Sister Scholastique rolled onto her back. She pulled her hard, sawdust–stuffed pillow over her head and reflected on the sure and certain hope for peace and for virtue rewarded in the next world.
She had determined that there was little enough of either in this one.
The monastery dogs had been barking for half an hour at least, inspiring the Sister to wonder if it would be selfish misuse of divine Grace to do something about the too–loud–for–midnight conversation below the narrow, unglazed window of her narrow cell which was so inspiring them. She had all but convinced herself that, on the contrary, a small silencing would be in the service of the Gods and the slumber of decent people, when a phrase or two somehow floated between canine choruses and made itself audible.
The first voice was male and seemed familiar, but she couldn’t immediately identify it. “…Bertrand says he’ll give triple the usual money for a Special Chantry, as long as it can be established immediately.”
“Establishing a Special Chantry is not the problem.” This voice was immediately identifiable, and the Sister tried not to groan at the words. What he said next was somewhat reassuring at least. “Immediately, however. That might be more of an issue. Lord Bertrand might consider waiting until one of the Sister’s other contracted chantries comes to its end?”
Lord Bertrand was the bane of Sister Scholastique’s existence. And the chantry was her personal bete noire—one half sacred duty and one half divine yoke for her semi–divine neck.
Neither of these things would have been a problem if Lord Bertrand had not both been a distant relative of the Queen, and the chief benefactor of the Temple of Holy Light.
And the Temple of Holy Light had certain… expectations of its most famous resident. When one had been blessed by the gods with the power to perform bona–fide miracles, the Church found uses for one. As often as not, these uses involved raising funds. And plenty of wealthy ne’er–do–wells would pay generously to have a miracle worker (who would probably be canonized as a saint after death) pray for their immortal souls.
Sister Scholastique just hoped the Gods didn’t plan to confirm the Church’s premature diagnosis of her with any particularly nasty martyrdoms.
To be honest, she would much rather be using her gods–given powers to heal, to feed, to aid the poverty–stricken, to cure the halt, the blighted, and the lame. But among her vows to the Church had been those of meekness… and obedience.
At least no one had ever commanded her not to stand at the narrow window of her own narrow cell. Instantly—silently—Sister Scholastique slid her bare legs out of the hard cot and—careful not to scuff the slippers waiting there against the flagstones—placed her bare feet on the floor.
She regretted that action immediately. The flags were icy, gelid: so cold she imagined the horny, taupe flesh of her toes adhering and shriveling against the stone. She sucked in her reflexive gasp, containing herself mostly through discipline learned in long, wordless, painful prayer sessions at the chantry. Bare feet would be more silent than slippers, and what was a little mortification along the way? If she made any small sound, the noise of the dogs would likely cover it—but the Gods helped those as took precautions, as she herself was wont to tell the acolytes and the younger Sisters.
She stepped across her narrow cell—it was only two steps—moving so softly that her passage did not stir the light linen curtain that was all that closed her doorway. She had the practice of years, and even the ache those years kindled in her knees and ankles could not make her stumble.
Having achieved the outside wall—there was a frost upon the stones—Sister Scholastique pressed herself into the corner beside the barred, unglazed, stone–arch windowframe and turned her ear to the gap. That she rated a window in her cell at all was a testament to the sort of hierarchy the Church and its Elect were supposed to be beyond. Age and rank and Grace had their privileges, even so.
As she leaned close to the window, careful not to silhouette herself, she could plainly hear the voices—definitely two voices, she thought, both male. She could almost make out the words.
Sister Scholastique closed her eyes and reached out to that Grace that suffused all life and all living things. She saw it limned at her fingertips. She cupped it in her palm.
She blew a prayer in words across it, and touched her finger to her ear. She had to push a tangled gray coil out of the way to do so: her hair was half–escaping her sleeping braid.
She was confident in her heart that eavesdropping was not the sort of activity that could ever be regarded with favor by that same divine Grace. Still, she knew from long experience that the Gods often granted requests from their Elect without really checking the circumstances. And she had done worse in her youth, when she had been arrogant in her convictions and traveling with a group of roughneck warriors and thieves who sometimes made decisions that Sister Scholastique, to this day, regretted.
She would pray on it later. And as she served the Goddess of Hard Bargains, pay as needed if the debt came due.
