A light breeze rustled the new grass under my feet and shook through my loose curls, sending shivers up my spine. I stepped out of the circle of lamplight near Abbess Joy’s office and looked up into the sky, exchanging pale lamplight for pink moonlight. I took a deep breath; my throat was clear, and physically I felt better than I had all week.
“Grace?” Prudence said in a tentative voice, looking back at me as I fell behind.
“The cat is rising- it isn’t as late as I’d thought,” I said, pointing to the east.
“We came for you just after confession,” Lux’s voice spoke.
I looked down and saw the man who wore Lux’s body standing near Prudence, his face half-illuminated in lamplight. His regal posture had faded away- his shoulders slumped more naturally, and he shifted his weight between his feet, as though in discomfort.
“Lux- am I speaking to Lux, now?”
He nodded. “I asked Wisdom to allow me to speak with you both privately.”
“You say ‘privately,’ but Wisdom can still hear us, can’t he?” Prudence said.
“Yes, he can. Our minds are permanently linked, now. That is how he can control my body.”
Lux turned to me. “Wisdom was surprised by your concession, Lady Frey- we both were.”
“You will never understand what you made her give up,” Prudence said.
“Perhaps not,” Lux conceded. “When I entered the brotherhood, the loss of a family was not so difficult- I had never anticipated that I would have children. Still, Lady Frey-”
“I won’t pretend that this doesn’t hurt,” I said, looking back at the sky. “I don’t desire children now- how could I, with everything that is happening? But to take the option from my future self – to kill that glimmer of hope is almost too much for me to bear. But I have grown used to sacrifice. I have had to fight every barrier you have put in the way of my liberty, and this price was just the latest toll.”
“I’ve been collecting atonements,” Lux said. “When the world we envision comes to be, I’m afraid all of the miracles we have planned will not be enough to undo the pain we’ve caused, now. But Lady Frey- if there is anything we can do-”
“You will never build a world worth anything on a foundation of atrocities,” Prudence interrupted. “Your greatest miracles will be nothing but filthy rags.”
“I would not have expected you to utter such a naive statement,” Lux replied. “When we made our plans and gained our powers, Wisdom told you there would be a price. Didn’t you believe him?”
“Our plans?” Prudence said incredulously. “You mean your plans- no one ever asked me what my goals were when I accepted my powers, or how I planned to attain my goals. Even so, I’m the one who has paid in torture and exile while you’ve gained everything you desired.”
Lux motioned for me to move back into the circle of lamplight and cast a spell of silence at the boundary between light and darkness. Then he turned back to Prudence – his hands clasped as though pleading.
“This- this is not what I wanted. I intended to save you.”
“Save me? From what?”
“I was worried for you after you gained your powers- we all were, Prudence. You hadn’t only changed physically. You stopped eating and sleeping, you locked yourself away for days at a time, engaged in some secret work you wouldn’t discuss with anyone. You stopped trusting your friends- you would hardly speak to us. My brother was hurt by your behavior, though he always was ready with an excuse for you. Imagine how alarmed I was when I discovered the nature of your work.”
“At the first ritual our coven performed, magic showed me something of your souls,” Prudence replied. “I knew that there was someone among you I could not trust- but I couldn’t discern who it was. I felt terrified and I felt betrayed- betrayed that someone among my closest friends contained such darkness within them.”
I felt trapped. I knew that if I left, I would disturb the circle of silence that Lux had cast over us, yet I knew this conversation was too private for my ears. Still, I could not interrupt Prudence and Brother Lux; they were trapped together in a gulf of hurt over a decade wide.
Lux stepped closer to Prudence, his hand clutching the robes over his chest. “You felt betrayed? Imagine the betrayal I felt when I learned that you were feeding our circle’s most intimate secrets to strangers. But I still thought of you as my sister, so I was willing to make excuses. I told myself that you were not in your right mind, and I was willing to attribute your actions to madness.”
“I never betrayed the coven’s secrets- I never revealed anything but my private research,” Prudence said, tossing her head. “You were the real traitor. You put your trust in Pius before your own family. You let him convince you I was mad-”
“Pius didn’t say anything- I could see you were mad with my own eyes. Even my brother, besotted as he was, could see what magic had done to you. I tried to convince him to bring you to del Sol, but he insisted you would fare better at home. He was blind- anyone could see you were not improving, and that your proximity to our magic caused you to suffer.”
