Miss Constance Taris was far less confident than she appeared.
Ever since she’d ascended, she’d held her head high and repeated to herself, over and over, that she no longer had any reason to be afraid. She was an angel, now, and Wisdom was with her.
In her heart, she knew that all of this was true, but she could not help but feel like one of the pretenders at court whom she had once viewed with contempt.
Just now, for example, she was standing next to a row of bunks with no idea what she should do. In her new, angelic form, she did not require sleep, but soon the lights would be extinguished and she would have nothing to do but lie down and wait while the others slept.
This had not been a problem during the first part of Miss Taris’s journey. She had been travelling like a proper lady then, in a carriage accompanied by two ladies, a maid, and a trusted friend who was as gentle a man as she’d ever known. When Wisdom had asked her to leave the party to lead the King and his men through the tunnels, Miss Taris had been eager to prove herself worthy to lead.
Now she was alone below ground in the company of an entire platoon of strange men. Even the inquisitors, all followers of Wisdom, were strangers, and though she sensed no ill intentions from them at present, they had already betrayed one God. She had every magical advantage, but though her body was perfectly well, it still was not very strong.
Miss Taris glanced over at the only other lady who was present. Even though Miss Taris had never liked her, Lady Frey had once seemed a sympathetic person, and would probably allow her to stay close while the others slept if Miss Taris swallowed her pride and asked.
Even so, Miss Taris hesitated to approach. Lady Frey looked so wild now, with her hand resting on the hilt of her sword and a hard look in her dark eyes, that she seemed almost as dangerous as all of the strange men. Even with Miss Taris’s increased powers, Lady Frey’s feelings were undetectable. She seemed cold, distant, and almost inhuman.
Miss Taris shuddered and turned away, and in doing so almost collided with Sir Beaumont.
“Oh- I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” he said with a courtly bow.
“Please- the fault was mine,” Miss Taris stammered. Then she looked up into Sir Beaumont’s warm, brown eyes and she immediately relaxed.
From the instant they’d met, Miss Taris had known that Sir Beaumont was trustworthy. Sincerity was infused in his every word- every gesture. When Sir Beaumont had sworn to help and protect Miss Taris, he had meant it with all of his heart. Here was a person whose heart was as open as Lady Frey’s was closed.
And Miss Taris could not help but be moved by it.
“I was just going to fetch myself a cup of tea,” Sir Beaumont said. “Would you like anything?”
“Is it wise to drink tea so soon before bed?” Miss Taris remarked.
“Well- I wasn’t going to sleep, actually,” he said, the tips of his ears going slightly red.
Miss Taris felt a strange, warm sensation in her heart when she realized- Sir Beaumont had planned to stay up all night to ensure she was safe.
She reached out and took Sir Beaumont’s hand, and she spoke in a rush before her awkwardness could halt her tongue. “I am restless; come walk with me. I know there is nowhere to go but- just up and down the tunnel outside should be fine.”
“Are you sure? We have a long day’s travel ahead of us.”
“I need to stretch my legs after sitting in the train for so long. Come.”
Sir Beaumont looked around at the chatting dragoons and the silent inquisitors, and then at Lord and Lady Frey, who were speaking quietly in a corner. Then he turned back, nodded his acquiescence, and followed Miss Taris from the room.
Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont walked a little way down the tunnel, arm in arm, with quiet footsteps. Then Miss Taris stopped, and a mischievous grin spread over her face.
“These grey walls really are quite dreary,” she said. “Come- let’s go into the Cathedral.”
“Would that be alright?” Sir Beaumont said, raising his brows. “Pride always said that the cathedrals were only to be used in service to the Gods.”
“Wisdom would not mind, I’m sure, and these are his tunnels now,” Miss Taris said. “What harm could it do?”
Sir Beaumont smiled and relented, and Miss Taris put her hand against the wall, revealing the opening to the second cathedral.
The cathedral was empty as expected, the lights were on, and the walls and high ceiling were the same, dingy grey as the tunnels outside. Miss Taris put her hand to the floor, and the grey walls blurred out of view. Suddenly, they were standing in a moonlit garden with deep green grasses as high as their waists, and daffodils and fairy-roses that towered over their heads, as tall as trees.
“Oh! I’m messed up the scale, somehow. I will try to fix it,” Miss Taris said.
“No- wait,” Sir Beaumont looked around the grasses, which shimmered with dewdrops the size of marbles. Giant fireflies spun and danced in the air above, alighting on blossoms that were as large and soft as a velvet sofa.
“This is what it must be like to be a fairy, hidden among the leaves. I think, if we listen hard enough, we will hear the Lily Queen’s song.”
Miss Taris stood up, and the two held their breaths, listening in the silent night.
“No- no song. Still, I am content here,” Sir Beaumont said.
“Are you?” Miss Taris turned to look around, frowning. “Everything towers above me; nothing seems safe. I would rather be the giant.”
Miss Taris knelt down and moved her hands along the ground once more, and everything began to shrink. The grasses receded until they were but a carpet under their feet, the flowers receded into the ground, and soon the whole garden was a small patch on a checkerboard of green. Small wisps of cloud drifted around their knees, where the grasses had once been, and stars twinkled, sharp and clear, all around them.
“Here! Higher than the clouds, I can see everything. Nothing can touch me, up here.”
Sir Beaumont stepped closer to Miss Taris. “Don’t you feel exposed, though?”
