“Last night’s storms must have been a dream,” Celeste called happily, turning her face toward the sun.
“The sky’s so clear that you must be right,” Sister Jubilee replied. “I think we all met in the dream world, last night.”
Celeste laughed and, as though she could not contain herself anymore, broke into a run, kicking up golden sand behind her.
“Stay where we can watch you,” Mercy called after Celeste. Then she sighed and ran after her.
I let Mercy chase Celeste, but the anxiety I might have felt for Celeste the day before was gone. I felt certain that she was safe on the beach so close to del Sol. The sea was calm; the waves pulsed low and soft against the shore. A winter chill still hung in the air, but there was no wind, and the sunlight melted the cold away as it touched my skin. It felt like the light of dawn that melts away a nightmare.
Sister Jubilee and I stood together and watched Celeste and Mercy run along the shore. After a time, Innocence sidled up to us from the dunes.
“It is a pleasant day,” she said, “though the sea’s beauty can’t compare to the gardens at St. Blanc.”
“I cannot agree,” I said. “Even at court, I’ve never seen such jewels. The sea is sapphire, the sun and the sand are gold, and the waves glitter with a thousand diamonds.”
“Your words are wonderfully poetic, but you can’t sell poetry to feed the hungry or fund a war,” Sister Jubilee said. “The beauty of St. Blanc is directly related to its wealth, and real diamonds are worth far more than glittering water.”
“A diamond’s only worth is in its beauty,” I countered. “You cannot eat a diamond, or use it as a weapon. But you can live off of the sea’s bounty and sail warships on its surface. The sea has the advantage in both poetry and utility.”
“Stop- I can hardly keep up with the two of you,” Innocence pleaded. “I was speaking only of pleasure, not economics or politics. Let jewels and poetry remain useless, so I can properly enjoy them.”
“Miss Innocence, you will make an excellent sister once you learn to tolerate daily prayer. Focus on the abstract, elevate your spirit, and leave the mundane business of reality to Lady Frey and me,” Sister Jubilee laughed, linking her arm with mine.
“I wish I could focus on the abstract,” Innocence said. She held her hand out for me to see. “Look- I’ve been doing useful work every day after prayers, and my hands are covered in blisters. I’ve given up my title, and now I don’t even have a Lady’s hands.”
“I can tell you still have a Lady’s heart,” Sister Jubilee said with a slight note of contempt in her voice.
Innocence only sighed in reply. “I do my best.”
Innocence linked her arm with mine, and the three of us walked together- drifting across the sand like a daisy chain flung toward the sea. When we caught up to Celeste and Mercy the two had tumbled to the ground, and were both laughing without restraint.
When Celeste had caught her breath, she stood, brushed the sand from her robes, and took Sister Jubilee’s hand. “Come with Mercy and me. I want to show you an experiment that I’m conducting.”
“Yes. Help me gather stones and driftwood, and I will tell you about it.”
“Would you like me to help, too?” I offered.
Celeste shook her head quickly. “You mustn’t see my experiment until I’ve finished, so you can properly judge the results,” she said in a carefully grown-up voice. Then she tugged on Sister Jubilee’s hand again, and the three made their way up the shore.
When we were left alone, Innocence’s smile faded, and she stared down at her blister-covered fingers.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said softly. “I don’t belong.”
“None of us do,” I said. “Del Sol seems to be a place for those who don’t belong.”
“That’s exactly what Sister Purity told me before she left St. Blanc. I’d thought that she wanted me to follow her. That’s why I didn’t stay longer at St. Blanc, I suppose- it’s better to be with a friend who needs you than to watch your own dreams crumble.”
“Do you regret your decision?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t regret it if I knew that Sister Purity truly needed me. When I arrived, she’d already taken her vows, and she is so comfortable that it seems as though she’s lived here for years. She is happy.”
“She may still need you,” I said. “She may be content with your presence.”
“Perhaps.” Innocence picked at the peeling skin around her blisters.
“You should allow Abbess Joy to heal you hands,” I said.
Innocence curled her fingers into fists and dropped them to her sides, like a frightened child hiding a wound. “Why don’t you allow Abbess Joy to heal your bruises?”
“I have. She gave me salve to put on them.”
Innocence furrowed her brow in frustration. “Lady Frey, you know she can do more than apply salve. The fact that you haven’t let her use the litany of healing proves that you feel the same as I- that you have to atone for something.”