The less–familiar voice was saying. “I understand your constraints. But you see, he’s very concerned that his lady wife Theophaneia’s tumor has a virulent habit of growth, and it has begun to result in cachexia. So time is of the essence, you might imagine.”
“Well—” —that familiar voice hesitated, defending Sister Scholastique’s last vestige of rest and self–employment. It was that of Father Alfric, celebrant at the monastery’s cathedral and the second most reasonable member of its Council of Elders, after Sister Scholastique herself. And by reasonable, what she meant was that Alfric wasn’t in Lord Bertrand’s pocket. Unlike the majority of their most holy colleagues.
“Lord Bertrand has requested I bring it to the Council of Elders,” the other voice said.
The Sister stifled a groan.
Alfric continued as if he had not been interrupted. “The problem with adding another Special Chantry immediately is that the Sister is really doing all she can. If you would be willing to accept a different celebrant…”
“Alas,” said the first voice, growing a little oily in a manner that held more veiled threat than open obsequiousness. “It would give the Lady Theophaneia great comfort to know that someone who has the ears of the Gods is interceding for her. Especially when this blight has come upon her, which she is convinced is a very personal Judgment indeed. The Lady Theophaneia is very frightened about the outcome for her immortal soul, and much afraid that her sins will send her to the Hells immediately upon her death.”
“So must we all be,” Father Alfric murmured. The Sister thought he managed a remarkable tact, devoid of any echo of judgment on the Lady Theophaneia.
The judgment of the Gods, they were taught, would suffice for all. But Sister Scholastique was of the privileged and experienced opinion that the Gods in general left most of the hard work and the harder decisions to those such as herself.
Theophaneia’s malignancy being a case in point. Sister Scholastique had three times laid her hands on the Lady, and three times the cancer had seemed healed. Each time, however, it had recurred, and the Sister had come to the sad conclusion that at this point—as Theophaneia’s limbs wasted and her abdomen swelled most monstrously—there was nothing more to be done for her except to alleviate her pain as best they could, and pray that the end came quickly. Sister Scholastique had said it herself, to Father Alfric, when she returned from her last visit to the deathbed. “It is out of our hands.”
Some might consider this the Gods’ judgment on Lady Theophaneia in and of itself. The Lady Theophania, it was sure, was among them, and her terror of what she might have done to earn the wrath of the Gods and their punishment in the next world was piteous to behold. Sister Scholastique didn’t particularly like the Lady, as it happened, but it was her (presumed–in–the–absence–of–conflicting–data–to–be) saintly opinion that anybody so pious, Gods–fearing, and outright dull—not to mention generally prone to elaborate self–mortifications over the most indiscernibly infinitesimal of equally self–perceived sins—was not going to receive such a hideous series of travails as a divine judgment when characters like her husband, Lord Bertrand, walked around scot–free and in the very bloom of health.
Bertrand was prone to all the flaws found in one raised to the peerage as a right rather than a responsibility, and coupled entitled self–interest with a particularly bloodthirsty bent when it came to meting out judgements. He had precisely one redeeming characteristic, as far as Sister Scholastique was concerned: He dearly loved his wife. Sister Scholastique believed he would indeed have done anything possible in order to save her.
The Sister risked a glance around the edge of the window with one eye. The night was clear and cold, and the light of the moons and stars reflected from the previous day’s snow so that the winter–barren garden below was lit as brightly as any hall full of mirrors and candles. She saw Father Alfric’s tall and bulky form, unmistakable in his habit even though the moonlight had washed all color from both his red robes and his gold–embroidered surplice. His back was to the window and a wooly cap was pulled down over his bald head, but that did nothing to disguise him. Now that she saw the man he was talking to, she knew him as well—the fur cap and fur collar framed the familiar pinched features of Martin, Lord Bertrand’s chatelaine.
Sister Scholastique realized that she had become lost in her thoughts, and missed a bit of the conversation. She felt a twinge of conscience at wasting her misused spell. She resolved to take her eavesdropping more seriously, as befitted a gift of the Gods.
Martin was speaking. “…she fears not merely a Purgatory, but Perdition. So it would be a comfort to her if the Special Chantry could be endowed while she is yet living, that the divine may find it evidence of her devotion and repentance, and perhaps grant her some measure of Grace.”