“Why should that matter?” Miss Taris laughed. “No one can hurt a giant. I will suffer the slings and arrows of everyone beneath me without a scratch.”
Sir Beaumont turned and looked at Miss Taris so intently that, despite all her newfound confidence, she blushed once more. Then he smiled and reached out tentatively, tucking a stray strand of gold-spun hair back behind Miss Taris’s ear.
“It seems you and I cannot agree- a fairy of the garden and a giant of the air. Where can we meet?”
Miss Taris turned away, knelt down, and moved her hands once more. The clouds climbed high above them, the small patches of ground expanded, the flowers grew until they were knee high, and the green carpet of grass remained underfoot.
“I suppose we must meet here, in the middle, as our human selves,” Miss Taris said.
“I am happy to meet you here, though you are not really human, are you?” Sir Beaumont said, his voice full of awe.
“I- I was human, and I haven’t changed as much as I thought I would when I became an angel,” Miss Taris said. “I am healthy now, and Wisdom’s holy magic courses through me, but I am still myself.”
Sir Beaumont nodded thoughtfully. “I know it won’t be the same, because I won’t be an angel, but I hope my change will be as easy when Wisdom grants it.”
“I’m sure it will be,” Miss Taris said firmly, as though determination alone could make it so. “We will take the Cathedral Lux, and then Wisdom will bless you.”
“Will it really happen so soon?” Sir Beaumont said. “The first battle I saw, at the edge of Rouge Forest, went so quickly and so bloodlessly that it hardly seemed necessary for me to be there at all. Sometimes I fear that this is all too good to be true, and that there is a sacrifice that I still must pay for the victory and liberation I seek.”
“The only thing Wisdom requires of you is your faith,” Miss Taris said. “Or, if faith does not come easily for you, only wait and judge the results with your own senses.”
Miss Taris turned away from Sir Beaumont’s intense gaze and began to pace through the garden, stepping lightly on the cobblestone path that wound between beds of starflowers and roses. “The hero’s reward always seems more satisfying after seeing him pass through difficult trials, but reality is different from storybooks or plays. Sometimes people win power justly, and sometimes not. Sometimes the clever may dominate the strong. Sometimes things fall into place by sheer luck.
“In my own case, I believe luck was on my side. My father was trying to force me into a marriage I did not want- a marriage to a monster who wore a courtier’s face. I was too weak to fight him. I was too weak, even, to accept the crumbs of help some of the court ladies flung my way. How I hated them for trying! Their advice amounted to telling a drowning man how to swim while his hands were bound. Only one person was willing or able to actually give me strength. He did not save me- he gave me the ability to save myself.
“And yet-” Miss Taris paused and laughed. “Yet it was so easy to undo my chains once I had the key. All I had to do is reach out and accept it. Daily, I am surrounded by fools who are unwilling to do the same. They think that they haven’t earned their salvation, yet. They think that forgiveness or redemption is something that has to be earned. They think that some promises are too good to be true. They have dwelt in darkness so long, they fear the light.”
Miss Taris turned back to Sir Beaumont, her eyes shining like twin stars. “You have true courage, Sir Beaumont.”
“Please, call me by my given name- Mirth.”
Miss Taris nodded. “I will, if you will call me Connie in return.” She laughed suddenly. “This will be the first intimacy I’ve entered into so willingly. This is another chain, which is falling away.”
Sir Beaumont bowed deeply. “Then I am honored to be of service.”
Miss Taris smiled even wider and stepped forward, taking Sir Beaumont’s hand. “You have true courage, Mirth, because you have accepted the key despite your worries. You will be rewarded in due time. I promise.”
“I am glad that you’ve found the strength you needed. Still- I wish I had been there to defend you, my lady.”
“Connie,” Miss Taris corrected him. “You aren’t like the others. I can tell that you are sincere. Thank you.”
“I am here now,” Sir Beaumont continued. “I will protect you until we are at the Cathedral Lux.”
Miss Taris leaned a bit closer to Sir Beaumont, sighing in contentment. Then she stopped abruptly and looked up.
“What do you plan to do after the Cathedral Lux- after you change? Will you stay with the party, or will you leave us?”
“I had planned to take vows at del Sol, but,” he leaned forward and whispered “If I can, I will stay and protect you as long as you want me. You may not want me, anymore, after I’ve changed. I may lose my ability to fight. You may not find me as agreeable.”
Miss Taris leaned her head onto Sir Beaumont’s shoulder and frowned. “Please don’t be offended, but…” she paused, and then said, “the way you are now, I cannot imagine you will be very different after Wisdom gives you his gift.”
“It will be a greater change than you know. Right now, I don’t feel as though I fit, and the dragoons can tell that I don’t quite fit among them. I hope, after it is done, I will be complete- whole. I cannot explain it, other than there is something inside me that whispers that the Gods did not properly fit soul to body when I was born.”
Miss Taris did not reply for some time. She remained where she was, still and quiet, her head resting against Sir Beaumont’s shoulder as though she had fallen asleep there. But her eyes were open and watchful.
Finally, she stood straight and reached her arm out, pulling the ribbon from Sir Beaumont’s hair. It fell loose from its dragoon tail and draped in loose waves around his shoulders.
“I have the power to see inside of people. I know you. I will know you, no matter what outward form you take.”
The two stood face to face in the fairy-garden, until the illusory sun rose over the distant hills and blotted out the imaginary stars.