“This is your own fault,” Mercy said. “You stayed up all night before you had fully recovered.”
She looked down at me with the same sneer she’d often used after knocking me to the ground. In this case, however, I had already been prone before she came into my cell. I was in bed with a persistent cough, and I had skipped my morning training.
“I’ve learned-” a coughing fit cut off my words, and Mercy waited for me to finish while I caught my breath. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
“I certainly hope you have,” she said. Then she leaned down and growled in a low voice. “I hope you will think twice before you decide to do anything else interesting without consulting me- the woman responsible for keeping you safe.”
“What do you mean?
“Don’t play stupid- both Sister Jubilee and Abbess Joy spoke to me after you returned from the southern shrine. They didn’t tell me exactly what happened, but they insisted that I guard you from now on, and that I accompany you if you go on any more adventures. Your friends value your safety more than you do.”
“Thank you for your concern, but it’s not necessary that you guard me. Celeste’s safety is the most important thing.”
“It’s not the only important thing,” Mercy said. “Lord Frey ordered me to keep you both safe.”
“Your lessons have been the most valuable protection you could have given me,” I said. “I cannot keep you with me all the time, nor can I avoid all adventure.”
“Try harder,” she said. “Especially now.”
Then she reached inside her robe’s pocket and retrieved two letters, which she carefully passed to me.
“Brother Lux is here again,” she said in a softer tone, sitting on the foot of my bed. “He asked to see you. I told him that you were resting, and that if he tried to come into the women’s dorms, I would break both of his legs.”
I suppressed a laugh to avoid another coughing fit. “I would have paid to watch you threaten the High Inquisitor.”
“High Inquisitor or no, it’s difficult to properly fear someone you once considered a friend. I can hate him easily enough, but not fear.”
I tore open the first letter, and saw a note written in an exquisite yet unfamiliar hand.
My Dear Cousin Lady Frey,
It is with a heavy heart and much regret that I write to you, for the first time, to deliver sad tidings. Your esteemed father has taken ill, and though he is being attended by the best physicians in Verdant City, there is not much hope for his recovery.
While observing your interactions at court, I was much dismayed by the lack of warmth or affection between Lord Ainsworth and you- his only offspring. I have often wished to see your relationship mended, and I fear this may be my last opportunity to do so. Please come to Verdant City at once, before your father is beyond us. I have asked Father Pius if he would allow you to leave your exile to come, and he has agreed, conditional on your traveling with the High Inquisitor. Brother Lux has kindly agreed to bear my message to you, and to bring you to the city when you are ready. It will be a most convenient arrangement, because your father’s house is close to the Inquisitor’s court where your husband’s trial is to take place.
I am well aware of Lord Ainsworth’s talent for making himself disagreeable, but there are circumstances in his past that may excuse his disposition. Underneath his callous exterior, I have glimpsed a tender heart, and though his situation is his own doing, he is still a very lonely man.
I look forward to your arrival.
“What is the matter? Is it Lord Frey?” Mercy asked anxiously.
I shook my head, tossed Lady Farifax’s letter aside, and opened the second letter.
I am told that you will be near me soon, and though I will likely face final judgement, I rejoice that we will be together-
I scanned the letter, all the way to the signature, “Your Loving Husband,” several times. Then I stood and ran past Mercy’s objections- with my feet bare and my hair loose- into the Abbey courtyard.
Lux was very near the dormitory doors, and he awaited me with a cool expression at me as I ran frantically toward him.
“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, thrusting the letter toward him.
“Lord Frey’s trial will commence shortly, and you will be required to give testimony-”
“Yes, I read that much for myself,” I said, “but this letter is fraudulent. This is not Lord Frey’s hand.”
I stopped to cough, and as I had brought no handkerchief, I was forced to cough into my sleeve. Brother Lux continued to examine me, from my bare head to my bare feet, and then he took my shoulders, turning me back toward the dormitories.
“Mercy spoke true- you are unwell. Go inside, dress properly, and I will speak to you in the infirmary.”
“I won’t allow you to examine me,” I said, clutching the fabric next to my branded chest.
