The Coven, Part LVI

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.”

 

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The Coven, Part LV

Prudence and I climbed the spiral staircase to the observatory together. I clutched Sir Boromir’s treatise in my hands as I walked, and Prudence clutched her own black tome, stopping periodically to make notes as she went.

She closed her book and laid it aside when we arrived. The room was dark, but I turned the crank near the wall, and the ceiling parted to reveal the clear, starry sky above.

I walked around the instrument slowly, examining each crank and lever in the dim light to try and work out the function. “Sir Boromir’s treatise is incomplete,” I said. “The church stopped his work before he could plot the star’s courses- he had only completed his framework. I wish to complete his model using the most accurate observations possible.”

“I won’t stop you,” Prudence said, “and if you need any assistance, I will be here. It’s the least I can do, after making you the subject of my own work.”

“Why are you so keen to make me your subject?” I asked.

“My field of study is metaphysics. I’ve been chasing the secrets of the human soul for years, and if your claims are true then you have presented me with my first viable control; I will explain what a control is as we work. Surely you can guess why I would long to know more about the soul- why some are saved and others damned.”

I turned away from the telescope to regard Prudence. She was standing in the shadows, and was partially shrouded in darkness as though she had donned her veil again. I relaxed into a sense of familiarity as Prudence and Sister Jubilee blurred into one being in my mind.

“I believe so,” I said, sitting on the edge of the telescope’s platform. “You must have wished to free your family from damnation- the same as Hope.”

Prudence nodded and sat beside me. I hadn’t noticed the chill winter wind that leaked in through the ceiling until I felt her warmth beside me, and I instinctively drew nearer. We looked up through the observatory ceiling to the starry sky above, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. Dim stars grew bright, and invisible ones appeared- the universe’s vibrant dance stretched into infinity.

“They’re beautiful,” Prudence said. “They seem so unreal- or perhaps they make the earth and its troubles seem unreal. Why do you study them so seriously, instead of merely admiring their beauty?”

“Unending envy,” I answered. “Look how vast it is- full of mysteries we cannot touch. How I’ve longed to break free from the confines of this petty world and explore the heavens unrestrained! ”

“Then you love learning for its own sake.”

“Learning is both the means and the end. I use my mind to fight for my life and the lives of those I love, but I live so that I may learn as much as I can- to see and know the universe. I am my mind and my mind is me, so how can I separate its use and desires? Perhaps that is what it means to lack a soul.”

“Perhaps not- I have sometimes felt the same way. In my youth, when I ran wild through the hill country with my band of brothers, the world was mine to explore. Painful experience has changed me. I stopped running toward adventure and began fleeing danger, instead. Perhaps this is why I wished to warn you; I see the spark that I once possessed within you, and I couldn’t bear to see it extinguished.”

“I don’t believe your spark has been extinguished,” I said.

Prudence shook her head. “My innocence is lost forever. I can see clearly by starlight what I once missed by daylight. I can see every mistake I made along the way. I trusted my friends when they swore to protect my innocence, but now I understand that I should have relied on myself.

“I don’t mean to imply that my friends failed me- there was nothing they could have done differently. My brother, Justice, was strong and sensible, and when he could not steer our merry band away from danger, he would confront it for us. Serenity- who became Brother Lux after he joined the church- was able to soothe any hurt feeling and repair any broken friendship.” Prudence stopped and laughed a little. “So of course, I fell in love with my one friend who always made mischief among us- Hope. My happiness turned to bliss when I learned that he loved me in return.

“Hope and I didn’t even think to ask permission to marry. Our families were so close that we didn’t expect any opposition- only joy. After Hope and I announced our engagement, Lord Frey and my father called all of the young ones together- Hope, Serenity, Justice and myself. When we were assembled, Lord Frey told us everything they’d hidden from us when we were children- our families’ condemnation, our obligation to continue bearing damned children, and Hope’s obligation to serve the church. Word by word, Lord Frey stripped away my happiness until it seemed that nothing was left.

“Serenity proved his strength in the face of despair. He declared to his father that he’d never intended to marry, and offered to serve the church in Hope’s place. Lord Frey agreed to the compromise, Serenity went to the monastery and became Brother Lux, and Hope and I were free to marry.”

“And yet-” I felt an irrational guilt pierce my heart as I spoke. “And yet you were not able to marry.”

“No. I don’t know why- perhaps he did not want us to confine the family curses, or perhaps it was because I am not a member of the noblesse– but the bishop forbade our marriage. My only chance for happiness in this life was destroyed, and Lux’s sacrifice proved to be in vain.

“My brother left amidst all this on a tour of duty, and shortly afterward my beloved father died. My father had been so kind, so wise, and had worked hard all of his life to instill the best values in his children. Now that beloved soul was truly, irrevocably damned.

“Please understand how wretched I was when I tell you the next part of the story. Imagine my agony before you judge my actions. Hope’s mother died soon after my father passed, and Lord Frey retired to Verdant City for the sake of his health. Hope was as desperate in his misery as I was, and he had to bear it alone. Therefore, against my parents’ guidance and in the face of society’s condemnation, I moved to Rowan Heights to become his mistress.”

Prudence looked back at me with an expectant expression. “You have nothing to say?”

“I might have done the same if I’d been in your situation.”

Prudence smiled wryly. “Most people see things much differently.  My own mother would not see me after I became Hope’s mistress, and when I went into town-” she stopped and shivered. “I would rather not recount exactly what happened, but Mr. Filius came to my rescue.

“After Mr. Filius rescued me, we became friends. I could not visit him in town, so he would come to Rowan Heights for tea. He exposed me to many strange, new ideas. He declared that- far from being a fallen woman- I was virtuous for disobeying an unjust order from the bishop. He talked about science- about seeing the world clearly through your own eyes using only the lens of the method instead of what he called the blindfold of the church. I relinquished my anger and rebellion, for they were extensions of the church’s darkness. Mr. Filius exposed me to the light of reason.

“I decided to shine that light on my predicament. I began to study the human soul and its path to the gods in the hope that I might find a way to break my family’s condemnation. My initial research suggested a very strong connection between the soul and magic, so when Lux introduced Pius at Rowan Heights, I was ready to join the coven.

“Mr. Filius had never believed magic was real; he called it ‘superstitious nonsense’ that was used to label any malcontent as a witch and execute them without evidence. He claimed that the few holy mages that exist used advanced medicine to perform healing, and used trickery and theatrics to perform showier feats. I made a wager with him that I could verify that magic was a separate and unique phenomenon. This bet later became my test to join the oculist guild.”

“So when you gained your powers, you began a scientific study of magic,” I said.

“I began beforehand, while I was still an acolyte. Everyone, present company excluded, has some latent magical ability, but it must be strengthened before one can form a contract-” Prudence stopped and laughed. “I shouldn’t be able to speak of my contract so freely- my knowledge of demonic contracts is bound by the coven’s secrecy gaeas, to which I’m still subject.”

“You aren’t the first to mention it to me,” I said. “The others were familiar with my magical resistance, but none of them ever seemed concerned.”

“That is more evidence in your claim’s favor, I suppose,” Prudence said before continuing.

“I soon became completely engrossed in magical study. I was able to keep up with Hope, whose innate magical ability was so strong that he easily surpassed Lux and the other acolytes, whose names you may be able to guess.

“It seemed that, bit by bit, I was regaining what happiness I’d lost. When my brother came home he and Hope fought, but Hope gained his forgiveness. Afterward, Hope brought Justice into our circle. It seemed everyone else’s motives for joining were political- they wanted to wrest power away from those whose who had persecuted us and seek vengeance. I was too wrapped up in my own experiments to pay much attention to the circle’s plotting, and no one asked me about my own work or ambition.

“Soon, we were ready for initiation, and I realized too late that I did not want it. The process of forming a contract is very painful- it feels as though you are being ripped apart and invaded by a foreign entity. I was repulsed by the sensation of exposing my soul to a demon, or even to my friends in the circle. When the contract was sealed and the pain was over, everyone else became enthralled with the sensation of magic. I was different. When I discovered my curse, combined with my innate power, it became too much to bear.”

Prudence wrapped her veil around her shoulders like a shawl, shivering.

“We should go back inside-” I said gently.

“No-” Prudence looked back up at the sky, which had shifted as we spoke. 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.”

The Coven, Part LVI

The Coven, Part LIV

In life, Prudence was even more beautiful than she’d appeared in miniature. Her cheeks were flushed, her full lips were parted in an expression of shock, and her eyes- the exact color of the bluebells that grew on Rowan Heights- grew wide as she stared at me.

Then Prudence blinked, seeming to snap out of a trance, and stood so abruptly that her stool fell over with a clatter.

“Why would you call me by that name?” she said. “Prudence Goode is dead.”

“A part of me already knew,” I said, “and now that I see you, there’s no denying it. Hope’s miniature was a near-perfect likeness.”

“No.” Prudence took my shoulders and pulled me up to face her. “Look at me. What could you possibly see in this face that resembles the miniature?”

