I spent the rest of the advent to Chaos night working tirelessly. Sometimes, Prudence worked by my side. We spent our early evenings in the calefactory conducting research into theurgy, though we only found references to the art in short paragraphs and footnotes in the oldest theological tomes. After the sisters returned from confession, Prudence and I adjourned to the dormitory to prepare our gift for Celeste. When Prudence went to bed I continued to work alone, and then in the early mornings I slipped away to help Honest build the mechanism we would use to view stellar spectra.
If I had not obtained the wakefulness potion from Brother Lux, I would not have had the ability to keep up with my private affairs or research.
I spent the first half of each night working on my treatise- plotting the planets on their orbits. I used Sir Boromir’s observations as my guide, which, once I’d verified some of the planetary positions using the large telescope, I realized were stunningly accurate. The planet’s motions unfolded – astounding in their elegance. The sun proved to be at one center of each planet’s ellipse, and the speed with which the planets moved was proportional to their distance from that center. How easy it was to see, now that I examined the clockwork of our worlds!
Around two o’clock I would put my treatise aside and write to Mr. Sutton or Mr. St Roch. Then, when my business was done, I would slide a stack of white paper toward myself.
I had drawn, smudged, and re-drawn the scene I’d started sketching in the calefactory- Prudence looking up at the airship. I’d gotten a little better each time I’d sketched her face. Sometimes, as we worked alone together on Celestes’s gift, I would study her face by firelight. Her face was not really round; it was shaped like a heart, with a narrow chin, a wide brow, and a widow’s peak in her scarlet hair. Her eyes were round but not protruding- they were deep-set under finely curved lids and framed by elegantly arched brows. Her age was only just beginning to show just in the soft brackets around her mouth, which disappeared when she smiled.
I sketched and sketched it again until I was able to bring each newly-discovered feature into the fore. In each iteration her aspect grew larger and took up more of the frame, and the airship was nudged aside. As I finished each sketch I longed to begin the next, because my memory had added another detail which must be added- she had a freckle under her ear, and a dimple near her chin. I allowed myself to become enrapt by the image of her beauty to the extent that I hoped never to complete the work.
I went over a week without sleeping, and the days blurred together. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, it was Celeste’s birthday.
Mercy did not give a lesson on Celeste’s birthday. Instead, all of the sisters awoke before sunrise and assembled in the refectory to decorate, bake honey cakes, and arrange her gifts in the place where she usually sat. When Celeste was brought in, she gave a start of surprise, and then her eyes filled with tears.
“Is this all for me?” She faltered. Then, when she saw her seat filled with presents, she laughed a little and wiped the tears away. “Oh! How perfectly wonderful!”
For the rest of the morning, Celeste was all smiles. She opened her simple gifts slowly- almost reverently, folding the colored paper wrappings and placing them carefully aside to save for later. Prudence had carefully hidden our gift to Celeste underneath the others, so that it would be the last she opened.
“Look! Here’s one more. There are so many!”
“Don’t be too excited,” Prudence said, an edge of laughter in her voice. “This one is from Lady Grace and myself, and I’m afraid it is only more schoolwork for you to complete.”
“Don’t tease-” she began as she pulled away the paper, and then her breath caught as she looked at the gift.
Prudence and I had known nothing of the art of bookbinding, but with some instruction from Abbess Joy, we’d contrived to create something sturdy. Prudence had seen to the construction of the book, the folding and sewing of the pages, and had contrived to find thin but sturdy boards to reinforce the canvas cover. I had stitched together the cover and embroidered it with the words, The Research of Miss Celeste Goode.
Celeste ran her hand over the stitching in her name, and then flipped through the book, revealing a great deal of clean, blank paper.
“I don’t know what to say,” she breathed.
“Don’t worry what to say,” I said. “Just think of what you will write.”
“Thank you.” Celeste slipped down from the bench and, still holding her book with one arm, tried to hug Prudence and I at once with the other. Then she turned and beamed at the sisters. “Thank you, everyone.”
“Enough of that, child,” Sister Love said, wiping away a tear. “We are glad to do it. It has been too long since we’ve celebrated a child’s birthday, here. Now, let’s hurry before the honey-cakes get cold.”
It was not the Sister’s custom to eat breakfast, but everyone ate together that morning, and they even chatted together during the meal, allowing Celeste to rhapsodize to her heart’s content.