“Then I insist that Abbess Joy examine you. Go inside and dress.”
“Before I go- tell me. Is my husband still alive?”
“He is,” Brother Lux said, and then clenched his jaw and said no more.
I ran inside, returning to my cell coughing and short of breath. I pulled on my stockings and shoes, braided my hair, and threw on my cloak and cowl, giving Mercy a hurried explanation and a promise that I was only going to the infirmary.
Abbess Joy was already examining another patient when I arrived- a young, pretty girl of about sixteen with golden curls and rouged cheeks and lips. The girl was gazing at the Abbess with an expression of distrust, but she submitted to Abbess Joy’s ministrations without a word of protest.
“My apologies- I did not realize you had a patient,” I said, and I turned to leave.
“Don’t,” the girl said, sliding down from the table. “I’m done.”
“You are in excellent health, Merry,” Abbess Joy said. “I will show you to the dormitories after I’ve attended to Lady Frey, or-” she looked up as the door opened again. “Oh! Brother Lux, perhaps you can show Miss Merry to the dormitories, now.”
“I’ve been banished from the dormitories,” Brother Lux said as he entered. “I was anxious to see Lady Frey, however. I am concerned about her physical health.”
Abbess Joy nodded and gestured for me to take Merry’s place on the examination table. Then she felt my head for fever, took my pulse- holding my wrist low so that my sleeve would not slip up my arm- and placed her listening instrument on my back, over my robes, as I took deep breaths and coughed.
“The phlegm has not reached your lungs,” Abbess Joy said. “I have some medicine that may suppress your cough and allow you to rest. If you stay in bed, the cough should clear in a couple of days.”
“Thank you, Abbess,” Brother Lux said before I had the chance. “Lady Frey, before you return to bed-”
“Wait- Abbess Joy is a famous healer,” Merry interrupted, stepping forward. “Why give Lady Frey medicine? Why not use your holy magic?”
“There is no need- it is only a little cough,” I said.
“But I’m anxious to see magic with my own eyes,” Merry said. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to heal a little cough. After all, our Grand Inquisitor claims that he healed my brother when he was on the brink of death.”
Merry turned back to Brother Lux with a glare.
“Don’t forget your position, Miss Simmons, or my generosity,” Brother Lux said, fixing her with a fierce gaze.
Merry quelled a little under his gaze, and then backed away from him.
“Merry,” Abbess Joy said gently, stepping between Merry and Brother Lux. “You must be fatigued from your journey. Come with me to the dormitories, and if you are interested in my healing arts, I will allow you to watch me work, tomorrow.”
“Alright,” the girl said in a low voice, and she allowed Abbess Joy to lead her away.
“You should not have been so hard on the girl,” I said gently when Brother Lux and I were alone. “She is in an unfamiliar place, and it’s only natural she would be curious.”
“I have already shown that girl a great deal of kindness- so much that my loyalty could be called into question. She is an avowed atheist, and by law she should be hung for her impiety and her blasphemy.”
“How shocking- I had no idea her crimes were so severe,” I said, unable to suppress my sarcasm. “After all, even a witch believes the Gods exist.”
“Don’t test my patience, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said. “You must learn the discretion that girl has not.”
“Then please, ensure we can’t be overheard. I am anxious to speak with you on private matters.”
Brother Lux, however, held up his hand and gave me the terse command to wait. Then, in a few moments, there was a knock on the door.
The door opened, and Prudence entered the room, shutting the door behind her.
“Lift your veil, Sister Jubilee. Let me see your face,” Brother Lux said.
Prudence did as instructed. Then Brother Lux sighed as though in relief and cast a spell of silence on the wall.
“The trial begins in three weeks,” Brother Lux said without preamble. “It is soon, but not soon enough to put my mind at ease. Lord Willoughby has betrayed himself, and because of that-”
“This is it, then,” Prudence’s face flushed, and she sat down hard on the nearest chair. “We have lost them.”
“No- not yet,” Brother Lux said. “Lord Willoughby betrayed himself in such a way that it could be plausibly blamed on his guard’s incompetence. Don’t forget that Lord Willoughby cannot directly confess.”
