Did Hope look stronger since I’d seem him last, or was it only my imagination? His cheeks were still sunken, his eyes covered in bandages, and his clothes and skin covered in grime. Yet he seemed to stand a little taller, and to be steadier on his feet as Brother Lux led him into the room.
Beside me, Prudence stiffened and clutched my hand, holding me fast in one spot just as I wished to go to him.
“Hope- I am here,” I called.
“Grace,” Hope said. “Oh! Brother, take me to her.”
Before Brother Lux could respond to the request, I dropped Prudence’s hand and went to him. Brother Lux stepped aside, and I took Hope in my arms.
“Each time you come, it is like a dream,” Hope said. “I can hardly believe you are real until I touch you.”
“Then your dreams have been good?” I asked.
Hope laughed. “Oh yes- a free mind can escape any prison or hell. Thank you for teaching me this.”
He drew me nearer and kissed the top of my head.
I would have let myself fall into the bittersweet sensation of his embrace, had I not been keenly aware of Prudence’s presence in the room. I could almost feel her gaze burn into my back as I embraced her former lover- the father of her child- and provided him comfort that she could not.
I took a deep breath and broke the embrace.
“We are not alone,” I said. “I’ve brought a dear friend with me. Her name is Jubilee. She is a sister from del Sol, who has been an invaluable friend and companion to me since I was in seclusion there.”
Having given my line, I stepped back to allow Prudence to come forward.
“I have come to offer prayers of redemption from del Sol,” Prudence said in a trembling voice.
Hope’s mouth formed an “O” of surprise and he stepped forward, feeling for Prudence with his hands outstretched until she stepped forward and took his hands in hers.
“Your name was…”
“Jubilee,” Prudence said. “It is an almost forgotten word for a time of salvation and liberation.”
“Jubilee-“ Hope whispered as though in wonder. Then he cleared his throat and spoke. “You have come to a dismal place, Jubilee. Some may even say it is a dangerous one- for young ladies, I mean.”
“I am not so young- not as young as I once was,” Prudence said. “I have lived in safety and seclusion for too long.”
Though Hope’s blind eyes were covered in bandages, and Prudence’s face covered with a veil, they stood face to face as though they could look deeply into each other’s eyes. As I watched, my heart trembled with a sensation I could not discern as either joy or pain.
“You are brave to come here,” Hope said. “Is it really worth entering this hell, just to pray for someone as wretched as I?”
“I am a sister of del Sol; it is my duty to bear light into dark places. When I heard of your plight, I could not-“ her voice caught. “I could not stay away.”
“You are kind as well as brave,” Hope said. “But your prayers are wasted on me, for I have been condemned from birth. Could an angel of mercy really forgive someone like me?”
“I do not believe you are beyond forgiveness. We are all sinners- myself more than most, for in my past I have abandoned those that I loved. Yet… I still hope for forgiveness.”
Prudence’s last words were spoken like a question, and her back stiffened slightly, as though she were awaiting judgement. Hope, however, shook his head and clutched Prudence’s hands even tighter.
“I’m certain that someone so kind- so brave- only acted according to necessity. Those you loved should have protected you. I am not an angel or a clergyman- I have no power to forgive the sins of others- but I suspect that you do not require forgiveness.”
“You are too good. I-“ Prudence stopped and took a shaky breath. There must have been tears beneath her veil, but her voice was steady when she spoke again.
“I wish I had more to give, but all I can offer is my prayer. Grace-“
I felt as though I had been watching Hope and Prudence from afar, but when Prudence spoke my name I was called back to earth.
“Please, Grace, join us in prayer,” Prudence said.
She dropped Hope’s right hand and offered her left hand to me. I stepped forward, taking Prudence’s delicate hand in my right, and Hope’s strong, sinewy hand in my left. Something clicked into place as I did, as though by taking my place in the little circle, I had completed a puzzle.
Prudence raised her voice in song, and Hope and I fell into harmony with her.
Warmth and sunlight surround you,
Strength of earth beneath your feet,
Luna guide your way to truth,
No blade cut you, nor cord bind you,
May this song to heaven lift you,
How right it felt, to stand and lift my voices with those I loved most in the world! How the music melted away my petty fears and jealousies! My heart no longer trembled- it danced.
Was this, I wondered, the feeling of magic? No- when the song ended the spell did not break; there was no spell to break. What I felt was real- the warmth of their hands, the strength of their voices, and the knowledge of every battle we had endured and won. What could I possibly have to fear with Hope and Prudence beside me?
Long after the litany’s last note faded, the three of us stood, hand-in-hand, in perfect silence. Then Brother Lux spoke.
“I am sorry, brother. Your time is up.”
Was it my imagination, or did Brother Lux fall back when I looked up at him?
