“There is one more thing I must tell you before we join the others,” I whispered.
Prudence paused and turned toward me. She had veiled her face before we left the tower, becoming Sister Jubilee once more, yet I imagined I could see the soft outline of her face in the shadows beneath the veil.
“Please, let it be something simple,” she sighed. “I don’t think my credulity can be stretched much farther, after the claims you’ve just made about Father Pius.”
Before Prudence and I left the tower, I told her everything I’d learned about Father Pius from the girl in the magic mirror. Prudence had remained silent through my rushed and nervous tale, but while she did not say she believed it, she also did not say she disbelieved.
“It isn’t anything strange,” I assured her. “I only wanted to warn you about Miss Taris. As you’ve probably guessed, she reports to Father Pius.”
“Yes- Miss Taris hasn’t hidden the fact very well,” Prudence said. “She almost seems to take pride in her treachery, despite your overtures of kindness.”
“I feel a great deal of sympathy for Miss Taris,” I admitted. “She has been ill-treated, and as a result she does not trust easily. I have never gained her trust, despite all of my efforts.”
“And yet you still try?”
“Of course. Father Pius swayed her with promises of power, and yet she is weaker than ever. If I can help her, I will.”
Prudence fell silent as we approached the abbey. A large group of sisters were already gathered in the courtyard. They stood in neat rows and performed a series of preliminary stretches. Miss Taris stood behind the last row under a shady tree, as though she feared being seen.
“Lady Frey,” Mercy strode past her other students to meet me. “Where have you been? The bells are about to ring.”
I opened my mouth to answer, but Mercy cut me off. “No- nothing could excuse you for this. You are late for the first day of the very lessons you suggested. Run three circuits around the calefactory, and then you may join us.”
Mercy turned toward Prudence, who backed away.
“I don’t plan to partake. If you will excuse me, I will attend to Celeste.”
Prudence walked toward the dormitories, and I completed my circuits. When I returned the sisters were moving through a simple form.
“Help the sisters on the back row,” Mercy ordered curtly as I slowed my pace. “I have my hands full with the front. Also- meet me here at sunset for further training- you shouldn’t be winded from such a short run.”
I followed Mercy’s instructions, and I could see several sisters in the back row who were struggling. Sister Meek was having difficulty distinguishing her right front stance from her left, and I had to demonstrate several times before she understood. Then I came to Innocence, who was only half-heartedly performing the form.
I would have guessed that Innocence could easily learn such a simple form, because she was a very accomplished dancer, but she was moving as though she were fatigued. She performed the front strike stance, dropped it, sighed, and then tried again, gesturing weakly with her right hand. Her hands were loose, instead of being held in fists.
“This is undignified,” she groaned. “This is not how a lady stands.”
Before I could object, Purity spoke. “I thought you’d already accepted the loss of your title.”
Innocence dropped her stance altogether and spun to face Purity. “How could you?”
“Lady Innocence,” I said gently, stepping between them before a quarrel could erupt. “No one will force you to learn this. You may choose to return to the calefactory, or you may choose to stay and learn to defend yourself.”
Innocence leaned over me to regard Purity, who smiled at her. “Lady Frey is right- I can’t force you to stay. But if you choose to stay, you may gain a different sort of dignity- the ability to take back what you’ve lost.”
Innocence sighed deeply, but took up a fighting stance again. “It feels awkward.”
“Think of this as a dance, and you will soon grow accustomed,” I said.
Innocence tried again, and I moved behind the last row, to the shady tree where the final student worked.
Miss Taris’s long, slender limbs shook a little, like dried twigs in a winter wind, but she held her stance. She missed the front strike, but before I could correct her, she went back and performed it again properly.
“Well done, Miss Taris” I said.
“Miss Mercy said these were beginner’s exercises, but I’m still struggling,” Miss Taris said. “I don’t feel any stronger.”
“It will take time for you to build strength,” I said. “If you need to rest-”
“No,” Miss Taris interrupted. “I will not rest until the church bells ring.”