Innocence looked up at the dunes, and her smile returned. The sisters were walking single file down to the beach. They were singing, and their song hovered in the still air over the shore.
Sister Jubilee returned to greet the other sisters as Celeste played with Mercy at the water’s edge. Sister Jubilee was the only sister still wearing her veil; all of the others had thrown theirs back as they climbed through the dunes, and were blinking into the afternoon sunshine.
“Good afternoon,” Abbess Joy said as she approached the shore. “You are all welcome to join us for meditation.”
Sister Jubilee readily agreed, and though Innocence seemed about to refuse, she acquiesced when Purity took her arm. Abbess Joy turned to me with a welcoming smile.
“I’m sorry, but I need to go to the pilgrim’s quarters today, before Mr. Sutton leaves,” I said.
Abbess Joy nodded. “That is probably best. Will you be able to find the pilgrim’s quarters on your own?”
“I know where to find it. I passed it with Brother Lux,” I said.
Abbess Joy nodded. “When you have completed your business, go to the nearby infirmary. I’ve made a new batch of salve for your bruises, but I left it in my office. You’ll find it on my desk, in a blue jar.”
“Abbess Joy, please help me persuade Lady Frey that the salve isn’t enough,” Innocence said. “She should let you heal her properly, or else quit learning the martial art. A lady in her condition cannot be too careful.”
“Her condition?” Abbess Joy looked back at me sharply.
It took me a few moments to understand what Innocence had meant. “Oh! Miss Innocence, there’s no need…”
“What are you talking about?” Sister Jubilee said.
I looked around at the sisters, who were all looking at me with keen interest, now. I could not control the burning in my cheeks.
“There was a rumor at court, but it was only a rumor,” I said firmly.
“Are you certain? Lady Fairfax said-”
“I’m quite certain.” I said to Innocence. “Lady Fairfax was mistaken. I hoped that the rumor had been put to rest once and for all.”
Abbess Joy pursed her lips in concern.
“Trust me, Abbess Joy, there’s no way that…” I cleared my throat and continued in a stronger voice. “I’m absolutely certain I have no ‘condition’ at present.”
“Very well,” Abbess Joy said. “Still, you should be careful with your health for your own sake, at least.”
“I will be. Mercy only pushes me because I need it. If my health suffers, I will stop practicing.”
“I trust you,” Abbess Joy said. “You were born to be a fighter, and I cannot change that.”
I put up my cowl as I neared the pilgrim’s quarters, letting its loose edge fall far over my face so far that I could hardly see. The main quarters were located in a white, square building lined with a profusion of unadorned columns, and beside it were several low, wooden buildings clustered together.
I walked around the edge of the buildings, watching the groups of pilgrims who walked up and down the paths that led from the cathedral and the carriage house. Abbess Joy had told me that Mr. Sutton was unmistakable- very tall and lean, with a profusion of red hair, and sure enough, I soon spotted pilgrim who appeared to be at least a head taller than any of the others, and whose hair shone like fire in the afternoon sunlight.
I pulled my cowl even further down and approached him. In a swift gesture, I drew Mr. Filius’s card from my sleeve to reveal the picture of the eye.
“Good Afternoon,” Mr Sutton said in a light tone. “It would seem that you and I share secrets.”
“In secrets, there is trust,” I whispered in reply.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked.
“I hope so,” I said. “Do you know a place where we may speak privately?”
“Hmmm… I suppose the old lighthouse is out of the question at this time of day. We wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s an interesting place. Let’s go to the Cathedral.”
“The Cathedral?” I asked in surprise as Mr. Sutton started back up the path.
“Of course- everyone already knows that the Cathedral is uninteresting, so it is empty as soon as prayers are done.”
I trotted behind Mr. Sutton, feeling very much like a child trying to keep up with an adult, until we arrived at the Cathedral doors. Mr. Sutton opened one door and gestured for me to enter.
The Cathedral seemed even more massive on the inside than it had on the outside, with the arches all pointing toward the high-vaulted ceilings, yet with wide, open space between the unadorned walls and windows. The floor and the pews were all made from the same unfinished wood, and there was a gleaming metal pipe organ behind the low altar.
“You see, there not even a symbol of order to distract us,” Mr. Sutton said. “We may speak here, undisturbed, until everyone is forced to return for evening prayer. How can I help you, Miss…”
I pulled my cowl back. “My name is Lady Grace Frey, and if you don’t wish to involve yourself in my troubles, I will understand.”