“So you decided that the best option was to turn me over to the inquisition, so they could torture the madness out of me,” Prudence scoffed.
“We planned to use the inquisition to force my brother to let you go. The plan was to spirit you away to del Sol under the guise of helping your escape. The plan failed- you got my warning too soon, and instead of waiting for us to help you, you escaped on your own. I had no idea how resourceful you would be, or how powerful your friends were. For almost ten years we sought you, and unfortunately, the inquisition got you first.
“I was forced to risk my position by rescuing you from the inquisitors before they could kill you. I staged your death so the inquisitors would no longer pursue you, and then brought you to del Sol.”
“Brother Lux,” I said quietly, and he paused as though startled by my presence. “Why didn’t you tell Hope that Prudence lived?”
Prudence threw back her veil and fixed Lux with a defiant gaze. Lux flinched at first, and then approached her gingerly, as though he approached a wild, injured creature.
“After the torture she had endured, I thought she would never recover her sanity. I see that I was wrong- that del Sol has performed the miracle I prayed it would- but if Prudence had not recovered, my brother wouldn’t have been able to let her go. I thought it would be kinder to let him believe she’d died.”
“How dare you,” Prudence said in a voice little louder than a whisper. “How dare you make that decision for him. How dare you impose your will on us, again and again. It isn’t your place to decide what is good for us.”
“I- I won’t try to defend my actions- you are right, Prudence. I hurt you both more than you know. Still, in this case, I was right. Promise me that you will avoid magic in the future, Prudence. Promise me that you won’t perform any more experiments.”
“I will make that promise if you give up all of your power and hand yourself over to the inquisition,” Prudence said.
Lux’s eyes flew open in surprise, but he said nothing.
“We have nothing more to say to each other.” Prudence flipped down her veil, took my arm, and we left the circle of light together.
“I wish we had more time to allow for your recovery,” Abbess Joy said. “The pain will be worse than your normal courses, and you will be fatigued.”
We were alone together in the infirmary, and I sat on the examination table as Abbess Joy fussed with a syringe of pale blue liquid, as though unsure of what to do with it.
“I wonder if it isn’t better to suffer a fate worse than death, rather than betray-”
“You betray nothing,” I said firmly. “I will win freedom for myself and the Ancients- this will not stop me.”
I pulled back my sleeve, revealing the healed scar that stood stark and white against my brown skin.
Abbess Joy looked into my eyes for a long time, as though trying to discern my thoughts beneath. Then she wiped my arm with a cool, wet cloth, stabbed the needle into my arm, and pushed the plunger down. There was a sting, warmth, and then I felt nothing.
It was done.
“This is a cost you shouldn’t have to bear,” Abbess Joy said, bandaging the pinprick with more care than was necessary. “This is due to my failure in negotiations-”
“Abbess Joy- you were brilliant! I never could have negotiated so well against someone like him. You obtained exactly what we need.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Abbess Joy’s lips, and she put up a finger, as though for silence.
“I see a little of myself in you, sometimes,” she said. “You have a generous spirit, and you give parts of yourself away without a second thought. It is good to give to others, but you should always feel that you have gained something in your spirit in return. Remember- if you begin to feel hollow, if your heart feels worn, stop giving and replenish yourself.”
“I will remember,” I said. “I am not giving up so much of myself as you would think. You have shown me that motherhood is not simply blood. Thank you for caring for me- thank you for being my mother.”
Abbess Joy cut me off with a fierce embrace, and she held me in silence only broken by the occasional *sniff* as we fought back tears. Then she broke the embrace and sat down, drawing her stool nearer to me.
“I wish I had been able to raise you- to help you over the threshold of womanhood. Your father knew me by sight very well, so I could only send others to watch over you while you lived with him. When you went to Rowan Heights, however, and I’d heard you were giving a ball, I could not resist going to see you.
“How relieved I was to see you so well and happy! You danced with such vigor that I knew you must be well. I was a little alarmed when I saw how Lord Frey looked at you- I suspected his involvement in some treachery, then, and did not wish you involved. Still, you seemed friendly but indifferent toward him, so I was convinced that he was kind to you, but your hearts were not attached.”
“That was the nature of our relationship at that time,” I said. “Our feelings did not develop until we were at St. Blanc.”
I paused, recalling the events that had occurred the night of the ball- the dancing, the kiss, the revelation, and the note…
“Someone passed a riddle to me at the ball. I didn’t see their face, but I think it was someone with golden hair.”