“Everything- your red hair, your bright blue eyes, your complexion-”

Prudence pushed past me and went to one of the glass instruments, gazing at her reflection in its shining surface. After a few moments she turned back to face me.

“Why would you tell such lies? I don’t look like the miniature- I am as grotesque as I have been for years.”

Her expression of resentment was so close to the one Celeste had directed at Hope on Prudence’s death day that the rest of the puzzle fell into place.

”-my mother wasn’t a bit pretty. Her eyes were dull and gray.”

“-When Prudence left me, she was no longer the girl in that picture. The curse stole her beauty, and the price- well, I believe that the burden of power stole her smile.”

“-Oh, how pretty she was! But- why did she change?”

 

“You’ve inadvertently revealed your secret to me,” I said. “I owe you my secret in return, as I promised.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mother was an ancient, so curses and magic have no effect on me. That’s why I can see your true face.”

“Ridiculous! You’re piling lies on top of lies,” Prudence said. “The ancients were all killed centuries ago.”

“I can provide ample evidence,” I said. “Ancients have been bred in secret as slaves for centuries, and I possess my mother’s contract, which is bound by the high priest’s seal. Also, Abbess Joy can verify my story; she knew my mother intimately.”

Prudence turned to pace the circumference of the room, wringing her thin hands. “Abbess Joy assured me that it was impossible for you to be a witch, but wouldn’t tell me why.”

“Abbess Joy tested me when I was a child, and she verified that I possess the same magical resistance as a full-blooded ancient. It would be impossible for me to wield magic.”  

Prudence stopped pacing and spun back to face me.

“Hold out your hand,” she said.

I did as she bid, and Prudence stepped forward slowly, as though frightened of me. She reached out, took my hand, and stared directly into my eyes.

We stood together in silence as the seconds passed. Prudence’s gaze grew more and more intense, and it took all of my will not to quell under her gaze.

After some time, she frowned. “Do you feel anything?”

“I find your expression rather intimidating,” I admitted. “Mostly, I’m uncertain how to convince you of the truth, or what you expect of me.”

Prudence drew closer, her eyes darkening. “But do you feel any heat? Any desire? Don’t you wish to be closer to me?”

I dropped her hand and backed away in astonishment. “What are you saying?”

She sighed and shook her head. “Nevermind- that was a test, and you’ve passed. It was an ill-performed test, but I will perform better ones in time.”

“Did you attempt to use magic against me?”

“I did. I made an honest attempt, but the spell’s failure may be my fault; my power has waned from neglect. Even so, I can feel the magic I’ve used. You should have reacted.”

Prudence wiped her hand across her pale brow. “You said that a part of you already knew my identity. How?”

“I wasn’t certain, but there were many small clues that seemed to fit. Your connection to Celeste was the largest clue, but your connection with Mr. Filius was another. He’d once told me he was very fond of you. Your familiarity with my situation might have been explained any number of ways, and the interest you’ve taken in me might have merely been friendship. However, on the first night you brought me here, you said you liked me against your will, which seemed very strange.

“The hints all coalesced when I suggested a possible connection between you and the Frey or Goode family, which you were desperate to silence.”

“I must learn to govern my responses as much as you must govern your tongue,” Prudence groaned.

“I didn’t examine these clues too closely,” I continued. “I was afraid I would lose your friendship if I uncovered your identity without your consent. Instead, I wished to earn your trust- to form a deeper alliance.”

“Why? With all of my deceit, you had no reason to trust me.” She looked up at me tentatively, as though awaiting some judgement.

“I had ample reason to trust you,” I protested. “When Celeste called you her guardian angel, and when Abbess Joy gave such a warm account of your character, how could I help but see you as a friend?”

“All of this is evidence against your claim,” Prudence said. “How could a soulless being feel trust, faith, or love?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been aware of my ancestry for very long, and I’m still discovering what it means to lack a soul. After all- I cannot miss what I never had. All I can do is baldly assert that I have no soul, and yet I feel.”

Prudence put her finger to her lips for a moment in thought, and then went to the bookcase, where she opened a little door that was set into the wall. She drew forth a battered, black book, which she dropped onto the table. Then she sat down with pen in hand and scratched notes onto a blank page with a steady, efficient hand.

“The subject claims to be of ancient descent,” she muttered as she wrote. “May be soulless… verify ancestral claims and perform the following tests…”

“I had worried you would react in horror when I told you I was an ancient,” I said. “I didn’t expect to be made a test subject.”

Shush- I’m thinking,” she said. “The subject shows complete range of emotional behavior. A preliminary test indicates magical resistance…”

She continued to write for a few more moments and then stopped, looked upward while tapping her fingers together as though doing a mental calculation, and added another line. Then she tossed her pen back onto the table and leaned forward on her elbows.

“I cannot teach you,” she said. She leaned her chin on her hand as she regarded me, and her inky fingers left black smudges on her flushed cheeks.

“Because of who I am?”

She smiled a little, and her eyes glittered in the clean electric light. “Tonight, my intended lesson lacked impact without the weight of my curse. You were supposed to look at me in horror when you saw my face, not immediately unravel all of my secrets. Just when I think I have the advantage of age and experience, you rush ahead. No- I’ve decided; If we work together, it must be as equals.”

Part LV

The Coven, Part LIII

The next two days passed quietly at the seaside shrine. During the day I kept vigil with Abbess Joy beside my mother’s grave, and at night Dare told me the stories that had been handed down from ancient to ancient over the centuries.

At first, I tried to compare Dare’s tales with the ones I’d read in the stolen book, and to compare both against the litanies and the historical record in order to deduce an accurate history. However, as I listened to the dreamlike cadence of Dare’s voice under the starlit skies, I realized that I was being foolish.

The different versions of history I’d read did not vary because of mistakes they had made- they were not meant to be an accurate record. Each story was a message for the listener, like a myth or a fairy tale, and my desperate search for accuracy was deafening me to the intended message.

“… and so Julia loved Death with all her heart,” Dare concluded on the final night, “but she could only be with him once she’d given birth to Jealousy’s child.”

I wiped a tear from my eyes, but I was able to keep from sighing aloud. Nevertheless, Dare turned toward me and smiled.

“Why do young people always cry when they hear this tale? Julia was happy, in the end.”

“I understand the story’s intent,” I said, wiping away another tear, “but I can’t help but cry. Julia didn’t lose herself to someone else’s desires, but death is also a way to lose oneself.”

“Then how would you chose, if you were given the same choice?”

“I don’t know. I wish I could have everything; I wish I could possess an immortal soul and remain true to myself.”

Dare gazed at me for a long time in the starlight, her pale eyes flicking back and forth as though searching for something.

“When you were born, it seemed like a sign from the Gods. You are half-blood, but you are still the first ancient born free since the war ended. I wondered if you might free us all, some day.”

“I will try. The current danger to the Ancient race is far worse than I’ve conveyed to you. Not only does Father Pius hate us, but he knows a dangerous secret; he knows how to use magic against us.”

Dare’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never heard of such a secret. Magic can’t hurt us.”

“That’s what I believed, too, but Father Pius was able to turn my own resistance to magic against me.”

Dare shook her head. “These are dangerous times. I will warn the others.”

“Thank you. In the meantime, I will think of what else may be done.” I stood and looked up, where the path of souls shone clearly against the velvet sky. “I swear on the earth below and the heavens above that I will try to free our people and all others who are enslaved.”

 

#

 

The next morning, Abbess Joy stood and walked away from my mother’s grave. Together we bid farewell to Dare and returned to the abbey.

Abbess Joy had regained her composure- her eyes were as clear as the blue sky, and her countenance was serene once more.

“Grief never really diminishes,” Abbess Joy said as we walked along the shore, “but we grow strong enough to carry it. I’m sorry I haven’t been stronger for your sake. I’m sorry I let you see my grief so plainly.”

“On the contrary- you have given me what I longed for most. You’ve shown me who my mother was, and the love you expressed for her showed me more than the pictures or letters.”

Abbess Joy paused and took my hand, giving it a quick squeeze before she dropped it to continue.

“When Harmony died, she left a hole in the world. I wish I’d had the power to grant her a soul.”

“Abbess, I’ve heard all of my life that a soul is the essence of a person’s self. But my own feelings and Dare’s stories tell me something else entirely- that it is quite possible to be whole without one. Do you know what a soul really is?”

Abbess Joy looked toward the cathedral spire, which loomed higher and higher in the sky as we approached the abbey. She slowed her pace, as though to prolong our conversation.

“I know what a soul is, but it’s difficult to explain in words you will understand. As you advance in scientific understanding, perhaps I will be able to give you a clearer idea, but for now all I can express are feelings.”

She pushed back her cowl, running her hands through her shining hair in thought.

“You are quite right that a person can be wholly oneself without a soul. To have a soul is to be more than oneself.”

“Dare said that a person’s soul will join with all other’s souls after they die. She spoke of this as a kind of violation.”