“What can I do?” I asked. “How soon can I go to Hope?”
“You must get well before you can do anything,” Brother Lux said. “I will give you three days to rest, and then we will go to Verdant City, where the trial is to take place. Instruct Mercy to prepare for your journey. I will write to Lady Fairfax and ask her to prepare your father’s house for your arrival.”
“No- I will rent a house in the city,” I said.
“Are you certain?” Brother Lux said. “Haven’t you read your cousin’s letter?”
“I have read it. I just- I can’t. I will make arrangements to stay elsewhere,” I said.
“But all of this planning- what is the point? If there is any evidence of witchcraft at all, people won’t listen to the rationalizations of an attorney. Fear will take over, and the people will call for death,” Prudence said.
Brother Lux knelt next to Prudence, looking up at her with an inscrutable expression in his dark eyes. “You forget what Pius and I have already accomplished, and our positions of power within the church. We would not have received these positions if we lacked the ability to sway others.
“I haven’t forgotten,” Prudence said, and shuddered.
“Sister- how long has it been since I called you that?” Lux continued in a gentle voice. “We have a plan to free your brother, my brother, and all our friends. There is trouble, but it’s nothing we didn’t foresee or take into account. We are feeding Lady Frey’s attorney information in secret, and I will personally coach Lady Frey so she may give the proper testimony. Our family and friends will survive- I promise.”
“How can I trust your word, after everything you’ve done?” Prudence said.
“Don’t trust my word. Come with us to Verdant City and witness the trial with your own eyes.”
Prudence looked up at once, her blue eyes wide and shining. She opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her before she could accept.
“No- Prudence; you must not leave the safety of the abbey, especially to attend a witch trial.”
Brother Lux ignored me and took Prudence’s hand.
“You will see Hope again. You still love him, don’t you? Be there for him in his time of need. Help me save the father of your child.”
“We can’t trust Lux,” I urged. “I received a fraudulent letter today, written as though it was from Hope, but in a different hand. Brother Lux has yet to justify why he’s brought me such a blatant forgery.”
Brother Lux sat back and lowered his head, as though in shame. ‘“Lord Frey has been injured during interrogation, and he could not hold the pen to write. The words were his; I took his dictation myself.”
“You have imprisoned, tortured, and injured your own brother, and now you ask us to trust you?” I said, rising from the table in anger. “How dare-”
Brother Lux stood and, in a swift motion, gestured toward me with his left hand. I choked on my words, and when I tried to force myself to speak, my throat constricted, as though an unseen hand were throttling me.
“By all means, continue,” Lux said. “Don’t you wish to speak?”
I opened and closed my mouth, but no sound would emerge. My heart pounded in my ears, and I fell back onto the examination table as a miasma of fear and panic washed over me.
Prudence looked up at me, staring at my expression of panic, and then back at Lux.
“You are him, aren’t you,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper. “Oh Gods! You are Pius.”
Lux- no, Pius– shrugged. “I tried to use persuasion, but that didn’t work. Let us see how I fare using fear and, if necessary, force.”
I wanted to scream, but I could not.
Prudence rushed to my side.
“Grace, is he hurting you?” She asked.
I shook my head, tears stinging my eyes. A quiet instinct in the back of my mind told me not to be brave- to let Pius see my tears. He must think that he’s won. He must not know what I’m capable of, and wonder what I’ve done.
“Has your bond become so strong that you can simply- switch bodies?” Prudence was asking Pius.
“Lux and I are one. I can speak through him whenever I wish- take his body when I am in need of it. Don’t look so dismayed- this is really for your own benefit. He is always in my mind, now, acting as my conscience. He has helped me to remember the good in the world, and the reason I began my quest to destroy evil. I will protect the innocent, as long as they remain innocent.”
In that moment I was grateful he had taken my voice, or else I might have called him a liar to his face.
“Then you must understand,” Prudence said in a softer voice “that I have an innocent child of my own to consider. She must remain protected.”
Prudence clutched my hand, and though her voice was steady as she spoke, I could feel her trembling in terror.