The most that woman has to repent of is bothering the Gods like a babe on leading–strings pestering for sweets. Sister Scholastique, however, kept her thoughts to herself. As befitted an eavesdropping saint–presumptive. As also befitted such a person, she regretted those thoughts immediately.
Martin continued, “As you have already deduced, my Lady Theophaneia petitions as well that the Elected Sister Scholastique be confirmed to celebrate the obiit, and intercede on behalf of my Lady’s immortal soul with the Gods. She—and her lord husband—are prepared to pay in advance to support the livelihood of the most holy and sainted Sister, and provide all that is needed for Masses in perpetuity, to be continued by another celebrant in the event of the Sister’s passing.”
They would, in fact, pay for a good deal more than Sister Scholastique’s meager needs and the frankincense and dragonsblood burned to please the divine. Any one of the more than a dozen chantries Sister Scholastique already celebrated on a weekly basis would have paid for that. But there were polite fictions to be maintained.
And a Temple to be supported.
She pinched her own temples between forefinger and thumb, surprised by how cold her hands felt against her skin. She sent a brief prayer to the Gods for her own sanity, beset as she was by redemption–seeking sinners. She stepped away from the window, taking less care to be silent now.
She already knew that Father Alfric would say yes. The monastery did not need the money now, but there might always come a day when it did. And the Council of Elders would never let him say no; she and he together were only a sixth of the votes. It was rarely wise theology to thwart the will of the man who held their lease on the land upon which the monastery’s stone walls stood, and who had paid for the labor to erect them. And the Sister was painfully aware that it was Lady Theophaneia’s desire to please the gods that had led to the generous terms upon which her husband had supported the construction of the Sister’s very home.
Sister Scholastique had chosen her holy name to reflect her interest in the quiet, studious pursuit of enlightenment and divine revelation. And she had excelled at that pursuit, if it was not indicative of overweening pride to think so. Excelled at it—and succeeded in it—so that it had borne fruit to the point where she now felt that she could barely remember when she last had cracked a book.
Divine fathers and mothers, she prayed, briefly closing her eyes, grant this unworthy one the strength of body to carry out your tasks. Grant your servant the strength of spirit not to complain where anyone can hear me. And honestly, Divine fathers and mothers? A little speck of your Divine inspiration on how to get all this work done and still have some time for my own studies and devotions wouldn’t go amiss.
If you can see your way clear on that, that would be nice.
The bells awakened Sister Scholastique three hours before what promised by the stars to be a brilliant Winter dawn. She drew herself from her bed bleary–eyed from lack of sleep, used the chamber pot, and scuffed in her noisy slippers across the cell to the washstand by the door. There was ice on the pitcher. She broke it and scooped a measure of water into the bowl. She washed her face and hands quickly, pricked by floating, needle–like ice crystals, and used the rough towel to chafe some life back into her fingers when she was done. The cold made her bones ache. Finding herself made most resoundingly alert, she rinsed out her mouth and spat into the bucket on the floor. She did not swallow, though she was certainly thirsty. She would pray and attend morning services before she broke her fast with the others.
She found her habit and her boots—neat on their pegs and rack beside the door—and drew on over her crabbed old hands a pair of woolen mittens. The relief of their furry warmth was enough to make her sigh. She stifled it, though she could hear Sister Agonistes’ deep, full–bodied snores across the corridor, and they had all more or less learned to sleep through that.
As her feet bore her along the corridor—she stepped carefully, quietly, as she passed the cells of those who had an hour or two yet to sleep—she thought longingly of her books. Well, not her books, exactly. The Temple’s books—the Gods’ books!—shelved carefully in her carrel in the library next to her ink and her quills and her paper, awaiting her return. She thought of them jealously, and of the extra hours of her week that would be required to celebrate Mass and raise prayers for the already vexingly worthy soul of the Lady Theophaneia.
Well, Sister Scholastique thought, in what might be considered a questionable attempt at charity, perhaps Lady Theophaneia had some dark secret sin she needed to atone for after all. Perhaps she had reasons to worry.
Perhaps this girl, married at fourteen and to the Sister’s best awareness devout all her short life, had a private habit of stepping on kittens. Or eating fat children roasted to crackling and dripping on a spit—
Breakfast later, Sister Scholastique promised herself, as she crunched along the dark pathway between the women’s dormitory and the chantry, pausing to admire the architecture of the miniature white marble chapel for a moment before she dared the doubtless icy steps. Breakfast later. Then books. Prayer now.
