The widow’s veil had reached its zenith, and Tigris had rolled away to the west. By the heavenly clock’s hand, we approached the dawn.
“I want you to hear the worst,” Prudence said. “I’ve been running from my past for too long, and I believe that you can help me find the path to the future.”
I looked back down at Prudence. Her expression was serene as she gazed up at the stars, and guilt wrenched my stomach once more.
“Why do you believe that? It seems irrational,” I said.
“You’ve said it yourself-we are connected.”
I jumped down from the platform and began to pace the circumference of the room. “We are connected, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how destructive that connection has been.”
“I see,” Prudence said quietly. “So you really do hate me.”
I spun back to face her. “Why would I hate you?”
“You might hate me because I was your husband’s mistress, however long ago it was. Or perhaps you hate me because I left him without explanation, causing him pain. Even if you can forgive my past sins, I am a hypocrite. I accused you of witchcraft when you first arrived, in your moment of pain, when I was a witch all along. Pick a reason- I daresay there are more.”
“You might not have had to make such difficult choices, if not for me,” I countered. “You don’t realize the extent to which I have destroyed your happiness.”
I began to pace the room again as I spoke. I first related the tale Hope had told me- that his ancestors’ refusal to fight the Ancients had condemned his family. Then, before Prudence could protest my innocence, I launched into an explanation of my father’s conspiracy with the Prince to trap the Frey family with their soulless gift, freeing the Freys from hell and securing the loyalty of a powerful noble family.
I spoke more and more quickly, purging, through confession, the guilt that I’d carried. I did not hesitate to express the hatred I’d felt for my father and the Prince when they’d revealed their conspiracy, and I admitted that I’d allowed Hope to carry out my vengeance by breaking their minds. In order to be thorough, I made sure to explain the ill-advised blood oath Hope and I had made.
“This opened the way for Father Pius to seize power,” I said. “Without any further use for Hope, Father Pius used our blood oath as an excuse to betray everyone under coven law. Don’t you see? Your family was damned because of mine, you could not marry Hope because I was intended for him, and he sits in prison now because of my actions. I’ve done nothing but cause misery since I’ve been born. Perhaps- perhaps I should have remained alone.”
I stopped pacing; all of my energy seemed to have drained away. I looked up at the stars once more, and they shattered apart into a thousand rainbows. I wiped my eyes, and the stars coalesced into their proper shapes once more. I’d been weeping as I spoke, and I hadn’t even noticed.
Prudence stood and came to me without a word. She took the veil from around her shoulders and wrapped it around mine.
“You’re cold,” she said. “Perhaps we should go back inside.”
“I’m not cold,” I protested. In truth, I was too numb to feel the cold. “Please tell me; do you hate me? Is this the end of our friendship?”
“I’ve tried to hate you,” Prudence said. “Before you came to del Sol, I despised you. You had taken Hope’s love, you had stolen Celeste, Abbess Joy loved you devotedly, and even Mr. Filius admired you. I was sick with envy.
“But then I met you, and grew to know you. I realized that you’ve earned the love I envied, and that I had foolishly tossed away.”
I dried the tears that had fallen on my cheeks. “I’ve earned nothing but disdain.”
“You’ve described circumstances over which you had no control. You made one error in all of this, and that was the result of a weakness in character I already knew. Even so, you have so much more good in you than the villains in your story- can you clearly see who those villains are?”
“Can you see the villains in your own story?” I countered.
We stood a moment, gazing at each other in the pale light of the pre-dawn sky. Then Prudence spoke.
“I haven’t finished my story, yet.” Prudence sat on the platform again, and I sat beside her.
“There are two principal types of magic,”Prudence explained. “The first is spellcraft, which requires ritual action and is more easily performed with the help of a coven. The second is innate magic, which is a special ability each mage possesses and can be cast without a spell. A mage’s innate magic strengthens after they form a contract, and it usually manifests itself before the mage’s curse.
“My curse, however, manifested itself first. When most people look at me, they see…”
Prudence trailed off, biting her lip as she struggled with the words.
“Hope said that the curse stole your beauty,” I said, “but to me it seems unthinkable that no one would see the beauty I see.”
Prudence turned her head away from me. “It’s dark. You can’t see my face properly.”
I reached out and gently turned her face back toward me.
“The sky is getting lighter- I can see you almost as well as I did in the electric light. Your eyes are the color of bluebells, you have a smudge of ink on your cheek that has been streaked with tears, and you are lovely.”
She reached up to wipe her downy cheek, missing the mark entirely. “Most people see a twisted visage and dull, lifeless eyes. Hope tried to hide my reflection from me after I’d changed, but his efforts were futile. When I learned my curse, it was more than I could bear. I’d already been shunned from polite society, but my curse ensured I would be hated no matter where I went.
“My innate power revealed itself just when I thought my lot could not get any worse. To my horror and disgust, I learned that my power is seduction. With this face- it almost seemed as though I were a player in a cosmic farce.
“Monsignor Pius, who had previously been so kind and understanding, revealed his true colors to me. He tried to convince me to seduce his church rivals, and then expose them. Why not? I was already a fallen woman. He was certain that Hope would forgive me if I did it for the greater good.”
Prudence clenched her fists as she spoke, and I reached out to take her hand without thinking.
“I refused, and I went to Hope to reveal Pius’s treachery. Pius, however, had spoken to Hope already. He told Hope that the magic was driving me mad, and that I was becoming delusional. Hope, who had been so gentle and attentive since I’d changed, was easily swayed by his own worries. Now Hope stayed by my side day and night, guarding me from acting against the coven’s knowledge. Hope would not listen when I tried to warn him about Pius. Pius used Hope’s love as a weapon against me.”
“Father Pius is especially adept at turning people’s own strength against them,” I said. “I wish I could say I am surprised by his cruelty.”