“Hope- the battle begins tomorrow,” I said as though Lux had not spoken. “Is there anything you need me to do in preparation, or any message you wish for me to convey?”
“Give Celeste my love,” he said. “Tell her- tell her I look forward to seeing how much she’s grown.”
“Oh! I will. I will.” I said, and I brought his hand to my lips, kissing it again and again.
“I will meet you on the battlefield, my brave little soldier,” he said to me. Then he turned his face toward Prudence.
“Pray for us, Jubilee.”
“I will, and I will be watching over you.”
“Then I have a warrior to protect me and a guardian angel to watch over me. I am not wretched after all; I am blessed above all men.”
Hope let loose a shaky laugh, and then he pulled both Prudence and I into his arms. The three of us laughed and cried and embraced until the guards pulled Hope away.
“You acted far too familiar with Lord Frey,” Brother Lux scolded. “We told you to behave as a sister- just to pray and say nothing else. If you are discovered, it will be your own fault.”
“Did you hear something, Grace?” Prudence said, turning her veiled face to me. “I think perhaps the carriage wheels need oil.”
“I didn’t hear anything at all,” I replied.
“Do you forget you are here at my indulgence?” Brother Lux said, his voice dropping into the cadence and timbre reminiscent of Pius. “Give me one reason why I should not send you back to del Sol directly.”
“You’re the only one who really knows the reason I’m here,” Prudence said. “I suspect that the reason hasn’t fully played out, yet.”
“You won’t remain here a minute longer than necessary,” Lux promised.
I was about to retort, but the carriage suddenly jolted as though it had hit a bump in the road.
Brother Lux groaned and rapped the front window. “Slow the carriage; there is no hurry,” he called to the coachman.
There was no response, and the carriage continued as before.
Brother Lux sighed. “I know the pain I’ve caused you, Prudence, and maybe that knowledge has made me too lenient. I promised not to harm you while you were under my protection, but-“
The carriage jolted again.
Brother Lux rapped on the front window once more. “Reign in the horses,” he called.
The carriage, however, rattled harder, and the dim lanterns that were visible through the side window passed with even greater speed.
I stood and went to the front window, pulling the curtain back to see the coachman, slumped over on the box seat with a black arrow jutting out the side of his neck.
“The coachman has been shot,” I said. “The carriage is out of control.”
Brother Lux sat up and turned to look out the window.
“Stop,” he whispered, stretching out his hand, and the carriage jerked to a halt as the horses froze in place.
Brother Lux put his finger to his lips and gestured for Prudence and I to back away, and then he opened the door.
We had stopped on the darkest part of the street, but in the moonlight I could see 5 archers and three swordsmen crowded around the vehicle with their weapons at the ready.
Lux grinned, and the men all collapsed to the ground.
“Damn you,” a man’s voice growled, and I saw a cloaked figure emerge from the alleyway. The cloaked man approached the carriage, stepping over the prone bodies of the attackers. As he passed them they stirred and started to stagger to their feet.
“Damn you, whore of the usurper,” the cloaked man spat at Brother Lux. He tossed his hood back, revealing long, straight hair and a haughty face full of harsh, angular features. The man raised his hand as though to cast a spell.
The archers, now on their feet, drew back their bowstrings, and then let loose a barrage of arrows.
Lux’s eyes flashed white and the arrows stopped abruptly mid-flight- as though they had struck an invisible barrier- and then clattered to the street.
The cloaked man narrowed his eyes in concentration, and the archers nocked another round of arrows. This time, when the archers shot, one arrow got through the invisible barrier and struck the side of the carriage.
Lux’s eyes continued to glow, growing so bright that I could no longer look at them directly. The archers fell to the ground once again, and even the cloaked man fell to his knees. He cried out as though in pain, and clutched an amulet that hung on a cord around his neck.
“So- you reveal yourself,” the man gasped, “Wisdom, the bastard God.”
“And you, angel of…” Lux trailed off and narrowed his eyes at the pendant the man was clutching. “Angel of Reverence, is it? Tell me, has your God awakened?”
The man- the angel- clenched his jaw, but Lux made a gesture and the man spoke again through gritted teeth.
“If Reverence does awaken, please be so kind as to give him this message: He is too late.”
The cloaked man collapsed to the ground.
Brother Lux went around to the front of the carriage, where he removed the arrow and healed the driver’s wound. The driver sat up, shook his head as though clearing it of sleep, and took the reins.
“Take us to the house as quickly as the horses will take you,” Lux ordered.
Then he got back into the carriage. As he was closing the door, I caught a glimpse of red hair at the alley entrance.
The carriage seemed to fly the rest of the way home. When we arrived the house was quiet, and Celeste was wrapped in her colorful patchwork quilt, fast asleep.
Mercy sprung to her feet when Prudence burst into the nurse’s room, but upon recognizing us, she dropped her fighting stance and yawned.