“I understand why the idea is frightening to the soulless,” Abbess Joy said. “Perhaps that fear is what made the ancients reject Order’s gift. There is really nothing to fear. I know because I am a part of something bigger than myself, and yet I am still me. I feel infinitely loved, and can give my love freely in return. Yet-”

Abbess Joy stopped and sighed. “-yet since Harmony died, I’ve lost a small part of that feeling. Perhaps that is why I fell.”

We continued to the abbey in silence. The sun was high in the sky when we reached the narrow, gravel path, but the Cathedral bells were ringing. When we arrived in the abbey courtyard, Celeste ran to meet us, followed closely by Mercy.

“Come quickly,” Celeste said, taking my hand and tugging me along. “Sister Love said we shall sing a re- a requirement, but we won’t start until you both come to the cathedral.”

“Do you mean to say ‘requiem?’” Abbess Joy asked with a small grin.

“Yes, something like that,” Celeste said. “Hurry!”

I followed Celeste into the cathedral, passing some pilgrims on the way. Some ignored my presence, and some stopped to stare, but I did not attempt to hide my face.

Sister Love smiled and gestured to Abbess Joy to take her place directing the choir, but Abbess Joy shook her head, and joined the ranks of the chorus. I followed suit, and Sister Meek shared her litany with me as we swelled our voices in song.

The melancholy notes hung in the air above me, mingling with the sunlight that poured in through the clear windows. As I watched and listened, surrounded by friends and loved ones who sang alongside me, the storm that had been brewing inside me seemed to subside.The flame in my heart did not extinguish- it was bright as the sun, and the vow I’d made to free my people burned like a brand.

My mother was gone forever, but those who loved her remained. I was alone, yet not alone. I was free, yet bound by purpose.

I knew in that moment that no one, be they a God or a demon, an angel or witch, would ever deter me from my chosen path.

 

#

 

Sister Jubilee was notably absent from the requiem, and no one whom I asked afterward had seen her all day. Still, I trusted that Sister Jubilee would be true to her word, so when the sun set I went to the tower to await her return.

The tower was empty when I arrived, but I was content to wait alone. A book on one of the forbidden laboratory shelves caught my attention, and I was completely absorbed in its contents when Sister Jubilee finally arrived.

“There’s no greater enjoyment than reading a book you’ve been told not to read,” she remarked from the doorway.

I closed the book halfway, marking my place with my finger. “Why didn’t you tell me Sir Boromir’s lost treatise was here?”

Sister Jubilee sighed and walked around the table. I could tell she was fatigued from the slump of shoulders and her slow, deliberate steps. She pulled a wooden stool toward her and sat down hard.

“I’ve been at pains all day to avoid you,” she said. “I needed to make my decision free from the disruption your presence usually causes to my rational mind.”

“I don’t mean to be disruptive,” I said. I slipped my finger from the book and set it aside. “If you wish to postpone our meeting, I understand.”

“No,” Sister Jubilee said quickly. “I will tell you my decision now, while I still have the resolve.”

She stood, straightening her shoulders and turning her veiled face toward me.

“Let me first explain why I decided the way I did, so you won’t misunderstand my intentions. You made a strong impression on me when we first met, and though I’ve learned more about your character since that day, nothing has counteracted that impression.”

“In other words; if you were to vote on my initiation today, you would still oppose it.”

Sister Jubilee nodded. “You are brilliant, Lady Frey- at least as brilliant as Mr. Filius is mad. You have an intuitive sense for the method that most of us take years to learn. Mr. Filius told us, before he brought you to defend your project, how you proceeded after you made your first observation of Lystra’s phases. He said you asked others to confirm your observations, and that you asked Mr. Filius to test your telescope’s integrity without first telling him why. In your presentation, you made it clear that you built your theory, and then tested your theory against Sir Boromir’s observations to see if everything fit your model . You made some mistakes along the way, but you arrived at the correct conclusion. If I’d judged you on your work alone, you would be a member of the guild today.”

“Then why-”

Sister Jubilee held up her hand. “Please allow me to continue. Sir Silas objected to your initiation because he felt you lacked courage, but my reason was quite the opposite. You are naturally timid, but I believe the caution this afforded you was the reason you were so methodical in your approach to science. Unfortunately, your timidity also denied you the chance to learn what the bold learn early in life- the necessity of resisting strong impulses.

“Because impulsiveness is so foreign to you, you cannot control it when it appears.You rushed to join the oculist guild before you knew what we were. You accepted and looked through your telescope without questioning why the church forbade it. You were right to look, but if you had questioned the church’s motives, you might have known not to give your treatise to a cleric to review.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that you’ve learned to govern your impulses, yet. Therefore, I cannot trust you to act in accordance with the guild’s highest ideals or to protect the knowledge we’ve fought for.”

I wanted to defend myself, but I could not. Sister Jubilee’s words stabbed me to the heart as they forced me to recall the hatred I’d felt toward my father and the Prince, my impulse to vengeance, and my immediate remorse. The truth of Sister Jubilee’s words was clear.

“You have judged me very harshly,” I said. “Thank you. I see my mistakes in a much clearer light.”

Sister Jubilee sat down very close to me, and the fabric of her veil fluttered against my knees as she leaned forward.

“I will not tell you my secret,” she said, “but I will give you a warning. Lift my veil.”

I reached out, and then hesitated.

“Are you sure?”

“I am. You need to see this, so that you won’t repeat my mistakes. Hurry, before I lose my courage.”

I took the thin fabric in my hands and lifted it, revealing the face beneath.

My breath hitched as my mind attempted to reject what I saw. Then everything I’d hidden in the dark corner of my mind flooded to the surface.

 

When this likeness was taken she was just a girl, and she was still happy.”

“…there is some connection between you and Celeste.”

“I can be brave because I’ve just learned that miracles are for real.”

 

I wanted to cry out that it was impossible. Instead, a single name came to my lips.

“Prudence Goode.”

Part LIV

The Coven, Part LII

The woman attacked me so swiftly that her movements blurred together. I was hit by a flurry of blows, only half of which I could deflect.

My heart was racing as I scrambled to counter-attack, but through my panic a part of my mind remained observant. The woman’s blows were faster than Mercy’s, but they were also gentler. Rather than counter with my own blows, I allowed her to overextend herself, hooked the back of her knee, and took her down as gently as I could.

She countered and pulled me down with her, and I lay prone as she jumped to her own feet. She looked down at me in triumph, and then threw back her head and laughed.

“You haven’t been studying long, have you? You fell for the oldest feint there is.”

“Dare, really- I think that’s enough,” Abbess Joy admonished.

“I wanted to see if they’d turned her into a lady,” the woman replied. Then she offered me her hand. “You walk like a lady, and you look like a lady, but you have your mother’s spirit.”

In my confusion, I took the woman’s hand and allowed her to help me stand.

“You know who I am?” I said.

The woman laughed. “Oh, child! I would know Harmony’s girl anywhere. She was like a sister to me, and I see her in your eyes.”

Abbess Joy stepped forward. “This is Dare- she is caretaker of this sacred space.”

Dare nodded. “Come child. I will take you to your mother.”

 

#

 

Dare led the way through the ruins and behind the wooden chapel, to a field of brown sea-grass and white tombstones. The stones at the back, closest to the dunes, were worn smooth by sand and wind, and some had crumbled away to almost nothing. The tombstones closest to the chapel, however, were square-cornered and new. Each of the new stones were carved with a single name and no other embellishment- not even the symbol of order.

We walked to the end of the first row, where we found a stone carved with the name Harmony. Beneath the name, a short epitaph had been scrawled in black ink.

Eternally lost.

Eternally loved.

I stared at the stone, trying to force some deeper part of myself to comprehend the moment’s significance. I had finally returned to my mother, but I didn’t feel anything. My eyes only saw a stone engraved with her name.

After some moments of silence, Dare spoke. “I will bring some fresh water from the cistern. Do you need a cloth?”

“No thank you, Dare. I have rags with me.” Abbess Joy placed her bundle on the ground and gently lay the sol flowers aside. “I will clear the weeds while you are gone.”

Dare bowed low to Abbess Joy, and then departed.

Abbess Joy bent down and began pulling the weeds that grew around the tombstone. I knelt beside her and untangled the weeds that had put tendrils over and around the stone itself. We worked silently and efficiently, and by the time Dare returned with a bucket of water, the weeds had all been cleared away.

Then each of us took a rag and scrubbed the dirt and salt away, rinsing it with fresh water. When we’d finished, I noticed that the epitaph had washed away, but Abbess Joy dried the stone with a fresh cloth and penned it again.

I arranged the flowers on top of the grave, and then Abbess Joy knelt beside it. She did not make the sign of order, bow her head, or fold her hands in prayer. Instead, she placed her hand on the tombstone and spoke.

“I’m sorry I haven’t brought Grace home sooner,” Abbess Joy said. “I’m sorry I failed to protect her as you wished.”

I almost protested that I was safe at present, but her words were not for me. Still, it seemed strange to speak those words to a stone.

