing his hand on top of his handiwork. “This symbol will remain here, untouched, because this is a new era of peace.”
“Hear hear!” the crowd responded with a cheer.
“I still recall how afraid I was yesterday,” the man continued. “What a fool I was! We were struggling then- hungry and unsure of the future because our crops had all been struck by the red blight. Even so, I stood by my brother and my father, bearing arms I didn’t know how to use, ready to lay down my life for a sleeping God.
“When I saw the red robes of the inquisitors, and the legions of men who marched behind them, I was certain that this was my last day on this earth. How surprised I was when I advanced on soldiers who did not attack in kind! How puzzled I was when they deflected all of my blows and did not attempt to land a single blow on me. And then, when Wisdom appeared-”
The man stopped speaking, seeming too overcome by emotion to continue. The workman behind him, a reedy youth, stepped forward and put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“We were all renewed- filled with miraculous strength. My bad eye,” he gestured to his bright, perfect left eye, “which had been fused shut since I was born, opened, and I saw the most beautiful sight I’d ever beheld. Wisdom was radiant- it almost burned like sunlight to look at him- but everything the light touched healed. My father’s rheumatic joints were made well. The scars on my brother’s arms disappeared. Then the rain began, and it washed away the red blight. The fields were filled with grain, and the trees with fruit.
“I can’t remember the last time Order answered even my most faithful prayers. But yesterday, Wisdom gave his miracles to the sinners who stood against him- I have never known such mercy. I dropped my arms, knelt, and pledged my faith to my sworn enemy on the battlefield.”
“We have all pledged our faith,” the third workman said in a low, gruff voice. “What else can we give him in return?”
I heard shouts of joy and praise, and in the crowd around me people began to speak, each telling the tale of the miracles they had experienced. The celebration continued through the night and after the sun rose again.