“You scared me. I thought you were an intruder.”
“Don’t go back to sleep,” Prudence snapped. “There may be an intruder here already, and you need to stay on guard. Brother Lux is searching the house.”
“We were attacked on the road,” I explained to Mercy. “The attackers had a holy mage with them- a powerful one, from what I understand.”
“He was immensely powerful. He managed to tear at least two holes in Pius’s defenses- two arrows breached the shield and struck the carriage.”
“You seem to have come through the battle unharmed,” Mercy said, eyeing me approvingly.
“I didn’t have a chance to enter the fight. Lux- well, Pius I suppose- took down five archers, three swordsmen, and a holy mage with hardly a gesture.”
“Pius? But I’d thought that Lux was with you,” Mercy said.
“Lux was physically present, but it was Pius’s power,” Prudence explained. “Pius has put us all under his protection. The house and carriages are all surrounded by his- his aura, for lack of a better word.”
“You can see this magic aura?” Mercy asked, her eyebrows raised as though she were impressed.
“I can’t see the magic itself. Instead, I see the boundary between magic and non-magic. I can see distortions in reality where magic is present, and when magic is removed my vision clears. Sometimes I can even see something of the magic’s intent by the way it distorts reality. For instance, the magic that guards this house will wrap any uninvited guest in a fog of confusion, so that they will pass to the other side of the street without even noticing the house is here.”
“I see. That explains why we haven’t been overrun with political malcontents and assassins. I’ll be able to sleep a bit better, now.”
“No- we must not sleep. There are two people who can break through the barrier, and one of them attacked us tonight.”
“I believe that both parties were present during tonight’s attack,” I corrected.
“You mean you saw- damn it!” Prudence swore. “I knew she was dangerous.”
“Who do you mean?” Mercy asked.
“I saw our inept stalker- the redhead,” I told Mercy.
Mercy groaned and put her hand to her head. After a few moments she nodded as though to herself and began to pace the perimeter of the room.
“The attackers may not try to come after us,” I said. “They only seemed interested in Lux.”
“Assume everyone is out to get you,” Mercy said sharply. “You can never be paranoid enough. We should all stay in this room for the night. Celeste is the most vulnerable, and therefore the most likely target for anyone with ill intent.”
Mercy turned to Prudence. “You must watch the magic barrier. Alert Lady Frey and I with this hand signal if you see a breach,” Mercy held up a fist. “Don’t make a sound that may alert the enemy. I will defend Celeste while you and Lady Frey hold off their attacks, you using magic and Lady Frey using physical attacks. I believe you have magic resistance, Lady Frey?”
“Yes, I do. I can break their spells if I concentrate, as well.”
Mercy nodded approvingly. “Concentrate on using defensive spells and maneuvers. The goal is escape. The back nursery door to the servant’s stairwell is the quickest exit.”
After Mercy concluded her orders there was a knock on the door, and Brother Lux entered.
“The house is secure for now,” he said. “Father Pius is sending two inquisitors, Brother Amicus and Brother Julius, to come stand watch. If anything occurs, they will summon him here.”
Mercy folded her arms and glared up at Brother Lux.
“Do you have any objections?” he asked coolly.
“Only that I have to guard against two more threats,” she replied.
“Father Pius could not have sent two brothers who are more honorable, though I don’t expect you to believe me. Regardless, you may take any precautions you deem necessary.”
He turned to Prudence. “Tomorrow, we will discuss how to best guard Celeste during the trial. I will see you in the morning.”
When Brother Lux had gone, and the two inquisitors had taken their watchposts outside the house, Mercy retreated to the nursery where she could act as a final defense for Celeste while she watched for Prudence’s signal through the peephole.
Prudence and I sat together in the nurse’s room, back to back, with Prudence watching the outside wall for breaches in Pius’s defenses while I watched the inside door. I held her right hand so I would know if she made her signal, but I also drew strength and comfort from her presence.
We were quiet for a time, but our silence no longer marked distance between us. Rather- we were content with each other’s presence. However, as the night wore on, and my eyes grew weary from watching, I was glad when Prudence broke the monotony by speaking.
“It’s strange- I’m no longer afraid of what happens next,” she said.
“Fear is useless. When we must, we will act,” I agreed.
“I’m not just speaking about the trial or our escape, either.”
We were quiet for a little while longer. A pale, purple patch slowly coalesced on the wall opposite the window as the dawn approached.
“No matter who he chooses,” I said, finally putting words to the unspoken thought, “or if he cannot choose, and we must decide-”
“No matter what, you will always have my love,” Prudence said.
“Forever,” I promised.
Prudence and I fell into silence again as the patch of light went from pale purple to pink, and remained so until Mercy emerged from Celeste’s room.
“It’s time to get ready,” she said.