I did not return to the manor until dawn’s rays shone over the hills. I fell fast asleep as soon as I reached my room, and did not awake until well past 1:00. Even so, when I went out again, most of the household still slept.
I had dressed myself in neither breeches nor a gown, but in my white pilgrim’s robes, which brushed the grasses under my feet as I wandered through the hedges on the southern slope, near the manor.
I walked until I could no longer see the house, and I was certain that no one from the house could see me. Then I sat on the ground, closed my eyes, and considered the problems I’d been presented.
In my present state, I endangered all of my loved ones who possessed a soul.
If I accepted a soul, I would not longer endanger my friends, and I would live forever, able to explore the universe’s most tantalizing mysteries.
Exploring the universe’s most tantalizing mysteries was a power as dangerous as my soulless power.
Surely, I thought, there was also much good to be done with the power of science. Order had created the soul network and defeated death with the power of science, after all.
But Order had become corrupt, just as my power had corrupted me.
The problem with power, I realized, was not its potential misuse. The problem with power was that it was in its nature to grow until checked by an outside force. How could I, in my present state of ignorance, be sure that any power I sought would be checked before it became destructive, or that the force that checked it would not be a thousand times worse?
I was descending into another spiral, so I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind.
I ran through all of the exercises that Prudence had taught me when teaching me to meditate. I spent some time simply breathing. I concentrated upon a mantra. When this failed, I sat quietly and let thoughts come, trying to let them pass without judgement. The thoughts, however, overwhelmed, sinking me back into the same vicious circle.
“Why is this always so difficult for me?” I asked aloud to no-one.
I closed my eyes again and sifted through my memories, repeating to myself all of the sound advice I’d ever received from Hope, from Prudence, and from Abbess Joy on how to clear my mind whenever life was difficult, and my thoughts inevitably tangled themselves. As I wound backward through all of the wise words I had been given, one memory that I hadn’t thought of in some time came back to me. It was a memory of Dare performing that slow, peaceful form under the endless stars.
“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 hesitated to stand, at first. It seemed reasonable that if I could move a little, my mind might be less restless. At the same time, while it was a slow, meditative form, it was still a martial form, and I had promised myself I would not practice until my powers were under control.
In the end, I could see few other options. I stood, brushed the grass from my robes, and slowly, tentatively, made my way through the first poses of the Ancient form.
I had not done the form in some time, and my memory of the pattern was faint. I missed a pose halfway through the pattern, and only realized it when I reached the end, and realized I was in the wrong place- on the wrong foot. I groaned in frustration, and went back to the beginning.
I took a deep breath, and then released it as I slid into the first pose once more.
My mind cleared, and I recalled the missing pose.
I made my way through the poses, and my fear, doubts, and frustration melted away. For the first time since I’d been at the Cathedral Lux, I felt calm- my heart felt light. The constant dread that had settled in the pit of my stomach the whole time I’d been at Rowan Heights vanished.
I stopped, sat down again, and thought.
The form was performed in a specific pattern of up-and-down motions, smooth and rolling, like ocean waves. My breath seemed to match the pattern naturally, in on the upward motions, and out on the downward. The pattern of breathing, in time to the the changes of speed created by long and short steps, added to the meditative quality of the form.
What would happen, I wondered, if I changed the pattern of breath?
I stood again, and changed my breathing to counter the movements- in on the down movements, and out on the up movements. This time, the form felt less natural- more plodding and deliberate, but otherwise I felt no effect.
The pattern of steps changed time in a 2-7-2-5 pattern of breaths. What would happen if I reversed that pattern?
This proved to be a far more difficult task. The movements and breath were dissonant, and forcing the movement felt wrong. The frustrations I felt as I tried to force the breath was so strong, it was almost painful. My nerves tingled, and then burned with the sensation.
I fell back into the proper pattern, and my nerves settled- my feelings calmed.
I sat down again and breathed in contentment so still and so long that a sparrow landed on the ground nearby. Making a wide berth for the giant creature that sat unwelcome in its clearing, it hopped in a circle, pecking the ground beneath it.
Having no one else with whom to share my discovery, I leaned forward and whispered. “My ancestors knew what they were doing, after all. They didn’t just send a soulless race out into the darkness. They gave us the tools we needed to control our power- a way for our higher will to assert itself.”
The sparrow looked up at me with its bright, dark eyes, cocking its head curiously to one side.
“If I examine Dare’s stories, what else will I find? What other secrets lie within the Ancient lore?”
The sparrow hopped closer to me once, twice, thrice. Then it seemed to lose its courage, and it fluttered up, away, into the sky.
I watched the sparrow until it disappeared over the crest of a nearby hill. Then I closed my eyes and began to work in earnest.
As the sun began to descend in the sky, I learned that I could manipulate my feelings just by breathing in time to Ancient pattern, letting my body ride and fall with the rhythm. After a little more time, even the breath was unnecessary- by concentrating I could feel the resonance within my mind, and my body reacted.
I had found the key to controlling my growing power, and with that key, the ability to choose my path forward freely.