Miss Taris moved through the form again, more quickly than before. A flash of silver caught my eye as she moved, and at first I thought she wore the symbol of Order around her neck. When she stilled, I examined the necklace more closely
The symbol of Order consists of three interlaced circles, but Miss Taris’s pendant consisted of a single circle, within which were two lines that met at the bottom like the letter V.
“What a pretty pendant,” I remarked. “I can’t recall ever seeing this symbol before.”
“No- you wouldn’t have,” Miss Taris said, tucking the pendant into her robes.
Before I could question Miss Taris further, the morning bells rang. Miss Taris wiped her brow, and then ran to follow the other sisters to the cathedral.
Prudence, Celeste and I went to the calefactory after the bells rang for prayer. We were greeted by the welcoming sight of a large fire crackling merrily in the hearth, and Prudence and I had sat in front of it for a few moments in silence. Then we set to work, combing the library for any books that might help substantiate the claims I’d made about Pius’s dark origin, or for any hints for how a powerful demon might be defeated.
While we worked, Celeste remained by the fireplace absorbed in a large book until she suddenly cried out in dismay.
“What’s wrong?” Prudence asked, descending one of the ladders with a stack of books under her arm.
“The red moon causes the tides,” Celeste said. She stood and tossed the book she’d been reading onto the table with a thunk.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Though the sun’s position with relation to the moon can also-”
“It isn’t fair!” Celeste said. “I would have thought of it- I know I would.”
“Celeste, that was very rude,” Prudence chided as she placed her own books on the table next to Celeste’s. “Apologize to Lady Grace for interrupting and for raising your voice.”
Celeste turned to me and murmured an apology before turning back to Prudence. “Why didn’t you tell me about the red moon when I asked you to help me with my experiment?”
“You wished to discover the answer on your own, didn’t you?”
“Well, yes. I thought I was close, too.” Celeste looked up at me. “I wanted to surprise you, but that’s all spoilt.”
“May I see your work, now?” I asked.
Celeste nodded and stood. She took a little book from under a stack of papers and handed it to me. It was clear that Celeste had made the book herself by folding some spare bits of paper and stitching them together at the fold. On the cover she had written, The Research of Miss Celeste Goode- DO NOT READ, and inside she had made a table full of dates and times written in rows that were neat near the top, and less neatly aligned at the bottom. I turned the page and could see the beginning of a new table, which contained only a few days and which had the addition of a row of little flags.
“The sea was always moving,” Celeste said. “It would wash away driftwood and swallow the little pools where the sea-stars live. Then it would go away again. Sister Penance told me that it was the tides, but she didn’t know what caused it.”
“So,” Prudence added with a tone of pride, “Celeste decided that she would discover what caused the tides.”
“I thought that I’d figured it out when Sister Jubilee told me weather was a type of science,” Celeste said. “I made a little flag and planted it on top of a dune to measure the wind. I thought a stronger wind would make the tide come in. But, as you see, my first few days of watching the flag and the tides didn’t match up. Now I know that I had it all wrong, and someone else already figured it out!”
“Don’t let this discourage you,” I said gently, sitting at the desk beside Celeste. “I recently made a discovery myself, only to find out someone else had already made it.”
“Really?” Celeste asked. Her eyes went wide behind her glasses. “Didn’t you feel awful?”
“I did, at first,”I admitted. “Now I understand that I can still contribute- to add more to the discovery. I read the original work, and it isn’t quite complete.”
“Science is never complete,” Prudence added. “We all work to build on and refine each other’s work.”
“That’s easy to say when you are a grownup,” Celeste sighed. “You know enough to do important things. But I’m still learning-how can add to a grownup’s work?”
Prudence took the little book from me and handed it back to Celeste. “Finish your experiment.”
“What’s the point?” Celeste asked.
“If your experiment turns out the same, then you’ve helped to verify a very important discovery, and if you find something new, then you can build on an important discovery. Never underestimate the importance of replication,” Prudence said stoutly. “Anyone can look at the world and report what they see.”