“I have not forgotten your child. I will see that she is safe when you come to Verdant City.”
“Lady Frey is ill; she needs to rest,” Prudence continued. “While she is resting, I will decide whether to come with you.”
“You may decide whether to come willingly, or unwillingly,” Pius said.
Why is he so confident he can take someone from del Sol? I thought.
Then I remembered the rebellion, and I realized that the conspiracy between the Ancients and the guild now lay under Pius’s nose.
Has the final battle come so soon? Am I too late to save my people?
“I will decide quickly,” Prudence was saying to Pius. “Please- before I take Grace to bed, will you release her from the spell?”
“I will release her if she promises to keep her disrespectful tongue in check.”
Pius gazed down at me for a long time through Lux’s eyes. Was I imagining things, or did those eyes look less like Hope’s than they ever had? Lux’s body looked taller than usual, though that must have been the effect of his confident, regal posture.
Finally, Pius flicked his hand, and my throat relaxed.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“You know- Lux is here now,” Pius said, tapping his temple with one finger, “and he is laughing at me. I didn’t think that the two of you should meet; I predicted that it would be a distraction- that you would both be consumed by jealousy and unable to cooperate. Yet here you are, caring for each other. How do you do it, Lady Frey? How have you convinced so many people of your humanity, when you obviously lack human feelings?”
“That’s easy- she treats others as though they were human. You should make a more careful study of how she behaves,” Prudence said. Then she took my arm and helped me, slowly, back to my cell.
My encounter with Pius’s magic left my already sore throat raw, and my mind was so full of what had happened that I thought sleep would be impossible. Prudence helped me into bed, and then poured hot water over the herbs Abbess Joy had given me. She watched me as I drank the tea, and she waited until the medicine took effect and my eyelids grew heavy before she spoke.
“Don’t fight the medicine’s effects. Sleep- I will take care of this.”
“Abbess Joy is on our side now; don’t underestimate her abilities. I will speak to her, and I’m sure she will know what to do.
And then Prudence sent me to sleep with a light, maternal kiss on my forehead.
I did not dream as I slept, and I awoke slowly, like I was drifting up through murky waters into my dark room.
My fire had died as I slept, and even the embers were fading, but I fixed my gaze on their dull orange glow as though they could anchor my mind to the waking world. Something odd was jolting in my stomach, again and again and again, and it took me a few moments to realize that the jolt was connected to a sound- a knocking on my door.
“I am coming,” I called. I sat up, adjusted my robes, and went to the door.
Prudence was on the other side, lit from behind by the orange glow of a lantern. I squinted into the light, and the shadow that held the lantern coalesced into the familiar form and face of Brother Lux.
“Abbess Joy has requested that we all meet in her office,” Prudence said. “Are you well enough to come?”
I cleared my throat. “I believe I am.”
The man wearing Lux’s form lifted the lamp, and the light shifted until it filled my eyes.
“Perhaps you should have a cup of tea, first,” Prudence said.
“The Abbess can provide tea,” the man said in a sharp voice, and I knew it was Pius.
Fear more bitter than the strongest tea roused me. I turned to my enemy, stared into the light, and spoke.
“I am awake. Let’s not keep Abbess joy waiting.”
The three of us walked together from the dormitory to the office. When we arrived, the profusion of light from the fire and lanterns blinded me once more. I managed to find a seat through squinted eyes, and as I sat my eyes adjusted. The room coalesced into familiar shapes- the desk here, the chairs and their occupants just so, and the fireplace and bookshelf where they always stood. Abbess Joy sat behind her desk with the air of a queen on her throne. No tea was offered and no niceties were given. She stared at Pius, who sat directly across from her.
“How shall I address you, tonight?” Abbess Joy asked. “I will not pretend that you are Brother Lux. Should I call you Father Pius, or would ‘Wisdom, the Almighty,’ be better?”
Pius blinked rapidly, as though her direct speech had been surprising. Then he laughed.
“You are far too wise, dear Abbess, to put stock in such rumors.”