“Your girl is strong, Harmony,” Dare said thickly beside me. “She reminds me of you. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of you in some way.”

Abbess Joy turned and looked at me. Her blue eyes were clouded with unshed tears, like a winter mist over a blue sky.

“Don’t be afraid to speak, Grace, if you have anything you wish to say,” she prompted.

“I-” I hesitated as I stared at the stone. How could I speak, when I knew she could not hear me?

As I hesitated, the silence seemed to stretch on and on around me. Everything was as still as stone- even the wind was still. Minutes passed, and I felt as though I had to do something to shake the stillness into life, so I spoke.

“I wish I could truly speak to you,” I said. “I wish I could see you. I would thank you for giving me life. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, but I do cherish life.”

Abbess Joy put her arms around my neck and held me. Dare sniffed loudly behind us, and the scene wavered through the tears in my eyes.

When my eyes were dry again, Abbess Joy sat back on her heels and rummaged through her fur bundle. She pulled out a lacquer box, kissed it, and opened it.

“I’m sorry this took so long,” Abbess Joy said, removing a bundle of papers from the box. “These are the letters I promised you, and some pictures- here.”

Abbess Joy handed me a picture from the top of the stack, and I stared in astonishment. The picture was so vivid that I thought that the wild-haired girl would move at any moment.

“This is masterful,” I said. “Who painted this?”

“It was painted by sunlight,” Abbess Joy said, “another technology I’m forbidden to reveal.”

Dare chuckled.

“She was lovely,” I said. “She looks-”

“She looks like you,” Dare said.

The expression in her eyes, I thought, was fiercer than mine, though just as dark. Her hair was curly like mine, and her smile- no, her smile was not quite the same. We did have the same cheeks, the same nose, and the same brow.

Before I could take everything in, Abbess Joy handed me another picture. This picture showed her holding a spear, poised to strike. I had often thought that Mercy possessed the most graceful form I’d ever seen, but my mother’s put it to shame.

“She was talented,” Dare said. “She wasn’t as strong as me, but she had grace, speed, and the most polished technique I’ve ever seen in one so young. Of course, at the time I was not much older than she was.”

“Your mother had courage, as well,” Abbess Joy said. “The first time I met her, she saved my life.”

“She did?” I looked up from the picture in astonishment.

“Yes. Back then, there was an upsurge of demonic activity in Aeterna. I was confident that I could counter any magical attack on my own, so I traveled to the capital alone on business. The High Priest, however, insisted I travel back with a trained ancient.  I agreed, and your mother joined me on my journey from Bridon to del Sol.

“It was a clear day, and we appeared to be the only travelers for miles around. Even so, Harmony kept eyeing the woods with a suspicious air. Soon, three assassins emerged from the woods, casting magical attacks and wielding swords. She shielded me from the magical attacks with her own body, and after they’d exhausted their powers she defeated them singlehandedly in combat.”

Abbess Joy leaned back on her hands and looked up at the sky, smiling as though she could see the entire scene playing out in the clouds.

“Harmony and I had traveled all through Aeterna and beyond on the church’s orders,” Dare said. “Harmony was a rebellious girl, constantly provoking punishment from our masters, but as long as I was with her, I could keep her under control.

“After Harmony saved her life, Abbess Joy invited Harmony to stay at del Sol, out of the reach of our masters’ punishments. Harmony accepted, but I didn’t think the arrangement would last long; I worried day and night that Harmony would cause trouble at this dull old shrine.”

“She never made trouble,” Abbess Joy said. “She was just what this ‘dull old shrine’ needed.”

Abbess Joy looked back down at me. “Harmony asked as many questions as you, Grace- her mind was full of energy.”

“That was the trouble,” Dare said.

“No- I’m the one who caused trouble.” Abbess Joy looked up at the clouds again. “I was always at odds with the Gods and the High Priest, but I had grown accustomed to a certain amount of indulgence. I’d always thought that the Gods’ laws were too harshly enforced. To satisfy my concerns, I was given del Sol- a place where the repentant could seek refuge and forgiveness.

“For a long time, I was content to aid the pilgrims who came seeking absolution.  I dreamed that my work here could truly change the world. I realize now that I had been asleep, and when Harmony came into my life with her fire and determination, I awakened. I began to question not just the harshness of the Gods’ punishments, but the laws themselves. I questioned whether the ancients should still be enslaved for the sins of their forbears, and whether Order’s hierarchy was just.”

“You went too far,” Dare said.

“The High Priest believed that Harmony had corrupted me, so he invited us to the Cathedral Lux under false pretenses and separated us after we arrived. Harmony had saved my life, but I failed to protect hers.”

Dare drew closer to Abbess Joy and, in a bold gesture, wrapped Abbess Joy in an embrace. Abbess Joy leaned her head on Dare’s shoulder, accepting the comfort without hesitation.

“Is that when the High Priest sent her to my father?” I asked.

Abbess Joy nodded. “Harmony contracted her illness shortly after she was married, and she was allowed to come back…”

Abbess Joy’s voice caught, and she sighed deeply before she continued.

“There was nothing I could do to help her- my healing magic was useless.”

“She didn’t expect you to save her,” Dare said gently. “She just wanted to see you again.”

I turned to the next picture on the stack, of the same young woman looking pale, subdued, and heavy with child.

“I still hoped,” Abbess Joy said, tears returning to her eyes. “After you were born, Grace, I thought she might recover. She looked at you with such joy in her eyes that I thought the worst was over.”

Abbess Joy pulled away from Dare and knelt by the tombstone once more.

“I never knew loss before Harmony died. I was always able to commune with the souls of those who had passed. I’ve always been able to hear their voices in my prayers. I will never hear Harmony’s voice again.”

Abbess Joy leaned her head on the tombstone and wept once more.

I knelt down to hold Abbess Joy, to comfort her as she had once comforted me, but she seemed oblivious to my presence as she continued to weep. After a few moments Dare helped me to stand and, with a sad shake of her head, led me away from the graveyard and back to the worn chapel.

The chapel was not filled with old pews and and a rickety altar, as I’d imagined. Instead, there was a comfortable sofa, desk, and a large, black stove that filled the back part of the room.

“Have a seat,” Dare said, pointing to the sofa. “Read your mother’s letters, and I will make us some tea.”

“Should we leave Abbess Joy alone?” I asked. “I don’t mind going back-”

“She prefers to be alone,” Dare said, feeding driftwood into the stove. “Her kind aren’t often this emotional, and I think she’s ashamed. She always insists that she be left all night to keep vigil.”

“But it’s so cold,” I said. “She will need shelter.”

“It doesn’t matter. Be there rain or ice, she never feels the cold.”

“Does she use holy magic to protect herself from the elements?” I asked.

Dare put the kettle on the hob. “I don’t know much about magic, child. Sometimes I wonder if magic is nothing but madness, and our people are the only ones left who are sane. Still, I can see that Abbess Joy is different from us. I’ve watched with envious eyes as she has stayed young and beautiful while my hair greyed and my skin wrinkled. If I can see it so plainly, then it’s probably something other than magic.”

“You said that ‘her kind’ aren’t often emotional. What is her kind?”

“Abbess Joy is a fallen angel,” Dare said. “The rest of her kind are in heaven.”

I had a hundred more questions, but before I could ask, Dare excused herself to collect more driftwood, and I was left alone with my mother’s letters.

 

#

 

Dare returned to the chapel within a few minutes, but by then I was too wrapped up in my mother’s letters to question her further. The light outside grew soft as I read, and I used the scattered clues inside to piece together a mosaic of who she was.

The writing style was simple, and many words were misspelled. She had not been highly educated, but she was literate- a rare quality in one enslaved. I wondered if she’d been given just enough education to follow written orders, since she’d been trained as a guard and assassin.

Abbess Joy had described my mother’s mind as active, and I imagined I could see why. In her letters to Abbess Joy, she always wrote about the future- “When I’m sure you are safe, I will put away my spear forever.” “ One day, I will show you all of the places I’ve seen. Promis you will do the same.” “I will see you soon at del Sol.”

I read the final letter several times, which ended with her last future hope. “Lord Ainsworth told me I may come to del Sol. I will spend my last days with you, and you will meet my child.”

When I looked up from the letters, I noticed that Dare had left the chapel again. I folded the letters carefully and placed them back in the box before I went outside.

The sun had set and the moon cast red light over the ruins. There were no clouds, there was no frost, and the barest of breezes brushed my skin. Overhead, the winter constellations glittered, beckoning my eye.

I turned away from the moon and traced the dragon toward the eastern horizon, which was partially blocked by a cluster of broken pillars. I saw Dare in the center of the pillars. She was moving in a soft, slow pattern that seemed too gentle to be a martial form, but too purposeful to be a dance.

Dare looked in my direction, but her movements did not cease. Instead, she twitched her fingers in a beckoning gesture, and smiled at me as she continued.

I joined her in the center of the rubble and copied her movements as best I could. The form was slow enough to follow even in the dim moonlight, but it required far more strength than I’d anticipated to sustain the poses. We went through the form once, and then, with seemingly infinite patience, Dare cycled back to the beginning.