“So- this is important after all?” Celeste asked.
“Extremely important,” Prudence said. She took Celeste into her arms. “I’m so proud of my girl.”
Celeste leaned into the embrace with a happy sigh, and then quickly pushed her away.
“Why- thank you, Sister Jubilee,” she said with a tight grin.
I tried, and failed, to stifle a laugh.
“What?” Celeste demanded.
“Mercy may not teach you to fight, but perhaps she will give you acting lessons,” I said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Celeste said with a sniff.
“It’s alright, Celeste,” Prudence said. “Lady Grace knows our secret.”
Celeste gasped, and then jumped up to put her arms around me. “Oh! Truly? Did Mother tell you?”
“Lady Grace figured it out on her own,” Prudence said.
“I told you she would,” Celeste said. She turned back to me. “But I’m so glad you know. I’m so glad I don’t have to pretend, anymore.”
“You must still pretend, I’m afraid, before the others,” Prudence said.
“I know,” Celeste slipped her arms from around my neck and sat back down with her book. “All of the grownups I know are full of secrets, so I suppose if I’m to grow up, I need to have secrets, too. They do become very tiresome, though. Science should be about the truth.”
Celeste’s words echoed in my ears as Prudence and I worked through the morning, and they continued to echo as Prudence took Celeste by the hand to take her to the cathedral. I ruminated on Celeste’s words as I worked silently beside sister Love in the greenhouse, and I barely noticed that Miss Taris had come forward to work, and was re-potting seedlings beside me. Sister Love was too absorbed in her own work to give complaint or instruction, and in the silent, sunlit warmth, I grew drowsy.
How can I hope to win if I continue to retreat into the shadows? I wondered. When will the light of truth prevail?
My eyelids drooped a little, and the basket of herbs I’d been picking slipped onto the counter. Just then, the greenhouse door swung open, admitting a sharp wind that brought me to my senses.
“Good Afternoon, Sister Love,” Prudence said, shutting the door behind her. “I’ve come to borrow Lady Frey, if you don’t mind.”
“Feel free,” Sister Love grunted as she hauled a large sack of manure from a stack in the corner.
Miss Taris took off her gloves and stood to follow.
“Abbess Joy wishes to speak with Lady Frey alone.” Prudence turned her veiled face sharply toward Miss Taris. “We won’t be long.”
“One moment-” Sister Love wiped her soiled hands on her pinafore and handed me the basket of herbs I’d dropped. “Take these herbs with you- the Abbess needs them for the infirmary.”
“Of course,” I said.
Miss Taris stared after us, but did not move to follow. I smiled at her, and then we retreated.
“You’re right- Miss Taris doesn’t trust you,” Prudence said. “She doesn’t even seem to like you, much. Why is she with you constantly? Does she really think that Father Pius needs her to spy on your gardening activities?”
“She never follows me when I do anything interesting,” I agreed. “She is always too tired to follow me at night.”
“This might be why she asked to room closer to you,” Prudence said. “You may need to find more creative ways to slip away to the tower.”
Prudence and I did not meet many pilgrims on our way to the infirmary, and inside there were no patients. Abbess Joy sat alone at her desk, winding bandages while she read a book that was propped open in front of her. She looked up as we entered.
“Good afternoon,” she said with a welcoming smile. “To what do I owe this visit?”
“I- I thought you wanted to see me,” I said.
“That was for Miss Taris’s benefit,” Prudence said. “I’m sorry.”
Prudence pulled back her veil and knelt by one of the cots, rummaging through a box of supplies that was stowed underneath.
“Sister-” Abbess Joy began.
“You may go ahead and call me Prudence. Lady Frey and I had a very long talk, last night.”
Abbess Joy’s smile faded, and she let the bandages slip from her hands. “I see,” she said with a heavy sigh.
“Do call me Grace,” I said. “Both of you. I am completely unaware of the usual niceties that surround forming an intimacy, but we must be far beyond all of that, now.”