“There is no need for deceit,” she replied coolly. “I am the guardian of all of the secrets that pass into del Sol. Your followers fill the pilgrims’ quarters and perform prayers and miracles in the darkened cathedral- I could hardly fail to notice. Plus, now that you are here, I can feel your power. It is a new power- fresh and strong- something I haven’t felt in over a century.”
“So be it- no deceit, then.” Father Pius sat taller in his chair. “If you know my power, then you know what you face if you seek to oppose me.”
Abbess Joy brushed a loose lock of hair away from her face and continued as though Pius had not spoken.
“Furthermore, Wisdom, I know that you have threatened one of my charges-” she gestured to Prudence, who sat on a stool next to her desk, “and used magic against another.” Abbess Joy gestured toward me. “It is well within my rights to expel you from del Sol on those grounds alone.”
“Rights are only a set of rules that those in power agree to keep,” Pius said. “Power is shifting, Joy; your rights may well depend on my indulgence.”
“I have power of my own. You would not be the first God I expelled from del Sol,” Abbess Joy said flatly.
“You could not expel Order when he confined your power here,” Pius countered.
“No- but Order is different, isn’t he? He is the origin.”
I looked toward Prudence. She still wore her veil, so I could see nothing in her expression, but she nodded to me slightly- almost imperceptibly. I looked back to Pius and Abbess Joy, but their gazes were locked together, as though they were engaged in silent combat.
Pius was the first to show any sign of yielding- a muscle over his right eye made the smallest twitch, and he spoke.
“You did not bring me here to expel me, or else you would have done so, already.”
“You have acted in bad faith,” Abbess Joy said, “but I believe in second chances. I know you are interested in my Abbey, and in the work that I do for the people. You’ve already taken advantage; your followers enjoy the freedom to worship as they wish, and I would never seek to persecute their sincere beliefs. All I wish is for you and your followers to respect the privacy and safety of everyone else at del Sol.”
“You would really protect everyone? Even the followers of an upstart God? Even an Ancient and a Witch?”
“You know the rules of del Sol- healing and forgiveness are given freely to everyone, as long as they do not harm anyone else under my care. I have grown protective of these young women; I see them as my own daughters. Given how you’ve treated them, I am reluctant to hand them into your care to travel to Verdant City.”
Pius spoke- a sadistic smile spreading over his face. “But you did promise that you would not interfere if Lady Frey left the Abbey of her own will. If you expel me from del Sol, I’m sure Lady Frey will still follow me so that she may testify on her husband’s behalf.”
Abbess Joy shifted back slightly, and her eyes flicked to me. “Be that as it may, while she is here, I will protect her. And even though my magic cannot reach beyond del Sol, my influence still can.”
I shivered at the threat implicit in her words, but Pius chuckled darkly. “I’ve warned you, haven’t I, that your affection for this creature will only lead to another fall. You cannot protect Lady Frey; Order proved this to you fifteen years ago, when he took her from you. Anyone with Ancient blood belongs to the Gods.”
“I belong to no one but myself,” I said.
I had spoken automatically, and I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips, but Abbess Joy turned to me with a smile as bright as the noonday sun.
“That is the spirit of an Ancient,” she said. “Your mother said the same thing many times, Grace.”
Abbess Joy turned back to Pius. “Harmony’s spirit is alive in Grace. I fell in love with that spirit long ago, and that love will never die, no matter what tragedies may fall. That love is what you are up against.”
Pius leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Then what do you propose? If seems we have reached an impasse.”
“I propose we exchange oaths. You must swear to protect my girls abroad, and to never interfere with anyone who is under the protection of del Sol. In exchange, I will continue to guard your followers and their secrets.”
“Would you promise to protect my secrets, as well? Would you promise not to awaken the old Gods and tell them that a new God has emerged?”
“My attempts to awaken Order have already failed- I am willing to make the promise.”
She is willing to pay such a high price for us, I thought. But there is a loophole. Will he see it?
Silence filled the room, and I did my best to keep my expression neutral and my breathing calm. I wished I had worn a veil, like Prudence, to better shroud my thoughts.