True to my word, I did not leave until Celeste’s birthday was over. I accompanied Celeste and Prudence to the Cathedral to view the day’s services, where I contrived to blend in with the other pilgrims. There was a short period of prayer and meditation, and then Sister Blessing ascended to the pipe organ to play a fugue. It was an unfamiliar fugue- I had never heard it played at the Cathedral Lux- but it was played with as much skill as the famous organist who played at the city’s Cathedral. I closed my eyes, and I could almost see the notes weave together into a rich tapestry of color, touched by the sunlight that filtered through the high windows.
After the long service there was refreshment in the vestibule, followed by the pilgrim’s pageant. I’d been dreading the pageant, but the amateurish enthusiasm in the acting and design was diverting. I laughed along with the audience at all the wrong moments, and in the end the players bowed and laughed along with us good humoredly.
Then the sisters retired to the calefactory for tea, and Celeste insisted that she would stay awake with the rest of us. Within a few minutes, however, she had slumped over in her armchair and was snoring loudly. We let Celeste sleep until we were ready to return to the dormitory, and then we shook her awake.
“Come, Celeste- you are too big to carry,” Prudence said gently.
Celeste groaned, rubbed her eyes, and then stood to walk. She plodded to the dormitory in silence, and then fell into bed without another word.
“I believe her fatigue is the best commendation we can receive,” I said.
“Yes- I’m glad we could give her a satisfactory birthday, at least. She won’t be a child much longer.” Prudence sighed and shut Celeste’s door behind her. “But what a world for her to grow up in!”
“She’s resilient, and she’s brilliant,” I said. “If we manage to prevent the world from being destroyed, she will make it a better place.”
Prudence nodded solemnly, and then stood a little straighter. “Let’s give her something worth improving.
“By the way, do you still plan on leaving tonight, or will you wait until morning?”
“I will leave tonight. Come with me- we may talk while I get ready.”
Prudence followed me to my room, and as I gathered my things she leaned against the doorframe as though she were barring the way from intruders.
“I have a gift for you,” I said. “Since I won’t be here for Chaosmas, and since it isn’t quite ready, may I give it to you when I return?”
“You always make me anticipate your return,” Prudence replied. “But I like your plan- I have a gift for you, as well. Sine my gift is already finished, I will be able to spend tomorrow more profitably- spying on the pilgrims whose tongues have been loosened by wine. In addition to the cult, I have a new mystery to solve.”
“Oh?” I dropped a fresh change of robes into my bundle and looked up. “What sort of mystery?”
“It isn’t unusual for us to receive donations around Chaosmas,” Prudence said, “but the size of our recent donation, along with the fact that it was given anonymously, is suspicious. Pius has expressed an unusual interest in del Sol, so I thought-”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said quickly. “A donation is a good thing, no matter who it’s from. I imagine it was given anonymously so that there would be no strings attached.”
Prudence threw back her veil and narrowed her eyes.
“You!” she exclaimed. “Why didn’t you sign your name, or at least tell Abbess Joy? I know she would want to thank you.”
“She doesn’t owe me thanks- not after everything she’s given me and has suffered for me. I did not want to make her feel obligated,” I said. “Besides- it’s not just for her. All of the sisters have shown me kindness. Like me, most of the pilgrims come here at times of great need. If I can help them, I should.”
“I won’t tell the others, but thank you – on their behalf, as well as my own,” Prudence said.
Then she looked down the hall, sighed, and put her veil down again. “Here comes another person I will watch while you are gone,” she muttered.
A few moments later, Miss Taris appeared at the doorway, scowling.
“I’d heard you were leaving again,” she stated. “Are you going alone, this time?”
“Abbess Joy is too busy with the celebrations to go with me,” I replied.
“Does Mercy go with you?” She asked, her eyes narrowing behind the gold frames of her glasses as though in suspicion.
“No- she must stay behind to ensure Celeste’s safety. I am only going to the south dunes; there is no reason to expect I will need protection.”
“And the guardian of the southern shrine is even stronger than Mercy,” Prudence added.
Miss Taris entered the room, ignoring Prudence as she walked past as though Prudence were only a shadow.
“Brother Lux will not like this- nor will Father Pius.”
“I don’t see why they would object. I will technically still be on the abbey grounds-”
“Be careful- Lady Frey. Father Pius isn’t happy with your behavior. You are too independent- too wild. You fight, you travel unescorted, and you disappear into the northern cliffs every morning- doing Gods know what-”
Prudence signaled to me from behind Miss Taris, and I managed to control my expression.
“I am only stargazing. Brother Lux and Father Pius are both aware that my hobby is astronomy.”
“Astronomy? Do you really expect me to believe you are doing something so innocent? And why must you climb all the way to the northern cliffs to stargaze?”
“You may believe what you like,” I said. “Higher altitudes are better suited to stargazing- the atmosphere is thinner, so the viewing is better.”