“Grace- thank goodness.” Hope greeted me when I returned to the manor. “No one has seen you since last night. I was worried sick.”
“I’m sorry to worry you,” I said, falling into Hope’s embrace. “And thank you for being concerned with my well-being, but I’m fine. I promise I’m fine.”
Hope drew back and looked into my eyes.
“Yes- you are.” Hope took my hands. “Come to my rooms- we can talk privately, there.”
I followed him up the stairs and into the master suite, where I had held his hands and allowed him to sleep, free of nightmares, for the first time.
Hope and I sat on the edge of the bed, facing the window that looked out onto the ocean of hills. I turned to Hope, who was staring at me hungrily. He reached out tentatively, as though suddenly shy, and brushed the back of my hand with his.
“I am not sure how much longer I can stand this,” Hope said. “It seems like every time I turn around, Wisdom has stolen you away.”
“He took me to bluebell hill, last night,” I said. “I believe he wants me to convince you to accept the throne; he tried to overcome any objections I had to the plan. He was-” I paused, searching for words. “He was very persuasive.”
“Do you wish me to be king?” Hope asked.
“I would like to see you out of Wisdom’s grasp,” I said. “But the decision must be yours. You’ve had enough people whispering in your ears.”
Hope smiled the cocky, lopsided grin that was now so rare.
“Whispers will not sway me.”
“Then- you do have a plan,” I said. “You’ve been so confident that I was sure you had a plan. May I ask- what is it?”
Hope laughed so hard that he fell back onto the bed, clutching his stomach.
“This morning I talked to Wisdom. He thinks I plan to be King, but that I am holding out to bargain for a greater share of power from the church,” he gasped, wiping his eyes. “Chastity thinks I plan to refuse, but am afraid to say so openly while under Wisdom’s power. Lord Willoughby thinks I am prolonging my time with Wisdom so I can study him for a weakness, and then move against him. What is your theory, Grace?”
“I am completely at a loss,” I said.
“Then I will tell you. I have no plan, but I have been trying very hard to act as though I do.”
Stunned, I lay back on the bed next to Hope. “What- no plan at all?”
“No. All of the theories I’ve heard are equally terrible. I could accept the position of King and protect the people of Aeterna in some small way from the demon who has them in his grasp, all the while being trapped in his game forever. I could flee Aeterna, and never see my homeland again. I could try to fight Wisdom- a literal God- and die in the attempt. Or- I could do what I’m doing now: stay in my house, dance, make merry, and watch my greatest enemy squirm as he tries to figure out where I’m at. The last option, at least, is amusing, but I suppose I cannot continue it forever.”
I turned, propping myself up on my elbow to regard Hope.
“If Wisdom is desperate enough to come to me for help persuading you, you must have him in check. You are to be congratulated.”
Hope propped himself up on his elbow as well. “Wisdom has manipulated us for far too long; let him feel what it’s like. What did he tell you last night that was so persuasive?”
“He told me why he is afraid,” I said.
Hope lifted his eyebrows. “Wisdom- afraid?”
“Yes, and just imagine the scale of catastrophe that a God would fear. There are reasons behind his desperate acts- our world is the product of a dark and troubled past. I am certain that, if you did accept the crown, Wisdom would keep you on a tight leash. He may grant some indulgences, but he won’t allow freedom of thought in his church.”
Hope stared at me, searchingly.
“You don’t believe that Wisdom is right, do you?”
“No. He may have reasons to be afraid, but I’ve discovered reasons to be courageous.”
Hope smiled. “I can see the light of discovery in your eyes. Oh, Grace, how I’ve missed it!”
Hope drew me close to him and kissed me deeply. I could feel his heart beating in his chest. I could feel his desire, hot and feverish, as he held me tight.
Can I be blamed if I gave into his desire?
Can I be blamed if I gave into my own?
Afterward we lay together on the bedsheets in the sunset’s purple light. I traced his form with my eyes, committing every detail of his person to my memory.
I was not in turmoil, as I would have imagined. My heart was quiet, and my mind at peace. I realized that my heart had decided my way forward long ago.
I traced my eyes up Hope’s chest, neck, and finally to his face, and then I could not stop myself from using my fingers to trace his jawbone, his cheeks, and his forehead. Then I ran my hands through his short, dark hair.
“Are you alright?” Hope asked.
“More than I have been in a long time,” I said. “I’m sure everything is going to be fine.”
“No, I mean-”
I placed my finger against Hope’s lips. “Yes- I know. I’m alright. I promise I am.”
Hope caught my hand and kissed my fingers, my knuckles, my palm.
“You don’t have to tell me what to do next, but what is your opinion,” he asked.
I thought for a few moments, and then said. “If you don’t like the options you have before you, then my opinion is that you should search for alternatives.”
Hope nodded, but said nothing.
At that moment the bell rang, announcing dinner.
“The others will be expecting us,” Hope groaned, “and I have another act to perform.”
I sighed and reached for my robes. “We should hurry to wash and dress, then, or we will be late.”
Then I hesitated, flung the robe aside, and kissed Hope once more.
“I love you,” I said. “Come what may, never doubt that I love you.”