Abbess Joy smiled wryly. “I wanted to warn you about Lord Frey, but not cause undue alarm. I thought if I wrote a riddle, you would understand the meaning only if you already had misgivings about Lord Frey. I also wished to make it clear that you could trust Mr. Filius.”
I nodded. “I thought as much. Oh- but how I wish we could have spoken that night. It’s a shame it was so busy and so crowded.”
Abbess Joy laughed. “That is the point of a ball, I expect. Still, I wish I had acted more boldly that night. I wish I acted more boldly, in general.”
“I understand why you do not- del Sol is precious, and it must be preserved.” I took a deep breath and stretched my limbs. “I can feel the influence of this place in my bones- its peace and friendship and good air- I don’t believe I would have survived without del Sol.”
“I wish you were healthier, though. Do you believe you will be well enough to travel in two days?”
“I am perfectly well- well enough to travel now, if I wanted.” I frowned. “My biggest worry is how I will make the necessary arrangements with so little time. I’m sure the Inns will be full when we arrive, I doubt I will have time to get a house.”
“Brother Lux tells me that Lady Fairfax asked that you stay at your father’s house.”
“Well, yes.” I looked down at my hands, which were twisting my loose robes into knots.
“I would not ask you to forgive- I know that in many cases, forgiveness is impossible. But have you settled your relationship with your father to your satisfaction?”
I let go of my robes, but I did not look up.
I hadn’t seen my father since the day he’d told me about my mother- the day I allowed Hope to take my father’s will away from him. Father had used my mother and me, and I had exacted vengeance. Logically, our relationship was closed. I had vowed never to speak to him again.
But then I thought of Lady Fairfax’s letter, and some odd feeling twisted in my stomach- a feeling akin to what I’d felt when I saw the Prince watch his ballet with a blank expression on his face.
“If there is anything left unsaid between you, this may be your last opportunity to rectify that,” Abbess Joy said gently.
“You may be right, but I have no idea what I should say.”
“Perhaps if you listen first, the words will come.”
The stomach pains Abbess Joy had warned me of happened within a few hours, but I continued to work, and that evening I took my tea as strong as Prudence could make it. I sat in the calefactory as the others came in from confession, and concentrated on needlework until the fire grew low, and the other sisters, one by one, retired to their cells. When Prudence took Celeste’s hand to take her to bed I moved to go with her, but Prudence shook her head and held up one finger, and then left without another word.
I sat and took up my work once more. The only people who remained in the calefactory were Miss Taris, Merry, and Abbess Joy, who was demonstrating a complicated stitch to Merry.
“We use this stitch in the design on all of our robes,” Abbess Joy said, gesturing to the sleeve of her own robe, “as well as some of the goods that we make here. It is just through, around, around, and back- do you see?”
Abbess Joy had to demonstrate the stitch several times, because Merry’s eyes would often wander away from the needlework and focus on Miss Taris’s face. Then, after Merry had tried the same stitch several times on her own, she let the work fall into her lap and stared at Miss Taris openly.
Miss Taris jabbed her needle into her work at a rapid pace, ignoring Merry’s gaze until she had finished two full rows of stitches. Then she sighed, dropped her work, and looked up.
“Yes, Miss Merry?”
“You are Miss Constance Taris, aren’t you?”
Merry blinked up at Miss Taris a few more moments, her expression inscrutable, and then she said, “you are very beautiful.”
Miss Taris rolled her eyes and took up her work once more.
“You are lucky to have escaped your marriage.”
Miss Taris looked up sharply. “Who are you, and what do you know of my engagement?”
Merry shrugged. “I’m nobody- just a common heretic. Sir Montag was my master.”
“Ah-“ Miss Taris said. “I see. In that case, I believe you are the one who made the lucky escape.”
An uncomfortable silence reigned in the calefactory until the door opened, and Brother Lux entered.
“I am sorry to intrude,” he said with a slight bow. “I was hoping you would allow me to borrow from your library, Abbess. You have, if I recall correctly, a rare tome illuminated by St. Agnus.”
“You are welcome to it,” Abbess Joy said, gesturing toward the bookshelves.”
Brother Lux thanked Abbess Joy and made his way to the bookshelves. On his way, he paused and shot Merry a stern glare, who seemed to wither under it.