“I’ve never seen Miss Mercy do a form like this,” I said.

“This form is part of your heritage, Grace. It’s been passed down from ancient to ancient for centuries. The Church gives us martial forms that teach us to kill, but this form grants us the strength to live.”

I moved through the form again on my own, committing the moves to memory. After I finished, I turned and bowed to Dare.

“Thank you for teaching me,” I said.

“This form is just one piece of your birthright. There are stories that you’ve never learned. Tell me, what do you know of the ancients?”

“I know that the they- we– are soulless. Because of this, we are unable to do magic, and we are barred from eternal life. We warred against the Gods, and were defeated by man. Most of us were killed, and the remaining few were enslaved.”

Dare nodded. “It’s a familiar story- one that our masters tell to remind us that we deserve our enslavement. We are owned by the Church, you see, and the High Priest issues our commands through his bishops. Father Sauris always promised that if we worked hard for absolution, we would one day be free.”

“Has Father Pius made any such promises?” I asked.

“Father Pius has not spoken to any of us yet, even through the bishops,” Dare said. “The young ones who should act as his guards have been sent back to the ancient temple, and are awaiting orders. I suppose this is because there may or may not be war between Aeterna and Sancti.”

“Perhaps,” I said. “Still, be cautious; I have reason to believe that Father Pius harbors a special hatred toward the ancients.”

“Oh?” Dare sat on a broken pillar and put her chin in her hands. “I won’t be summoned to the ancient temple- I am too old to be useful, now. But when one of our people comes here to mourn, I will tell them to spread the word. We are usually cautious when the priesthood changes hands, and moreso when there are whispers of war.”

“Thank you. I wish I could give more than a warning.”

“I can tell that you plan to give more, in time,” she said. “I doubt your father taught you to fight. You are preparing yourself.”

I sat on the pillar next to Dare, taking the time to order my thoughts, and looked up at the stars. The moon had set as Dare and I spoke, and the sky was so dark that the path of souls- which usually stretched like a dim ribbon of white across the sky- seemed to glow.

“I am woefully unprepared,” I finally said. “All of the histories I’ve read contradict each other, and I need to see the past clearly to understand what is happening now. Tell me- do the ancient tales explain why the Gods made war against us?”

“Oh, yes,” Dare said. She leaned back to gaze at the sky, and the starlight reflected in her pale eyes.

“In the beginning, the ancients, humans, and Gods were one race,” Dare began in a singsong voice, as though reciting a litany. “We were all equal, possessing bodies and minds without souls. We enjoyed a golden age of peace and prosperity on Terra.

“The golden age was destroyed when Order discovered the secret of the soul. He gave souls to his friends and companions, and they became the Gods and angels. He promised everyone else that, if they pledged their faith to him, they would one day gain a soul as well.

“The ancients, however, rejected Order’s gift. To escape retribution, we bound ourselves to the earth, making us free of souls and magic forever. Order declared war on the ancients, but soon after there was a schism among the angels, and his loyal angels were needed to make war in heaven. The humans, eager to earn their souls, slaughtered the ancients on the Gods’ behalf.

“The humans earned their souls, the remaining ancients were made the slaves of the Gods, and Order won the war in heaven, casting the rebellious angels into hell. This is the order of the universe we know today, and the only way to escape is through the Gods’ forgiveness.”

“Why did we reject Order’s gift?” I asked. “Why refuse the ability to use magic, and the chance to live forever?”

“The price of a soul was too high,” Dare said.

“Do you mean obedience to the Gods?”

“Obedience is bad enough, but we can endure it for a greater prize. No- the price of a soul is the loss of loneliness.”

“What do you mean? How can the loss of loneliness be-” I stopped as Dare looked back down at me with her shining eyes, and a faint, knowing smile on her lips.

“I know you’ve felt it, child. You’ve spent happy hours by yourself, building castles from your thoughts, and drifting peacefully in your own universe. Sometimes, someone will interrupt you, and you feel as though your world has been shaken to its core. Even if the intruder is a loved one bearing pleasant news, the invasion is painful.”

“Everyone must feel that way at times- even with a soul.”

“Perhaps, but very seldom, and only in their earthly life. After death, the souls of the faithful are bound to the Gods, to each other, and to the forces of nature itself. The universes they’ve made in their minds are opened, examined, and invaded as they become one with all. That is what it means to have a soul. That is magic.”

I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself, as though to protect myself from more than the wind.

“I wish that we were immortal, Grace. I wish your mother were still alive somewhere. But I understand something that Abbess Joy, in all her wisdom, never will. Nothing can ever take away what belonged to Harmony alone- not even the love of an angel.”

The Coven, Part LI

I pushed back my cowl and sighed with relief as the early winter breeze hit my face. The crowd of pilgrims that surrounded the cathedral were far behind me, and the sound of the morning bells had faded into the distance.

Celeste had sung the litany with the sisters at morning prayer, and though the service was over, she still sang. She was in a playful mood; she swung my hand as we walked, and I could see that she was doing the same with Sister Jubilee’s hand on her left. She stopped walking every time she saw something interesting by the path, and then would speed up without warning, without regard for Sister Jubilee or me.

“Celeste, please have some patience for us old women,” Sister Jubilee protested, “or we will be less willing to hold your hand in the future.”

“You aren’t old- you just need exercise,” Celeste said. “Why don’t you learn to fight with Lady Grace? All of the other sisters said that they will.”

“I haven’t decided whether I will learn or not,” Sister Jubilee said.

“You should- Sister Love is going to try, and she must be twice your age. I wish that I could learn.” Celeste turned back to me. “Why can’t I?”

“Miss Mercy said that you’re too young,” I said.

Celeste stopped to kick a patch of loose gravel. “I’m too young to do anything fun.”

Sister Jubilee dropped Celeste’s hand, and I followed suit.

“You know that isn’t true, Celeste,” I chided. “The sisters allowed you to sing with them this very morning, and Sister Jubilee allows you to practice music on the big pipe organ. You read books, play on the beach, and learn interesting lessons every day. You will only make yourself unhappy if you focus on the one thing you aren’t allowed to do.”

Celeste sighed. “I suppose you’re right, but it doesn’t seem fair.”

“The world is unfair, Celeste,” Sister Jubilee said, “but in this case, I understand Miss Mercy’s reasoning. No one wants you to get hurt.”  

“I suppose it’s just as well,” Celeste said. “I need to go to the beach and check on my experiment first thing in the morning.”

“Don’t go to the beach alone,” I said. “Wait until one of the sisters, or Miss Mercy, is able to go with you.”

Celeste stopped walking to frown at me, but Sister Jubilee spoke before Celeste could protest.  

“How is your experiment progressing, Celeste?”

Celeste immediately replaced her pout with a more serious expression. “The experiment is going well so far, but I worry that it will rain. I don’t want to miss any- any data because I had to stay inside.”

Celeste gave me a quizzical look. “You must feel the same way about clouds, because they get in the way of the stars.”

“I do feel the same. I haven’t been able to do any stargazing for weeks because of the ice storms.”

“Weather is such an obstacle to science,” Celeste said gravely.

“It can be, unless you are studying the weather,” Sister Jubilee added.

“Is weather a type of science?” Celeste asked.

“Anything you can observe is in the domain of science,” Sister Jubilee said.

We had made our way uphill as we talked, and were now in sight of the abbey. Celeste quickened her steps and reached out for our hands once more.

“Speaking of science,” Sister Jubilee said quietly as our group drew closer together, “I am ready to begin your lessons, Lady Frey.”

‘I’m glad. I need something to distract me; the nights are growing long.”

“I have tried to keep you occupied, but needlework doesn’t seem sufficient,” Sister Jubilee laughed.

I felt a reluctant smile tug the corners of my lips. “I am sorry if I’ve seemed more distracted than usual. I always feel discontent when winter approaches, and this winter is far more bitter than any I’ve known. To make it worse- the letter…”

I trailed off when I saw that Celeste was watching me with sharp interest.

“The letter?” Sister Jubilee quietly prompted.

“It’s alright,” I continued in a brighter tone. “Lord Frey’s spirits are high. His main concerns are for me and Celeste, so I must be content.”

“That’s right,” Celeste said. “Uncle Hope said that the inquisition was a lot more boring than the stories make it seem. I wrote him a nice, long letter so he wouldn’t be bored. Did you think it was a good letter, Sister Jubilee?”

Sister Jubilee stopped walking abruptly, her footsteps skidding abruptly in the gravel. Celeste dropped her hand, and I reached out to help her.

“Are you alright, Sister Jubilee?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” she said.

“Did I- did I say something wrong?” Celeste asked.

“Of course you didn’t” Sister Jubilee said. “These gravel paths are so troublesome.”

Sister Jubilee’s tone was perfectly unconcerned, and she straightened her robes and continued to walk as though nothing had happened.

“You showed Sister Jubilee your letter?” I asked Celeste.

