It was difficult to avoid staring at Brother Lux while I dined.
He still possessed the unmistakable Frey features- the high cheekbones, high forehead, fine nose and round eyes, but he had somehow altered. The more I looked, the more puzzled I grew as to where the change lie. His eyes were a little darker than usual- I had always thought his eyes and hair were a lighter shade of brown than Hope’s- but it might have been an effect of the refectory dim firelight. His face did seem less soft, less youthful, but it was by no means aged. He glowed with vitality; I had never seen him look so handsome, nor seem so merry.
He brazenly ignored the sisters’ custom of eating in silence, and took every opportunity he could to engage Abbess Joy in conversation. Abbess Joy indulged his mood, answering his questions and even occasionally laughing at his jokes.
“I’m afraid I’m disturbing your respite,” Lux said in a solemn voice, though his eyes sparkled with suppressed amusement. “I had forgotten how good this place is for the soul. I’ve come here thrice before- twice in my troubled youth, and once in haste to bring Lady Frey- and each time I’ve found the peace that I sought. Your sanctuary is a boon to mankind, Abbess.”
“Thank you, Brother. I’m glad I can assist those who are able to journey to this sanctuary, but I’ve often wished I could do more for the wider world.”
“Perhaps, in time, you will,” Brother Lux said. “My cup overflows with optimism, and I can afford to share it with you.”
“It’s good you are in a generous mood,” I said, unable to hold my tongue any longer. “Some of us must rely on you for our optimism.”
Brother Lux turned and fixed me with his dark gaze. “In times such as these, it’s vital that you don’t give up hope.”
“Hope is all I have,” I replied.
Brother Lux turned back to Abbess Joy.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Brother Lux said to Abbess Joy. Then he turned back to me. “Lady Frey, if you would please join me…”
He stood and I rose to follow.
We walked to the Calefactory through the icy wind, which filtered through the cloisters and across the courtyard. When we entered the Calefactory, Sister Jubilee was already there, tending the hearth.
“Ah- Grace, there you are,” she said without looking up. “If you will fill the kettle, I will bring our books closer to the fire. It’s going to be a cold night.”
“The night will be cold, but tomorrow, I expect the sun will melt away all of the ice,” Brother Lux said.
Prudence paused in her work, and then began again as though she hadn’t heard him. I followed her lead, fetching the kettle and tea tin without a word.
Surely, he recognized her voice, I thought. Did he hear it the last time he was here? Will he allow her to remain safe here, or was he really not the one who rescued her before?
“You mentioned that you had letters for me,” I prompted Brother Lux as I worked. “Was there anything else you needed to discuss?”
“I’m sorry- I didn’t realize you had private business,” Prudence said. She stood and brushed off her robes. “I shall retire early.”
“Are you sure you wish to leave, Sister?” Brother Lux said. “You must be curious what I have to say to Lady Frey, and there is a matter I wish to discuss with you, as well.”
“What business do you have with me?” she asked in a low voice.
Lux turned toward the door and raised his hand in the same gesture he had once used to cast a spell of silence on Abbess Joy’s office, though this time he did not say anything. Then he turned back to Prudence.
“There’s no reason for us to play games,” Lux replied. “We’re too old for that now, Prudence.”
This is a trick, I screamed in my thoughts as though I could make her hear me. Don’t reveal anything.
But Prudence sighed and pulled back her veil. “Funny- the older I get, the more games I’m drawn into.”
I dropped into the nearest chair.
Lux turned toward me, his eyebrows raised.
“You aren’t surprised, are you? I’d imagined that the two of you would be plotting together from the first day you met.”
Prudence came to sit beside me, and looked into my face with an anxious expression.
“Did you intend for us to find each other, Lux?” she asked after a few moments.
Brother Lux sat across from us and gazed at us with appraising eyes.
“Of course I did. There is little room for error,” he said. “I worried that Lady Frey’s part would prove too difficult for her to bear on her own. If you had acted as expected, Prudence, then Lady Frey would not look so fatigued.”
“I will spend all of the energy I can to free my husband, help or no,” I said. “Prudence isn’t responsible for my condition.”
Lux stood again, as though restless, and paced around the room while Prudence and I watched in silence. Then he came back and examined me more closely.
“You are fatigued, but you aren’t unwell. Your color is good, and you haven’t lost any weight. What’s more-” he paused and stood straighter, pulling a bundle of letters from his robes, “the letters I carry tell me a great deal about how you’ve spent your time in exile.”
He untied the bundle and placed one of the letters on the bare table that stood beside my chair.
“This is a note from your husband’s attorney, who has been making a proper nuisance of himself. He’s already examined the blood oath, and he interviewed the accuser without my consent. Now he is demanding the right to interview the accused.”
Lux smiled as though in approval, and placed a second letter next to the first. “This letter is from your solicitor. He attempted to send this letter to you in secret, but I easily intercepted it. Tell him to be more careful in the future. Thankfully, there’s nothing of any real import in this note. He conveys the gratitude of some of your husband’s tenants for your assistance, and he also makes some investment recommendations, though he advises caution. I believe he fears Abbess Joy’s displeasure should your assets not be well guarded.”
I winced. I’d hoped to keep my money a secret from the inquisition for as long as possible. “I shall ask him to be more careful. I certainly hope he didn’t include my account information in the letter, as well.”
Lux laughed- a fuller laugh than the barking laughter I’d last heard from him. “Don’t worry- you aren’t a suspect, so the inquisition will not touch your assets as long as you use them well. I knew you would inquire after the estate, but I didn’t expect you to provide so much material help to the tenants. Thank you.”
I opened my mouth to rebuke him for his lack of action, but paused. He looked down, letting his hair fall over his face, but I could still see a patch of skin on his cheek grow pink in the firelight. When he looked up again, he wore a look of shame in his eyes.