“I am tired,” Merry said quietly. “Good night, and thanks, Abbess Joy.”
“Good night, Merry,” Abbess Joy said as Merry fled.
Miss Taris put away her work when Merry had gone. “How did you make that girl afraid of you?” she asked Brother Lux. “She’s usually as bold as brass.”
“The circumstance of our first meeting was unfortunate,” Brother Lux answered from atop his ladder. He ran his finger along the spines of each book carefully. “Merry’s brother had been imprisoned for heresy, but since his crime had been so minor- mere blustering in a tavern- his confession and a name was all I needed to free him. Merry was the name he gave me. Unfortunately, since she was the heretical influence, and because she was unrepentant, the inquisitors who arrested her told her that she would be hanged.
“But Merry had been sold into slavery by her mother several months before, so her life ultimately belonged to her master. I purchased her contract and sent her here so that she might be spared.”
“That was a convenient loophole,” Miss Taris said with a nod. “Soon you will have the authority to use more discretion.
I put my own work back into the common basket and massaged my sore fingers. “You call slavery a convenient loophole?”
“In this case- yes, it was,” she said unabashedly. “Servitude is better than death.”
Before I could respond, the calefactory door opened, and Prudence returned.
“I put Celeste to bed,” she said, sitting next to me. “I have just one piece of work I’d like your help with, Grace, before we retire.”
“Don’t stay up too late,” Brother Lux said, climbing down the ladder while balancing his heavy book. “You will need rest before we begin our journey. Miss Taris, if you would join me-“
“May I join you, as well?” Abbess Joy said abruptly. “If you are going to conduct a service in the cathedral tonight, I would like to attend.”
Brother Lux froze, his foot halfway from the ladder to the floor, with a look of surprise on his face. Beside me, Prudence gave a soft snort of laughter.
“The cathedral is yours- of course you are welcome,” Brother Lux said, recovering his footing. “Are you certain you wish to attend?”
“Oh yes- I would like to hear your message very much.”
“Then you may join us,” Brother Lux said.
Abbess Joy winked at Prudence and me before she lowering her veil over her face. Then she followed Brother Lux and Prudence from the room.
“I knew Abbess Joy would think of something,” Prudence said when we were alone. “Wait a few minutes with me, and then we will go back to the dormitories.”
“We don’t wish to arouse any suspicions. Of course, after you collect your treatise, we will have to leave by the south entrance-“ She tapped her finger against her veil, where her cheek would have been, in thought.
“If we are going to the tower, why not use the north exit?”
“We aren’t going to the tower.”
I trembled from anticipation more than from cold as I walked, with Prudence by my side, along the shore to the southern shrine. I held my treatise tightly to my chest and wrapped my cloak around it, as though to protect it from the elements. The night was dry and clear, but the wind was fierce. The full moon illuminated the sea, whose waves frothed like horses straining at the bit, rolling and crashing as though breaking free from an unseen harness.
“The sea is restless, tonight,” Prudence observed, “as restless as the principalities. It looks quite ready to dash warships against the rocks.”
Prudence slowed her walk, and she lay her hand on my shoulder to slow my pace, as well. “Let’s not get swept away. Slow down- talk with me before we meet the others.”
I slowed my pace, but I clutched my treatise even tighter under my cloak.
The treatise is still incomplete. Will it ever be complete?
“I’m afraid,” Prudence said in a low voice. “I’m not only afraid of journeying outside of the del Sol’s protection, or seeing Just and Hope after a decade has passed. I’m afraid that we will never defeat Pius, especially since we’ve lost Abbess Joy to the vow she made.”
“We haven’t lost Abbess Joy,” I said. “She can still help us; her plan was carefully made. There are two loopholes in the vow- one was placed there by Abbess Joy on purpose, and one was left by Pius’s carelessness.”
Prudence took a deep breath. If I hadn’t been so attuned to Prudence, the breath would have been drowned out by the wind. Prudence’s veil, however, had trained me to listen closely to her- to learn her every sigh by heart. I would have been able to pick up her smallest murmur beneath all the conversation in the Prince’s noisy salon.
“I think I see the first loophole,” Prudence said slowly. “Abbess Joy promised not to awaken the old Gods, and she promised not to reveal Wisdom’s secrets, but she had already given up on Order’s help- Raven is the ally she seeks, now.”