“Yes. I know that you’d already fixed my spelling, Lady Grace, but I wanted Sister Jubilee to help, too.”

“That’s fine, Celeste. Still, remember what I said- we need to be careful with the letters that go to and from your Uncles.”

“I remember- but you don’t have to worry about Sister Jubilee.”

Celeste looked back at Sister Jubilee. The winter wind picked up, rustling our robes, and Sister Jubilee had to reach up to keep her veil in place.

“I know, Celeste. You may show me, Sister Jubilee, or Abbess Joy your uncles’ letters, but no one else.

“Now, will you fetch a book from my desk, please? It’s a red book titled, ‘A Circle of Verses.’ I will go ahead to the Calefactory to prepare your lessons.”

“Of course,” Celeste said, and she skipped away toward the dormitories.

When we were alone, Sister Jubilee took a step closer to me.

“I did not intend to interfere,” she said.

“I’m not angry.” I said. “But I must be careful. Did Celeste show you the letters that Lord Frey and Captain Goode wrote, or only her reply?”  

“Why would she show me their letters?” Sister Jubilee asked.

“I promised not to pry into your secrets, but I cannot ignore what I see. I know that there is some connection between you and Celeste.”

The wind picked up, and Sister Jubilee had to hold onto her veil with both hands.

“There was nothing secret or incriminating in the letters,” Sister Jubilee said.

“We would not have received them if there had been. Still, Celeste hasn’t discussed Lord Frey with the other sisters. She hasn’t shown the letters to anyone else. She trusts you profoundly.”

“She is just a child, and I am fond of her.”

“That alone isn’t enough to raise my suspicions, but all of the sisters here are fond of Celeste, and she loves you more than any of them. She called you her guardian angel.”

“She was frightened, than night. She needed an angel.”

“This isn’t my only evidence. Didn’t you once tell me that you knew a great deal about my situation? And that your own family had been torn apart by a coven? It would make sense that you are related to either the Frey or Goode family…”

Shhhh!” Sister Jubilee closed the small distance between us and took my hands in hers. “Please, not here. Your words are dangerous. Why must you press the matter?”

“There is a connection,” I whispered into the veil, which brushed against my own face in the breeze. “As Celeste’s guardian, I must question whether the connection is to her advantage, or whether it is dangerous.”

“Celeste is already at the center of a firestorm; don’t make matters worse.”

The wind died down, and Sister Jubilee’s veil hung limp once more. She gripped my hands with a much greater strength than I’d expected from her thin, fragile fingers.

“I’ve been sitting up nights, trying to think of anything else I could do for my husband. All of the hints about my Lord Frey’s enemies and their motivations are scattered- like a puzzle with missing pieces. If you know anything that can help, please tell me. If you really love Celeste, help me to bring her father back.”

“Lord Frey hasn’t acknowledged Celeste as his daughter,” Sister Jubilee said in a dark whisper.

“He has his reasons, which I must respect. He loves her- I promise you he loves her. Please help me, if you can.”

“I don’t know if I can help you,” Sister Jubilee said. “If I tell you my secret, it may do more harm than good.”

“You once said that you should always question things, no matter your situation. Sister Jubilee, I believe that you can help me. I can’t explain how, but I sense that there’s a connection between you and I almost as strong as the one between you and Celeste. Perhaps you’re right; perhaps I am insane, but I am irresistibly drawn to you. ”

Sister Jubilee dropped my hands. “You aren’t insane- you’re more sane than I, in this case. But if I tell you my secret, it will destroy our friendship. You may mistrust any help I offer you afterward, and Celeste may suffer as a consequence.”

“As a sign of trust, I’ll give you one of my secrets,” I said. “The truth is that I’m-”

Sister Jubilee put her finger to my lips.

“After you return from the south dunes, meet me in the tower. I will make my decision whether or not to tell you. Keep your own secret until then.”

 

#

 

Abbess Joy and I left early the next day, as the sunrise touched the cloudline and set it ablaze with crimson light.

I left Celeste in Mercy’s protection after Abbess Joy reassured me several times that her magic would still protect the abbey. The south dunes, she said, were still part of del Sol’s hallowed ground, less than an hour’s walk from the abbey.

Despite everything that had passed between Sister Jubilee and me, I had few reservations about leaving Celeste in her care. The sight of Celeste’s hand in hers was such a familiar sight that it seemed the most natural thing in the world. I was not only anxious for Celeste’s well-being, however. I was impatient to go and see what Abbess Joy had to show me. I was impatient to honor my mother for the first time in my life.

Strangely enough, I found myself flinching away from thoughts of my return. I had never been one to shy away from a puzzle, no matter how difficult or troubling it was. Yet, I was simultaneously attracted and repelled by Sister Jubilee’s secret. A dark corner of my mind already knew that if I made a serious attempt to solve her puzzle, I would succeed. The same corner of my mind was convinced that if I solved it, I would destroy something precious.

The veil and the mystery seemed an intrinsic part of Sister Jubilee, and I’d grown attached to her.

After I kissed Celeste goodbye, Sister Jubilee surprised me by pulling me into a swift embrace.

“Travel safely, my friend. I’ll meet you when you return,” she whispered hoarsely.

While I was still reeling in surprise from the embrace, Sister Love pressed a bouquet of Sol flowers into my hands.

“Give these to Harmony, along with my love,” she said.

“Oh! Did you know her?” I asked.

Sister Love only smiled and patted my cheek.

Abbess Joy strapped a heavy fur-wrapped bundle onto my back, and I noticed that though my burden was smaller than hers, Abbess Joy did not show any strain at the weight. Then she made the sign of order and bowed to her sisters, and the two of us left the abbey together.

 

#

 

Abbess Joy and I walked down the western slope that led away from the abbey and toward the dunes and the sea beyond. The sun rose higher above the clouds, and the crimson sky faded into grey.

The sharp sea wind stung my cheeks and ears, so I pulled up my cowl as I walked.

“We will be out of the wind soon,” Abbess Joy promised. “There is a path up ahead that leads back into the dunes.”

“I don’t mind the wind; it helps to clear my head,” I said.

Abbess Joy turned to fix me with an appraising gaze. “You’ve sat up late a great deal, recently. I don’t mind- the calefactory is always open to you- but I worry that you are suffering for want of sleep.”

I took a few moments to consider my response. It was true that I had been staying up nights, staring into the fire as my work lay forgotten on my lap. Now that I’d succeeded in hiring an advocate, I had been scouring my memories for any hint to determine my next move.

Most of my thoughts and memories, though, had led me into a seemingly endless spiral. I had thought a good deal about Mrs. Auber, since she was my husband’s accuser. Mrs. Auber had always acted enigmatically, and I had to wonder if there was a purpose, or if it was part of her persona as an oracle. Before Hope’s arrest, she had sent him a warning- an omen of death. If she had foreseen the danger surrounding him, it would make sense that she would ally with his enemies to protect herself. Why, then had she sent the warning at all?

I had thought about her strange power further. If she saw the future in terms of probabilities, she must also see the probable outcomes of her actions. Hope had not heeded her warning, but she had still seen reason to sent it. Either she had wanted him to flee his situation, and her warning had failed, or she had meant her warning to influence him at a critical moment that was yet to come.

Perhaps Mrs. Auber’s warning had failed, and she’d joined Hope’s enemies to save herself. Or, perhaps, she simply acted as she felt the fates directed without rhyme or reason. In either case, I could not rely on Mrs. Auber’s actions to help me discern my own fate.

Thoughts as useless as these kept me up each night, yet I would still follow them, wherever they led.

“I have not had enough sleep,” I admitted to Abbess Joy. “But I must order my thoughts before I try to rest.”

“I understand,” Abbess Joy said. “If you ever need someone to unburden your thoughts, please let me know.”

We had come to the promised path, which wound through a tangle of sea-grass to the wild, sandy dunes. The path widened as we walked, leading to a long, worn boardwalk that went over the dunes to the grasslands beyond.

On the boardwalk, our footsteps echoed in syncopation on the rough boards. The wind lessened as we put more distance between ourselves and the sea, and my cheeks no longer stung. I lowered my hood to gaze at the wild dunes that rolled beneath, like a tumultuous sea of sand.

“You have been very quiet on our walk,” Abbess Joy said at length. “Is there any way I could help ease your mind?”

“Hope- Lord Frey- could soothe my mind when it became this tumultuous. I’ve tried to replicate his methods- to calm my breath, and to imagine his rhythmic tone of voice- but without him here it is a fruitless task. When I think of him a flame is kindled in my heart, and I am impatient to fight and free him.”

“It is always more difficult to calm your own mind,” Abbess Joy said. “Come to me when you want to meditate. There is no shame in relying on others.”

“Thank you,” I said quietly. “I’m not ashamed to ask for help, but I do wish I had more mental discipline.”

The boardwalk sloped downward, and then we climbed the steps down to a path that ran parallel to the dunes.

“If you were one of my sisters, I would counsel patience,” Abbess Joy said. “But given your situation, I won’t do so now. You’ve always had an active mind, and I believe that will prove a blessing.”