Prudence stood and went to him. “Why? Why did you let it come to this?”
Lux gave Prudence a sad, half-smile. “I might ask you the same thing.”
I stood, ready to defend my friend, but Prudence looked back at me and shook her head. Lux watched our silent exchange, but did not remark on it. Instead, he took a folded note and placed it next to the first two letters.
“I hope this helps you feel the good you’ve already done. It may fortify you for what’s to come.”
“What is to come?” I asked. “What is happening, now? Can you tell me how Hope is- how Captain Goode, Chastity, and Lady and Lord Willoughby are? Have you brought me the one letter I long to read?”
I half-stood as I made my plea, but Brother Lux gently pressed me back into my seat.
“Please save your strength; you are fatigued. I really should insist you go to bed now, but your anxiety will be worse if I leave you unsatisfied. Before I give you Hope’s letter, I must warn you- he has entered the second degree of questioning.”
“The second degree?” I looked to Prudence, whose face had gone white as Brother Lux spoke.
Prudence sat beside me again, and reached out to take my hand- her own hand was trembling.
“The first degree of questioning is bad enough,” she said in a slow, careful voice. “They strip and examine your whole body, prod you with needles to provoke a magical reaction, and keep you up all hours, asking the same questions over and over. If you prove too ‘stubborn’ to confess under those conditions, the inquisitors start the true torture- that’s the second degree.”
“The prisoners are alive and as yet unmaimed,” Brother Lux said. “The mental effects of the abuse, however-”
Prudence glared up at Brother Lux with such ferocity that he stepped back.
“You cannot allow this to continue,” she said. “Your own brother, my brother, our friends-”
“I thought of you as my sister before your betrayal,” Lux replied with an edge of steel in his voice. “The laws of magic are stronger than the ties of friendship or blood. Even so, you have my word that they won’t die.”
Prudence laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh. “The worst part is that you really believe what you’re saying. As long as nothing unforeseen occurs, our friends might survive torture and emerge from their trial unscathed. This is enough to ease your conscience.”
“I won’t disabuse you of your anger- you will need it. Forget that you’re alive now because I willed it, and fight as hard as you can to save Hope. That is all I require.”
Lux turned away from Prudence and handed the last letters to me.
“There is real anguish and despair in his letter,” Lux said in a gentler voice. “Do not become infected by it. Give him hope for the future in your reply. I will remain at the abbey for three days, so you have time to compose your letter carefully.”
I looked at Prudence’s ashen face, and back to Lux.
“How can my words possibly be enough?”
“Your words can’t free him, nor can they take his pain away,” Lux said. “All I ask is that you remind him of the light in the world, and of everything he has to gain.”
That night I fell asleep during my third reading of Hope’s letter, as the tears dried on my cheeks.
I had asked Prudence to read the letter with me, but she’d refused. I knew she understood why I’d asked her, and in the same way, I understood why she’d refused.
She had spoken to me before she left me alone with the letter. The truth she offered me gave no comfort- rather, it was as though she’d lit the lantern for me to read by its light.
“I can guess what comes to your mind when you imagine torture,” she said, sitting beside me on my cot. “I can assure you that the torture machines that you read about are never used. The inquisition has built a few, but their only use is to be carted about and exhibited at festivals. The real methods of torture the inquisition implements are far more mundane, and probably far more effective.
“During the second degree, the inquisitors would dunk my head in freezing water until I thought I would drown, or hold me over hot coals until I thought I would burn. They would beat and whip me, all the while taunting me to call upon my demon to make the torment stop. It was unbearable, but I was never tempted; I knew that magic would bring me no relief.”
“But if the others don’t feel the same aversion to magic-”
Prudence sighed. “They are stronger than I was. Hope has literally seen hell, so whatever they present him with can’t compare. My brother was always strong, even before he was trained as a soldier, and Chastity possesses a quiet strength that enables her to endure constant pain. My greatest fear is that Lady and Lord Willoughby will betray themselves. They have lived a decadent life, and are unaccustomed to physical endurance.”
A sudden thought came to me, and I stood to pace the room and shake off my fatigue.
“I don’t think that Hope literally sees hell when he sleeps,” I said.
A frown tugged at the corners of Prudence’s lips. “You must have witnessed his torment- you cannot deny such anguish.”
I stopped pacing. “I don’t mean to diminish his pain. I have seen it, and I would give anything to be able to go to him now and take it away. He described his dreams to me in great detail, once, and among those agonies he said that he saw you, beside his parents, suffering hell’s torment.”
“But I’m still alive.”
“Exactly.” I sat beside Prudence once more. “This means that he cannot really be seeing hell.”
“Then what does he see?” Prudence stood now, and paced the tiny room as I had a moment before. Then she stopped abruptly, opened the door, and looked into the hallway.
“No one is near, and Miss Taris’s room is still empty.” Prudence closed the door and sighed. “We are growing careless- this conversation is better suited to the tower.”
“I cannot go, tonight,” I said. I handed her Hope’s letter to Celeste. “Are you certain you won’t stay to read Hope’s letter with me?”
“He addressed it to you,” Prudence said softly. “I will read this letter to ensure there’s nothing that may alarm Celeste. I know he would never do so on purpose, but in his current state…”
“I understand. Thank you, Prudence.”
“Don’t thank me. Lux was right, you know- I should have been helping you from the beginning, instead of allowing that wall of mistrust to exist between us. From now on, I will give you everything I can to help Hope.”
“There’s no need to apologize. You’ve put Celeste’s safety first in your thoughts and actions, which is exactly what Hope would wish. I’m grateful that you are able to give her what I cannot.”
Prudence smiled a little, and the slipped her veil back over her face.
“If you need me, remember that I am just on the other side of Celeste’s door.”