“Yes. Raven already suspects Pius’s game, so Abbess Joy needn’t reveal any secrets to her,” I said. “When Abbess Joy contacts Raven, Raven will know why.”
“I’m afraid I can’t see the second,” Prudence said.
“Think about the inadequacy of language,” I said, “and you will.”
“Do you mean Pius’s insistence that Abbess Joy ‘guard’ the Ancients?”
“Yes. To Pius, a ‘guard’ is someone who stands at a prison cell, keeping a prisoner confined. But to Abbess Joy, a ‘guard’ is a protector. I’m certain she saw the difference in their meanings right away, and so she feigned reluctance to comply with that request.”
“You even encouraged it,” Prudence said with a sudden laugh. “‘Better that you guard the temple than someone who is cruel.’”
“Exactly. You see? Our situation is not as dire as you’d thought. Still, this will be difficult. We are leaving del Sol under the protection of our enemy.”
We turned onto the path that led to the southern shrine. As we wound through the path the wind calmed, and Prudence, who had been holding her veil in place with one hand on the shore, removed the veil entirely.
The moonlight was barely enough to light the path, and we stumbled down it almost blindly until a light appeared ahead.
Dare stood on the path before us, holding a torch aloft in her right hand.
“Foolish girl,” she said to me as she approached. She wore a stern look on her lined face, but her dark eyes danced with laughter. “I should scold you for telling Abbess Joy what’s happened. But I can’t blame you; we couldn’t keep this secret from the Abbess for long.”
Dare kissed my cheek, and then turned to Prudence. “This is your partner in crime?”
“Yes- this is my friend, Miss Prudence Goode.”
Dare smiled, and patted Prudence’s cheek warmly with her left hand. “I have heard of you, child. You are welcome to the southern shrine.”
Dare turned and lifted the torch even higher to lead us down the path. Prudence put her hand to her own cheek, as though astonished by the friendly touch.
As we rounded the dune that lay before the shrine, I was greeted first by the chatter of voices, and then by waves of heat and a burst of light. There was a bonfire roaring at the center of the broken columns, and it was surrounded by people- shadows that moved in concert in front of the bright orange flames. Just outside the circle of firelight other, less animated figures stood together quietly like spectators watching shadow-puppets.
I followed Dare into the outer circle, where I was stopped by a multitude of greetings.
“Venus!” Neiro, whom I’d once known as Swift, stepped forward with Mars by her side. “I am so glad you came- so glad I can say goodbye before you leave.”
“It is goodbye, but it is not farewell,” I promised.
Neiro kissed my cheeks, and then Mars clasped my hand in earnest silence.
“Be careful among the humans,” Victoria said as she stepped forward. She looked from Prudence to the figures who sat in the firelight with a look of distrust.
Then two more people came forward to greet me- Mr. Filius and Honest.
“Aren’t you surprised?” Honest said with a nervous laugh. He was holding his own treatise, and he flipped the pages without looking at them at all before closing it again. “Mr. Filius brought me here so suddenly that I don’t feel at all prepared.”
“I’m not nearly as surprised as I was my first time,” I said.
“You are both ready,” Mr. Filius said firmly.
“They are,” Prudence said. She pressed my hand, however, and whispered “good luck” before she turned to walk into the firelight.
Mr. Filius nodded to us, winked, and followed Prudence.
I moved to follow, but Honest grabbed my arm.
“I’m- I’m not sure I can do this,” Honest said in a hoarse whisper.
“You can,” I urged. “You are brilliant, and you have already earned your place.”
Honest took a deep breath and turned to me, his old smile stretching slowly across his face, though it did not quite reach his eyes. Then he squeezed my hand and we stepped into the circle of firelight together.
The shadowy figures coalesced, their faces and forms fully illuminated. Prudence and Mr. Filius were sitting next to Sir Silas and Trusty, who turned to greet them. Other faces grew clear- faces I now had names for- Mr. Ward, Mr. Coventry, Sir Martin- and a few more I did not know by name.
The circle grew quiet, the voices died down, and soon all I could hear was the roar of the fire and the roar of the sea far beyond the dunes. Then Mr. Filius stood and gestured toward Honest and me.
“I nominate two candidates, Mr. Honest Teris, and Lady Grace Frey, as candidates for full membership in the oculist guild.”
The then the silence broke apart, and the questions started. My true initiation, my trial by fire, had begun.
This will be the last update for the next couple of weeks. If you have been paying attention, you know what comes next.