Mr. Sutton drew a sharp breath. I looked into his face, and saw that he was blinking his grass-green eyes in surprise, and his freckled cheeks were growing red. I was tempted to take his reaction as an answer to the plea I had yet to make. Desperation, however, forced me to stay and attempt to persuade him.
After a few moments, he sighed, and the red splotches faded from his cheeks.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I’d guessed that you would seek help from the order, at some point. Please forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive- your reaction was natural. You didn’t flee at the sight of me, or call me the ‘devil’s whore,’ which is more than I expected.”
Mr. Sutton shook his head. “I am sorry you have been treated so. I study human behavior, so I’m well acquainted with how quickly people can turn against the innocent- especially when superstition is involved. I hope that one day I will learn how to correct such behavior.”
“I am lucky- I have friends at the abbey who can protect me. However, I cannot leave their protection, so I was hoping that you would agree to help me navigate the outside world.”
I reached into my pocket and drew out the letters I’d written.
“Abbess Joy told me that you have friends in the legal profession. Do you know anyone at all who would be willing to represent my husband at his trial? I am willing to offer double their usual compensation.”
“I know one gentleman who will be willing. His name is Amity St. Roch, and he is one of us.” Mr. Sutton lowered his voice significantly. “He helps me to study human nature, and is as eager as I to correct superstition.”
I let out a deep sigh, as though I’d been holding my breath without realizing it.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve written this letter for him, which includes everything about my husband’s case that may be significant. From what I understand, the inquisition’s primary piece of evidence is a forged blood oath.”
Mr. Sutton nodded, taking the letter. “I believe that I speak for my friend when I say that it won’t be necessary to pay more that his usual rate.”
“But he’s involving himself in such a dangerous case- I really must insist.”
Mr. Sutton smiled wryly. “I will tell him what you say, and see how he replies. Keep in mind that he is an attorney, however, and he has yet to lose a case.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I hate to impose further, but there is another favor I would ask. My husband’s estate is being neglected while my husband is imprisoned. I need to find someone who can forward the servant’s wages to their families and take care of my husband’s beneficiaries. If you will give me a name-”
“My name is Merit Sutton, and I would be happy to undertake your charge.”
My vision blurred then- Mr. Sutton became a red smudge against a brown and white background. I removed my false glasses and wiped away my tears.
“Please forgive me,” I said. “I was not expecting such ready kindness from a stranger.”
“Don’t apologize, Lady Frey. To tell you the truth, we are not exactly strangers. I was present the night you made your ill-fated petition to the oculist guild. I see now what a fool Sir Silas was for calling your courage into question.”
I took a shaky breath to compose myself. “I confess I don’t feel particularly brave at present.”
“People rarely sense the courage that is sustaining them,” he said. “And I must confess that I am helping for selfish reasons. Remember that I study people, and you interest me.”
I opened one of my letters- a letter of authorization to my Verdant City account- and filled in Mr. Sutton’s name. Then I handed him the list of beneficiaries and what was owed to them that Mr. Poe had sent me.
“I doubt I will ever be able to fully repay your kindness to me.”
“I don’t require repayment. Just remember what kindness from a stranger can mean.”
The doors to the Cathedral swung open with a loud clang, and footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous room. Mr. Sutton hastily tucked my letters into his robes, and I put up my cowl.
“Good afternoon, pilgrims,” a man’s voice called.
I peeked under my cowl to see a group of white-robed pilgrims approaching. The leader lowered his own cowl and bowed in greeting. Mr. Sutton rose and bowed, as well.
“Good Afternoon,” Mr. Sutton said. “It’s rare to see such devotion among the pilgrims. Most don’t arrive for prayer before the bells ring.”
“We’ve come to make a special petition to the Gods,” the man said. “You are welcome to join our prayers, if you wish.”
“I will, thank you,” he said.
The man nodded. “And you, miss-”
“I need to return to the abbey,” I said. “Excuse me.”
I thanked Mr. Sutton and walked around the pilgrims. At the door, I turned back to see the pilgrims kneel at the pews. They made a gesture I did not recognize in place of the sign of order, and bowed their heads.
“Order, Reverence, and Chastity,” the man said in a voice as confident as a priest’s. “We come to you for wisdom”
Mr. Sutton raised his head slightly and winked at me. I bowed low to him, and then turned to leave the cathedral.