“I would never interfere with your pilgrims. They have come to heal and to atone, and their suffering rings out to me-” Pius leaned forward, speaking in an earnest tone. Then he stopped, took a deep breath, and leaned back in his chair. “But I cannot forget the southern shrine that lies within your borders, or the Ancient temple that is just off of the shore.”
I bit my lip. I could stop myself from speaking, this time, but I could not stop the pounding of my heart. He must hear it.
Abbess Joy leaned forward.
“Why? You have already made it quite clear you don’t wish to use Ancient warriors or assassins. What interest could you have in the temple or the southern shrine, now?”
“The Ancient phage must be contained. It has been allowed to linger on Earth for too long, and now,” he flung his arm toward me in a frantic gesture, “it has even spread into human blood. Generation after generation of wretches are born only to kill and then die. It must stop.”
“You are willing to encroach on the borders of my territory to stop it?”
“You have proven yourself unwilling to shoulder the responsibility,” Pius said, “and you were unable to stop the phage from spreading into the human realm. You allowed Harmony to be taken from you, and then you allowed Grace to be taken into the world, as well.”
Pius turned to me with a look in his eyes as hard as Iron. “Lady Frey, you are a danger to the world. You were created by men who were so corrupted by greed and the lust for power that they decided the Freys’ sin- consorting with Ancients- would be best cured by tainting the family line with Ancient blood. Order’s grip on the world was so weak that he not only allowed, but encouraged this action in order to regain his influence. Is it any wonder that I am willing to move heaven and Earth to remove the old order?
“I had planned to send Lady Frey back to del Sol after the trial is complete, but there would be no controlling her, then. She should return to her own people and suffer their fate at the Ancient temple.”
All of my plans- my freedom, the freedom of my people, and my only desire- to be with Hope after he was free- were crumbling around me. In that moment, I could only see one path of escape, and I did not hesitate to take it.
“Will you grant me my liberty if I add a promise to Abbess Joy’s oath- the promise that I will never bear a child?”
The words sent a chill through me as I said them aloud, but they could not be unspoken, and I realized I had given something away I would never get back. The tense atmosphere of the room seemed to explode- Abbess Joy and Prudence spoke at once, their words unintelligible. Even Pius turned to me with a shocked expression.
My hands were shaking, but I folded them to keep them from giving me away. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned to Prudence first.
“This way, if- when Hope is free, Celeste’s inheritance will be secure,” I said. “You cannot object to that.”
Prudence fell back into her seat. “No- don’t do this for me.”
“I’m not,” I said, and turned to Pius. “Do you see my concession as further proof that I lack feeling? The truth is that I am troubled by the notion of bringing a child into the world who is doomed to die, as well. I only wish to ease the suffering that exists in the present.”
I turned back to Abbess Joy, who was looking at me with a pleading expression, and tried to guess her thoughts.
Perhaps she thinks that I’m throwing away my mother’s gift- that I’m letting Harmony’s line die out after she gave her life to give birth to me. But surely- Harmony wished for my liberty and the liberty of all the Ancients more than anything else.
I could not speak these thoughts aloud, so I ignored the sinking feeling in my stomach, smiled, and said, “It will be ok- I promise.”
“You must take responsibility, Abbess,” Pius said. “Lady Frey cannot enter into a magical contract, so you must swear to sterilize her, yourself. In addition, you must guard the Ancients carefully- because if I discover any of them running free in the world at large, I will return with an army to wipe them out at once.”
Something in my stomach lightened, and my breath caught. Please, Abbess Joy, see his mistake. Please, don’t quibble over his chosen words.
“This is-” Abbess Joy covered her face with her hands and shuddered, but when she removed them her expression was controlled. “Forgive me, Pius, but this is a heavy burden, indeed.”
“Better that you guard the temple than someone more cruel,” I said quietly.
Abbess Joy nodded slowly and then turned to Pius. “I will not compel either Lady Frey or Miss Goode to go with you, but if you swear to protect them, I will not interfere. I suspect that Miss Goode may have some stipulations of her own.”
“I do,” Prudence said in a stronger voice. “I would give almost anything to see Just and Hope again, but I cannot leave my child to do so. If I go, then I will take Celeste with me, and you must promise to protect her with your very life.”
