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.
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.”
“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.”