“I hope that you are… Oh!”

I stopped speaking mid-sentence to gaze with wonder at the scene before me. The dirt path had wound around a tall dune, and before us was a stretch of wild grass and vine-covered ruins. There were columns of marble, some of which leaned, and some of which had fallen and were partially covered in dirt and sand. Six columns remained standing straight and tall among the rubble. Behind the columns was a wooden chapel raised on stilts, much younger than the columns surrounding it, but covered in vines and corroded by salt and sand.

As I stood admiring the picturesque ruins, I heard the grass rustle behind me. I spun to see who approached, but no one was present. When I turned back toward the ruins, a flash of movement caught my attention.

Before I could follow the movement, my legs were swept out from under me, and I fell flat on the ground. I rolled away, acting on pure instinct, and narrowly avoided the thrust of a spear.

I had complained many times when Mercy had struck after I became prone. I vowed I never would complain again.

I sprung to my feet and regarded my foe. She was a tall, broad shouldered woman with a rope of grey hair slung over her shoulder and a wrinkled, wizened face. She wore a short, grey slave tunic and thonged sandals. She smirked at me as I entered a fighting stance and slid closer to Abbess Joy.

“Her magic can’t protect you, girl,” the woman said, drawing nearer. “Not against my ancient blood. Guard yourself.”

Then the woman attacked.

The Coven, Part LII

The Coven, Part L

My dearest Grace,

I’ve never received a more welcome surprise than when my brother brought me your letter. I have been left alone in my cell for so long that I’d begun to think nothing could ease my loneliness. Yet, when I read your letter, I could almost hear your sweet voice in my ears.  

I rejoice that you and Celeste have been reunited, and that you are safe. I wish that I could fulfil my duty as husband and father, and protect you both, but circumstance has forced me to rely on the kindness of strangers. Del Sol has a good reputation for providing protection for all who seek sanctuary; still, I urge you to exercise every possible caution. I know that you have reason to love Abbess Joy, but her past and her motivations are shrouded in mystery.

I realize this statement may be fruitless, but do not worry on my behalf. I am not exactly comfortable, but I have not been subjected torture. I am being given the first degree of questioning, which is more tedious than painful. My only real hardship is a lack of sleep, which my troubled state of mind will hardly allow.

But I have found a greater rest than sleep, dear Grace. Instead, I close my eyes and summon your image to my mind. I remember the morning we spent in each other’s arms, the evenings we spent dancing together, and the nights that you showed me the majesty of your beloved stars, and suddenly I am transported to a heavenly realm. Despite my current position, I am a very lucky man. I have a well of happy memories to draw from-  from the memories I’ve made with you and Celeste, to the childhood with my brother as a boy and those golden years that I had Prudence by my side. Though some of my loved ones have passed on, I am blessed with their memories forever. I could not ask for a greater gift.

You must see, my beloved, that there is no need to weep for me. Even though I long for you with every fibre of my being, you are always with me in my mind. Things may be difficult, but you are safe and free, so do not neglect to cultivate your own happy memories.

 

My vision blurred with tears, and I could not read any further. I had read the letter three times already, and had composed my reply, but the power of Hope’s words had not waned in the least. I kissed the paper and pressed it to my aching heart, allowing the tears to fall from my eyes.

Your faith shames me, I thought, as though I could speak to the image of Hope’s smiling face that my mind had conjured. From now on, I will do my best to indulge only in happy memories.

My dreams of Hope had continued since the night I arrived at del Sol. They always began happily, like the dream of flying through the snowy hillside by Hope’s side. But my dreams would inevitably turn dark, and Hope would be torn away from me. How could I continue to complain about such dreams, when Hope literally saw hell every time he slept?

Even so, Hope’s words were still happy, and his thoughts were with me.

How harshly I’ve judged you in the past!  How could I have doubted your virtue? Your character shines through your every word.

.”Excuse me, my Lady,” A soft voice interrupted my reverie.

I sat up quickly, dried my eyes, and put my false spectacles on to hide the tears.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the young man continued. His inquisitor’s robes glistened like fresh blood in the light that spilled through the cloisters, but he approached me slowly, as though afraid that I’d shy away.

I stood to meet him, putting the letter in my pocket. “How may I help you, Brother Amicus?” I asked in the strongest voice I could manage.

“Good Afternoon, Lady,” the inquisitor said with a slight bow. “Have you finished your reply to Lord Frey?”

“I have,” I said. I drew the letter from my pocket, and looked it over briefly before handing it to Brother Amicus. “I have yet to affix my seal, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, does it?”

Brother Amicus took the letter, and ducked his head as though in shame. “I am so sorry, Lady Frey. I promise to ensure the letter is treated with the utmost respect-”

“I cannot trust your words, when I’ve so recently been abused and insulted  by your brethren.”

Brother Amicus straightened and stared at me, his innocent eyes wide with shock. “What do you mean, my Lady?”

“I’m referring to my recent correspondence with Brother Gaius- the inquisitor who has made himself at home in my husband’s estate,” I said. “When I inquired about the wellbeing of the estate and tenants, he replied with a letter so vile that I cannot repeat its contents. I’ve since discovered that the tenants are being neglected, and the staff falsely imprisoned.”

“I see,” Brother Amicus sighed. “Lady, please accept my apology on behalf of Brother Lux and the inquisition. Brother Gaius is a remnant of the old order, and we have not yet been able to purge the old order’s corrupt practices. I assure you that, when Lord Frey’s trial begins, we will do a full inquiry into Brother Gaius’s conduct.”

“Why wait until the trial? The tenants and staff are suffering now.”

Brother Amicus’s shut his eyes and bowed his head again. He stayed in this posture some time- motionless, except for the occasional shuddering of his shoulders. Just underneath the breeze that swept through the cloisters, I thought I heard his breath catch.

However, when he raised his head again, his eyes were clear and his expression resolute.

“Believe me- I don’t wish for anyone to suffer. I joined the church to help relieve human suffering, and during my time at the monastery, I was able to work to that end. Under Monsignor Pius, the brothers never strayed from the highest ideals of our faith.

“Since I’ve joined agreed to work with the inquisition, however, I’ve seen such egregious  acts of cruelty and corruption that I nearly resigned. But after many hours in prayer, under the guidance of wisdom, I realized that this would have been a grave error. Brother Lux and Father Pius need my assistance if they are to draw all of the poison out of the church. They are treading carefully because the poison runs very deep.”

“Given Father Pius’s position, why must he tread carefully? His power on this earth is above even princes.”

“Before he can eradicate the corruption, he must find it. If he can gather enough evidence to do a proper, public inquiry, not only will he  uncover all of the misdeeds of Father Sauris’s men, but he will ensure the the public will accept the purge. He must protect not only those who suffer now, but those who may suffer if the corruption is allowed to spread again.”

Brother Amicus came closer and pressed my hand. “In the meantime, my Lady, keep your letter from Brother Gaius safe, along with any other evidence you have against him. I know I speak for my true brothers when I thank you for your strength and sacrifice. Bless you, Lady Frey.”

Brother Amicus smiled, sunlight seeming to glow in his sky blue eyes. He made a sign over my head- not the symbol of order, but the sign I’d seen the strange pilgrims make in the Cathedral. Then he bowed to me and walked away- though the cloisters and out of sight.

 

#

 

All week, del Sol had been subject to unusually warm days followed by nights of bitter cold. Each day, sunlight melted the ice that the evening sleet left thick on the ground, and then when evening prayers began, I would hear the wind whistle outside of the calefactory, and winter clouds would gather in the sky outside.

The evening I received Hope’s letter, Sister Jubilee, Celeste and I sat alone together. Sister Jubilee taught Celeste a complicated stitch while I carefully embroidered a yellow sol flower onto a new, white pilgrim’s robe.

The Pilgrims had collected enough alms for Sister Love to purchase yards of fresh broadcloth in addition to the salt, spices, tallow, lamp oil, and bandages she bought in the Hill Country village. Because of this, we were able to give the pilgrims new robes in addition to housing and caring for them.

Coming to del Sol, I thought, had been like being cast out of heaven and falling to earth. At St. Blanc, all of the work necessary to maintaining the palace was easily hidden in its splendor. At del Sol, however, almost everything we enjoyed was the fruit of our own labor, and even the things that we purchased from town were carefully accounted for.

Seeing need, labor, and reward so closely tied together made me eager to prove myself useful. Despite my hatred of needlework, I had agreed to help with the task when Sister Jubilee requested it. Now, despite the temptation to return to my cell and brood over Hope’s letter,  I was determined to keep my mind on the task. This was a difficult task; the pleasant sounds of teasing and laughter from Sister Jubilee and Celeste proved a jarring contrast to my troubled thoughts.

Brother Amicus seemed sincere,I thought as my mind took a brooding turn. But his kind intentions are useless as long as his loyalty lies with Father Pius. I must continue to rely on myself.