“Certainly, Grace,” Prudence said. “Have a seat on this cot, if you please, and roll up both of your sleeves.”
Prudence produced a smaller box, from which she drew a needle, a scalpel, and several wooden sticks.
“Do you need any assistance?” Abbess Joy asked.
“I will need several flasks- clean ones,” Prudence responded.
Abbess Joy bit her lip and looked at me for a few moments as I sat on the cot, and then back at Prudence, who was laying her supplies out on a tray. Then Abbess Joy went to her desk and took out the requested flasks.
“Prudence, if I am to be your subject, then I will need to know everything you are testing.”
“Usually, I would say that is poor practice,” Prudence said. “It should be fine today, though. I just want to see if there are any physiological differences between you and a full-blood human. I’ll be testing everything- temperature, heart rate, reflexes, and I will test your blood and a cheek swab-”
“Prudence knows your secrets as well?” Abbess Joy said, clinking the flasks together as she placed them on the tray.
“There are no secrets left between us,” I said.
“Yes- as I said. We had a very long talk, last night,” Prudence said. She produced a small notebook from her robes and began to write notes. “We are united in our purpose.”
Abbess Joy sat down again, and placed her head in her hands.
I sat and struggled to keep both of the long, wide sleeves on my robe rolled up. Prudence laughed a little as she watched, and then took some pins from her pocket and helped me pin them in place.
“One moment you are brilliant, and the next you are more of a child than Celeste,” Prudence clucked as she worked.
“Prudence,” I said hesitantly.
“Yes?” she said, putting in the last pin.
“I trust you, but the information you find- it won’t just be about me. We might discover secrets about my people- about the Ancients. Please remember that they are enslaved and vulnerable, and if the information is dangerous…”
“I’ve considered this,” Prudence said, sitting back on her heels. She regarded me for her moment, her blue eyes wide with sincerity. “I won’t use or reveal any of the information I find without consulting you, first. Is that acceptable to you?”
“Yes, thank you. Also, might I have a copy of your findings?”
Prudence nodded. “Done. You have my word.
“Girls-” Abbess Joy said softly, and I looked up to see her staring down at us with an expression of bewilderment.
“Yes?” Prudence said.
“Are you both- are you both alright? Is there anything you need?”
I smiled. “I can’t speak for Prudence, but I am well.”
“I’m relieved that everything is out in the open,” Prudence said. “We can plan together, now. I think that, despite all of our fear, this is exactly what we needed.”
Abbess Joy smiled a little at our reassurances, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
It didn’t take long for Prudence to gather her samples, and after a brief physical examination, Prudence and I parted.
She was in a less boisterous mood than usual. She wrapped herself in her veil and muttered a little to herself as she walked.
“I will have to check the samples, next. They don’t seem unusual on the surface, just like the examination, but the microscope may yield more information.”
“Are you disappointed that my examination results were normal?” I asked.
“Not disappointed, just puzzled. I must examine the facts as they are, not imagine fantastic results. I’m glad that you appear to be healthy, at least.”
Prudence went toward the refectory to help prepare dinner, and I went to the training field, where Mercy waited to put me through my paces. Mercy and I drilled and then sparred until the sun sank below the horizon, and the sky faded from brilliant scarlet to black. Then Mercy finally allowed me to stop, and we went to the refectory together.
Familiar scents and sounds greeted me at the refectory door. There was first the rich aroma of stewed vegetables and fresh fish, and beneath it the warm scent of plum wine. I could hear the scraping of wooden spoons and bowls, and the clatter of clay cups as the sisters ate and drank. Prudence, as usual, was absent, but there was a new guest seated at the table.
It took me several moments to recognize the newcomer. “Brother Lux?”
The man, who did greatly resemble Brother Lux, looked up, and then smiled as he stood to greet me.
“Well met, Lady Frey,” he said. “I was hoping to see you, tonight. I have several letters which may interest you.”