I reached toward my pocket to get a handkerchief, but Prudence clung to my hand and would not let it go.
“Father Pius found my grimoire- the book of magic research I’d compiled.” She gestured toward the black tome with her free hand. “Thankfully, no guild members were referenced in my work, but he saw and recognized the guild’s symbols and methods. My involvement with the oculists, and my intention to reveal the secrets of magic to them, was a violation of the coven law. Pius betrayed me to the inquisition, and that might have been the end of my story, if not for Lux.”
“Lux helped you?” I said, unable to contain my surprise.
Prudence wiped her eyes with her left hand, and a small smile tugged at her swollen lips.
“Yes- Lux told me what Pius had done, and warned me that the inquisition was coming to arrest me. I had hardly any time to escape, and in that time I could not decide whether it was better to warn Hope of Pius’s treachery, or to try and distance Hope from any further involvement with a woman marked for death.
“ I allowed myself one last night with Hope. He didn’t understand that I was saying goodbye, and he didn’t hear my warnings about Pius. Instead, he thought I doubted his love. He tried to persuade me that I was still beautiful in his eyes, and that he could keep me safe.
“I would have stayed with Hope longer to try and save him, but my time was short. I suspected that I was with child- the very child Hope and I had wished for, so we could persuade the bishop to allow our marriage. Now, however, I had to leave Hope to protect our child. So I escaped, I gave birth alone, and though we survived, I’m still not sure I made the right decision.”
“Sometimes there is no right decision,” I said.
“Still,” Prudence looked down and sighed. “What must Hope think of me? I did try to send word to him, but it was risky. I only managed to send him one cryptic letter, and I don’t know if he ever received it. I was always running- for almost ten years, I ran. I went from the home of one oculist guild member to the next, picking up work were I could. I tried to make my way to del Sol, but every time I got close my way was blocked by inquisitors.
“Finally, I boarded a freighter that was bound for the nearby bay, but the ship carried contraband. Inquisitors seized the cargo, and me along with it. The inquisitors quickly uncovered my identity, and then they stripped, shaved, and tortured me. The worst thing they did, though, was take Celeste away. I didn’t know what had become of her, and I agonized over her fate when I was alone in my cell.
“The torture eventually ceased, and I thought I would be hanged before I would learn what had become of Celeste. The day of my hanging, however, never came. I was left in my cell without food, alone and forgotten. I was growing thin, shrinking, dying.
“One night- it seemed like it was always night in the tower- an old woman brought me a bowl of gruel. I barely had the strength to eat it, but she helped me. I can’t remember what happened next- I must have fainted- but when I awoke, I was dressed in pilgrim’s robes and riding a cart bound for del Sol. My wounds had been healed, and I was still thin, but no longer emaciated. There was a note in my pocket that informed me that Celeste was safe with her grandmother, and which gave further instructions to ask for Abbess Joy to grant me sanctuary.
“Only one person could have healed my wounds so completely- the same person who had written the note. Lux had saved me once more.”
“Do you believe Lux is trustworthy, then? I asked. “Do you think he may be working against Father Pius?”
“He would never work against Pius,” Prudence said firmly. “Pius and Lux’s very souls are entwined. They bound themselves together using an ancient ritual of blood, mind, and spirit. The reason they chose to bind themselves in such a way was pure, simple love.”
“If that is the case, then Pius must have been complicit when Lux saved you.”
“There can be no doubt of that. Pius knew that Lux did not wish for me to die, so he allowed him to save my life after I was no longer a threat. If Pius has one weakness, it is his bond with Lux. However, the bond works both ways, so we cannot completely trust Lux.”
“Lux told me himself that he was not Pius’s weakness, and I believed him.” I closed my eyes. “I can still see Lux’s eyes, empty of any warmth or compassion as Hope begged him for mercy. After such a display, l could only see Lux’s pity toward me as a farce. Lux is loyal to Pius, and Pius has thoroughly expressed his hatred for me.”
“Then why did you go away with Lux the night you arrived at del Sol?”
“Lux asked me to help him retrieve the Frey family writ of condemnation. I had already deduced that it may save Hope, since he had yet to produce the requisite heirs, and the High Priests seal cannot be broken by anyone. Lux promised me that he would use it to help Hope, and he gave me a weapon to use against him if he betrayed me.
“Even with the weapon he gave me, however, I cannot fully trust Lux. Lux admitted to me that the witch trial is a farce that Pius is using to serve his own goals.”
“Do you have any idea what Pius’s true goal is?”
“I’ve only gathered hints so dark that I cannot repeat them.”
Prudence shivered, and then stood, walking slowly around the platform. The first rays of morning light shone against her red hair, setting it aglow like molten copper.
“One thought gives me comfort; Lux’s curse is the inability to kill. Knowing Lux’s curse, Pius still made him high inquisitor.”
Lux could kill me, if he chose, I thought. He could kill any Ancient, and Pius would watch him do it gladly.
“There’s so much more you need to know,” I said. “But first, please answer one question honestly. Don’t try to spare my feelings.
Prudence stopped walking and sighed. After a few moments, she turned back and gazed at me so intently that I began to feel oddly naked.
“Very well,” she said. “I love him. Despite all of these years, I still yearn for him. Hope will always be a part of me.”
Without thinking, I stood and embraced her.
Prudence flinched at first, and then she relaxed and wrapped her arms around me.
“You silly girl,” she said. “We’re supposed to be rivals.”
“Our rivalry will have to wait until Hope is free,” I said. “I’m too relieved to find someone else who is on Hope’s side.”
“You trust me, then?”
“I already trusted you. Now we’re more than friends- we’re allies.”
“Not even the Gods could halt your madness,” Prudence said with a laugh. “Pius doesn’t stand a chance.”