“Loop the thread like this,” Sister Jubilee was saying, “Like a rabbit’s ears.”

“I’ve never seen a rabbit with three ears,” Celeste giggled.

Distracted from my useless thought, I began to stitch once more.

“The fairies’ rabbits have three ears,” Sister Jubilee insisted. “Now, let me see the back.”

“Why does the back matter? No one will see it.”

“You’d be surprised what can show through, if you make enough of a mess,” Sister Jubilee said, taking the embroidery hoop from Celeste.

How much of the inquisition’s corruption is being hidden from me, I thought as my mind wandered once more. If nothing is being done to stop the inquisitors at Rowan Heights, the interrogators are likely being given free reign. Hope said that he is not being tortured, but I have no doubt he’s being treated more cruelly than he admits.

“Here, Celeste. Undo these stitches and try again.”

Celeste sighed and took back her hoop, and Sister Jubilee turned to me.

“Is the design too difficult to follow?” she asked, taking my work to examine. She looked at the design I’d stitched for a long time before going to the fire. Then, with her back to me, she threw back her veil to get a closer look.  

I found myself leaning forward in anticipation, but Sister Jubilee lowered her veil before she turned around again.

“Why did you tell me you had a little experience with embroidery?” she asked in quiet, neutral voice.

I gazed at her, trying to see the disapproval through her veil, but as usual I could see nothing.

“I’m sorry; I did try,” I said. “I have been a little distracted, tonight  Can it be fixed?”

Sister Jubilee came closer and thrust the robe into my hands. “You aren’t at St. Blanc anymore, so there’s no need for false modesty. Your stitching is perfect. This work is exquisite.”

The sincerity in Sister Jubilee’s voice was so warm that I felt my cheeks grow warm in response.

“It isn’t, really,” I protested. “I’ve done better work that my governess made me undo, and this isn’t half as fine as Miss Taris’s-”

“I haven’t seen Miss Taris’s work, Lady Frey; I am speaking of yours. It’s beautiful. Why did you tell me that you could only sew a little?”

“I did not believe that I could do more,” I said.

“I see,” Sister Jubilee said quietly. She sat down beside Celeste. “You have grown a great deal since our first meeting, but some habits don’t die easily. You should learn to trust yourself.”

“Your praise has more weight to me than my governess’s censure,” I said quickly, “but I must have some guidance; no one can honestly judge their own work.”

“I’ve redone my stitches,” Celeste said, handing her own work back to Sister Jubilee. “I did very well.”

“You did,” Sister Jubilee confirmed. She held out the hoop to me. “What do you think, Lady frey?”

I took the hoop and saw a straight row of heart-shaped stitches. The middle one was slightly crooked, and the stitch on the end had uneven sides, but the row was straight and the back was tidy.

“You did very well,” I said. “You’ve improved a great deal.”

Celeste smiled and took back the hoop. “Lady Frey, since I finished my work, may I read my letters, again?

“Your letters?” Sister Jubilee asked.

Celeste nodded. “My uncles wrote back to me. Lady Frey gave me the letters this morning.”

“I see,” Sister Jubilee said. She took her own work from a common basket and threaded a needle. “I am glad they are able to write to you.”

The calefactory door opened, and Celeste ran to greet the sisters who were returning from confession as she left.

Miss Taris came to sit beside me while the others chatted with Celeste at the door. She was just as pale as she had been when we arrived at del Sol, and even her thick spectacles could not hide the dark circles under her eyes.

“Miss Taris,” Sister Jubilee said gently, handing Miss Taris a cup of hot, black tea. “I wish you would allow Abbess Joy to examine you.”

“She already has, as a matter of fact,” Miss Taris said. “There is nothing physically wrong with me- not that she can find. I just need some more time to rest.”

Miss Taris turned to me. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. There is an empty cell near yours, on the quiet side of the dormitories. Would you object if I took it?”

“As long as Abbess Joy doesn’t mind, I have no objection,” I said. “Of course, you may not find it very quiet. Mercy…”

I trailed off, struck by a sudden thought.

“Yes?”

“Miss Taris, why don’t you join Mercy and me in our morning exercise? I’m sure it will do you good.”

Miss Taris leaned back in her chair, blinking owlishly behind her spectacles.

“Are you certain?” Sister Jubliee interjected. “The exercise looks very… vigorous, to me.”

“I wasn’t very strong when I began- I could only do stretches and some of the simpler forms. My strength increased very quickly, though.”

“Perhaps your strength increased, but you already had the courage to persevere,” Miss Taris said, looking down at her thin hands. “I’ve always lacked courage of any kind.”

“You have more courage than you think,” I said. “You found the strength to defy your father, after all. What are a few exercises, in comparison?”

“Mercy will never agree,” Miss Taris said. “She views me as her enemy.”

“I will speak to Miss Mercy, if you like.”

Miss Taris bit her lip and looked to Sister Jubilee, as though for help. Sister Jubilee continued to do her needlework, and said nothing.

“You know that I long to grow stronger, but lately it seems as though I’ve reached my limit. If Mercy agrees to teach me, then I will try to learn. If I fail, please don’t think any less of me.”

“I wouldn’t- I promise,” I said. “But I believe that you will surprise yourself.”

“I daresay she will,” Sister Jubilee said. “Most people are capable of more than they believe.”

Sister Jubilee’s hands paused in their work as she spoke, and I imagined that she gave me a knowing smile from behind her veil.

Mercy entered the room, then, with Abbess Joy and Sister Blessing close behind. The room had slowly filled while Miss Taris and I were talking, and now all the sisters were present, working and chatting merrily in the firelight.

I stood and went to meet Mercy. “Good evening.”

Mercy smirked in reply. “You have the air of someone about to ask a favor. What is it?”

“Well- I hate to ask after you’ve done so much for me, but-”

Mercy Laughed. “You really must be more aggressive when you attack. As it happens, I’ve just received a very nice letter from your friend, Mr. Sutton, regarding my wages. Now I’m in a mood to grant you anything you ask.”

“I’m glad Mr. Sutton is acting as he promised,” I said. “But please- don’t think I am trying to bribe you. Everything he offered is your just due.”

Mercy sat down with her back to the hearth. “Hurry and ask, then, before my mood sours.”

“Would you be willing to take another pupil?” I asked.

“Oh! Yes,” Sister Love, who had been sitting on the opposite side of the hearth, picked up her work and came closer. “I’ve enjoyed watching your morning lessons, and I must admit that I’ve tried to do some of your forms on my own.”

“As have I!” Sister Blessing said. “Miss Mercy, if you would just show the beginner’s form a little more slowly, I’m sure I could get it.”

“Perhaps we all should learn,” Sister Purity said quietly.

Really?” Innocence said, letting her own needle slip through her fingers.

“Yes, really,” Sister Purity said, picking up Innocence’s needle. “There are no men present at the Abbey, and most of the pilgrims who come here are old and infirm. The bandits are getting bolder, and it isn’t fair that we all rely on Abbess Joy’s magic to protect us.”

Sister Love nodded in agreement. “Abbess Joy cannot come with us when we go to town for supplies, either.”

Mercy’s lips twitched, as though she were stifling a laugh. “I’m perfectly willing to teach, but would it be proper for holy sisters to practice such a brutish, manly art?”

Abbess Joy, who had been sitting at the center of our circle and watching the conversation with the air of a queen, dropped her work and gave Mercy a sharp look.

“Abbess?” Sister Love said tentatively.

“Miss Mercy, I’ve held my tongue long enough,” Abbess Joy said. “I can tell that you are a skilled martial artist- skilled enough that you should be able to train my sisters how to fall gracefully, to pull their punches, and then return them to me after their lessons without bruises all over their arms and legs.”

Mercy’s cheeks grew red.

“I don’t know what lesson you’ve been trying to teach Lady Frey, but she seems to understand. Nevertheless, I will only allow you to conduct your classes if you promise that Lady Frey will get the same treatment as everyone else.”

“Abbess Joy, I-”

“No, Lady Frey. She’s right,” Mercy interrupted. “I’ve tested your strength, and you passed.”

“You helped forge my strength,” I said.

Abbess Joy took up her needlework again. “I’m going to the south dunes on week’s end, and I will stay for three days. When I return, you may start your lessons.”

“Mercy- will you teach everyone?” I asked.

“Everyone but Celeste- she is too young,” Mercy said.

Miss Taris caught my eye and smiled.

The other sisters began to talk excitedly amoung themselves, and Abbess Joy moved her chair closer to mine.

“I go to the south dunes every year, on Harmony’s death day,” she whispered into my ear. “Will you come with me this year?”

“Oh- may I?” I breathed.

“The south dunes are on the abbey’s sacred ground, though they are on the outskirts. There’s something I there that I wish to show you.”

“I will come. Thank you.”

Abbess Joy pressed her hand against my arm briefly, and then fell silent.

I put my work away and took one more look around the warm, cheerful circle of friends around me. Then I excused myself and went out into the cold winter wind to return to the dormitories, where Hope’s letters awaited me.

Part LI