“You can’t have much of a difference on so low a cliff,” Miss Taris said. “And you are distracting me from the point. I am sure that Father Pius and Brother Lux would not allow you to travel unescorted, and so I must forbid it.”
“I have heard enough,” Prudence said. She moved beside me and placed her hands on her hips, taking a posture suggestive of the one she wore when she scolded Celeste. “Miss Taris, you shall not interfere. You may have forgotten that Lady Frey’s mother is buried at the southern dunes, and so I will overlook your callous disregard of her grief this once. Never let me hear of you behaving in such a way again.”
Miss Taris faltered and took a step back, and then she seemed to remember herself. She stood a little taller, and gave Prudence a severe glare.
“I’m not afraid of you, Sister Jubilee. But you are afraid of me a little, aren’t you, underneath all of your bravado?”
Prudence stood remarkably still in her pose, but I could hear her breath catch, and feel her stiffen beside me.
“Stop it,” I said firmly to Miss Taris, taking Prudence’s arm. As soon as I touched Prudence, she sighed and slid into a more relaxed posture.
“Miss Taris, why must you attack my friends? Why must we be enemies?” I asked.
“We are not enemies,” she said, the sides of her mouth curling into a grin. “You aren’t worth my enmity. As Father Pius said, you are a mere object – an imitation of life. Why should I respect your so-called grief, when we both know you have no feelings? Why should I respect the friendship of a mere automaton?”
I could feel my face flush with heat, and my hand flew up. Thankfully, before I could deliver the slap, my mind reacted. I clenched my open hand into a fist as though I were throttling my own anger, and let it fall to my side.
“If you think so little of me, then I shall return the favor,” I said. “You aren’t worth striking. I am going to to southern dunes tonight, and you can object all you like. Give Father Pius my regards in your letter to him.”
“Don’t worry- I will tell him everything,” she said, and then she turned to leave. On her way out of the room, she almost ran into Abbess Joy, who was entering the room with sister Blessing.
“Oh! I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said kindly before she turned to me. “I am glad I found you before you left. I have some things I would like Dare to have. If it isn’t too much trouble-”
“Oh no-” I said.
Miss Taris was forced to step aside and allow Sister Blessing entrance into the room. Sister Blessing was bearing a basket almost twice as large as the ones we’d given to the abbey’s beneficiaries, which she handed to me.
“There are a few more things that Dare needed, in addition to the gifts,” Abbess Joy explained. “Some warm socks and extra worsted, fishing line, and of course some fresh herbs and vegetables from our greenhouse, because she can grow nothing in that sand except wild onions. Please give her my love, as well.”
“I am happy to take it to her,” I said. Then I turned to Sister Blessing, who had taken the basket back and started to rearrange the contents in order to make it seem lighter.
“Oh no- don’t worry- it is already as balanced as it can be. It’s not too heavy to carry such a short way.”
Abbess Joy took the opportunity, however, to step forward and embrace me tightly.
“I am so proud of you, my daughter. Have a safe journey.”
I was happy to leave behind the chaos of the abbey and step out into the still, silent night. There was little wind, but there was a sharp chill in the air as I walked. The stars were haloed in silver light, a sure sign that we had not yet seen the year’s last frost. Even so, Abbess Joy’s parting words seemed to warm me like a fleece blanket.
“… my daughter.”
Yet, as I drew near the southern shrine, I couldn’t help but feel a sliver of cold guilt penetrate the warm feeling. I longed to call Abbess Joy ‘Mother’ in return, but how could I, when my mother was buried here?
In addition, I had a fresh source of anxiety in Miss Taris’s threats. She knew that I went to the northern cliffs- did she know about the tower, as well? If Father Pius knew learned about the secrets that were hidden in del Sol, I was certain he would not respect Abbess Joy’s rights to keep them, no matter what rights she had been granted by the Gods.
When I arrived at the shrine, I was relieved to find that Dare was not asleep despite the late hour. She sat alone- a dark shadow huddled beside the dancing sparks of a driftwood fire.
“Hello-” I called. “Good morning! it is almost dawn.”
Dare looked up from the fire sharply, and then paused with her hand halfway to her spear.
“Is it really you? Grace!”
“Yes, it is only me, though I come bearing Abbess Joy’s gifts and her love,” I said.
Dare, however, stood and put the offered basked aside, instead wrapping me in a fierce embrace.
“I am so glad- so glad to see you are still well and free,” she said. As she spoke into my ear, I could feel Dare’s tears drip onto my shoulder.“I wish I had glad tidings for you, my dear, but I’m afraid our worst fears are coming to pass.