“I have no intention of seeing the girl come to harm,” Pius said. “I am willing to make this promise.”
“Also, you must swear that you aren’t planning to use me as evidence against any of my friends.”
Pius nodded. “Is that all?”
“I have a good deal more I would demand of you- but this will have to do for now. If you make these promises, I will come with you.”
Pius stood. “Then the deal is struck.”
Abbess Joy stood as well, but then hesitated and looked at Prudence and I in turn.
“Are you both certain about this? Once I give my oath, I can never take it back.”
“I am, if Lady Frey is certain.”
They both turned to look at me. I stood as tall as I could- so tall that I felt as though my backbone were a rod of Iron, and I spoke.
“Yes, I am certain.”
Abbess Joy turned back to Pius and nodded.
Pius shook his arm, and a silver dagger dropped from his sleeve into his hand. He handed the dagger to Abbess Joy handle first. Abbess Joy examined the blade closely, and frowned.
“This blade has drawn blood before.”
“Yes,” Pius said, “but it has not taken life.”
“No- it hasn’t, but…” Abbess Joy looked up at Pius, tears shimmering in her deep blue eyes.
“Wisdom, I pray that you will become worthy of the power you’ve attained.”
“I will try, my lady,” Pius said with a slight bow.
Abbess Joy lifted the blade, and then sliced the palm of her left hand. Scarlet blood glittered in the firelight as it dripped from her hand and onto the stone floor.
“I, Joy, the daughter of Order, hereby swear to protect the followers of Wisdom who dwell at del Sol. I swear to keep Wisdom’s secrets, and I swear not to awaken the old Gods from their dormant state. I swear to guard the Ancients who dwell at the southern shrine and the Ancient temple, and I swear to administer the sterilis potion to Lady Grace Frey, and ensure it takes effect.”
Abbess Joy turned the blade toward herself, and handed the dagger to Pius.
Pius raised the blade and sliced his own hand. “I, Wisdom, God and High Priest, hereby swear to abide by the laws of del Sol as given by Abbess Joy. I swear not to harm or interfere with anyone under Abbess Joy’s protection, and to protect Lady Grace Frey, Miss Prudence Goode, and Miss Celeste Goode from all harm- from myself or anyone else- from now until I return them to del Sol. I swear I will not expose Miss Prudence Goode to the inquisition, nor use her as evidence against her family or friends.”
Pius and Abbess Joy gazed at each other for a long time, as though examining each other for any treachery, and then they moved closer and clasped their hands together. Their blood mingled, squeezed from between their knuckles into a small puddle on the floor beneath them.
“By my blood and magic,” they said together, “I swear this shall be done.”
Prudence gasped aloud and turned away, shielding her eyes as though from a bright light. I could see no change in the room, however- just a small glint of light in Pius’s eyes, which quickly faded.
Then Abbess Joy and Pius released their hands and stepped apart.
“Lux is bound to this promise, as well as you,” Abbess Joy said in a tone of surprise.
“I did ask his consent,” Pius said, taking a handkerchief from his robes and handing it to Abbess Joy. “I could hardly make such an oath without binding both of us, connected as we are.”
Pius, wiping his own hands clean, turned to Prudence as though he were about to speak. Prudence, however, fell to her knees.
“Prudence, I said, rushing to her. “Are you-”
But Pius had already reached down and helped Prudence to her feet. “There is no reason to fear me- not anymore.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Prudence said defiantly as she stood. “That was just… unexpected.”
“Ah, I see.” Pius closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and Prudence visibly relaxed.
“Thank you,” she muttered.
Pius turned back to Abbess Joy and bowed deeply to her.
“Abbess Joy, I am relieved that we were able to reach an agreement. Del Sol is a beacon of light and hope to my followers- to the world at large- and I was anxious to preserve it.”
“Don’t forget how much you owe to your followers. Don’t forget the true purpose of power,” Abbess Joy said.
“I will not,” Pius said. Then he turned to Prudence and me.
“It is late. Please, allow me to escort you back to your rooms. From now on, I am responsible for your safety.