She settled herself into her habit—she had been hugging herself against the cold—made an obeisance to the statue of the Lady of Mercy above the door, and let herself inside with a key as long as her palm that hung at her cord belt between the symbols of the Sun Everlasting and the Irreproachable Balance.
She’d had the foresight to leave coals banked on the hearth the night before, so the darkness within her chantry was (just barely) less bitter than the darkness outside. She kindled the flame higher, working with scraps of straw, then splits of wood. When it cast a merry flicker, she lit tapers, and from the tapers candles, and from the candles charcoal in a censer, which she dotted with frankincense and dragonsblood. The resins melted and bubbled, frothing, releasing a thick and thickly scented white smoke. She fitted the pierced lid of the censer over the base and lifted it by the chains. It was important to keep the censer moving once it was lit, so the charcoal burned evenly. It would have a tendency to go out otherwise, and that was not generally considered a good portent for the would–be beneficiary of the prayers.
Sister Scholastique swung the censer in her left hand as she began her chant for the first of the week’s supplicants. She knew the Service for the Dead by heart, and her chantry was designed for ease in performing it. There were only six pews, three on either side of the aisle, and she had only seen them populated on a few occasions. Often, the closest bereaved family members and loved ones would attend an initial service or two, out of curiosity or in seeking comfort. Beyond that… well. The Sister got up early.
She passed behind the altar, censer still swinging. With her right hand she stroked the carved ivory cylinders of a rack of prayers, starting them spinning on their bearings. They glided easily, revolving with almost no sound. She could just have blown across them to make them spin, she was sure, but that might be considered sacrilege.
The old scar from her encounter with the hill–trolls pulled as she raised her hand to the second rank of prayers. She turned those too, as she walked back before the ranks, behind the altar—first pacing to the left, then the right. First spinning the lower rank, then the upper. After the spinning came the genuflections, the kneeling, the special pleading before the altar with each myriad name of the myriad Gods meticulously pronounced. Her old knees protested, so she snuck a little warmth into them. If the Gods did not want her using her miracles to comfort the afflicted, after all, they would not have given her the Grace to call upon.
She sang on, pacing and praying, inserting the proper names of the proper dead—the particular city burgher who had paid to be so commemorated in special pleading—until the bells caroled a half–hour warning for the morning service.
It being winter, the sky was still dark. Sister Scholastique passed back and forth before her prayers a few more times, but this time, the names she added—the souls she prayed to deliver—were names she chose on her own. Men and women—and some inhuman creatures too—with whom she had journeyed some forty years before, by whom (sometimes against whom) she had fought.
It was a truncated version of the full Mass, a battlefield hymn. But that was appropriate to those she prayed for. She hoped her intervention might do them some good, in terms of their just rewards in the afterlife. She suspected several of them might need it, and had positive proof in the cases of two or three others.
Finally she stopped. The chantry’s air might still have held a chill despite the fire, but she was too sweated with exertion to be sure. She stood catching her breath and contemplating the prayer cylinders as they slowly spun to rest. The cylinders never failed to remind her of a thing she had seen in her adventuring youth, far away in the mountainous land of the Gnomes. The Gnomes were a delightfully devious people who made up for their lack of size through cleverness and construction, and they had built engines of every size and shape—powered by water, by asses walking a treadmill, by windmills, by alchemical heat–engines, even by coal–fired boilers producing steam.
Anyway, the Gnomes had made a series of little cylinders of wax, turned by a steady cranking hand, which could be touched with a stylus to record and play back sound. The actual timbre and pitch of a person’s voice!
In the Sister’s experience, only the Dwarves came close to the skill of the Gnomes in artificing, and even her Dwarven adventuring companion had been impressed by those cylinders. Elves might be superior architects, though it was hard to be certain—their lofty woodland palaces did not face the same technical challenges as the halls of the deep–delving races. But when it came to building a siege–engine, pick a Gnome or a Dwarf every time.
Sister Scholastique thought of such contrivances often when she did this, walking back and forth ceaselessly like one of their asses in a wheel. Now, she looked at the cylinders before her speculatively. She sighed, and, under her breath, sang the last line of the Benevolent Liturgy for the Dead once again—to herself more than to the Gods this time.
The bells chimed again. She had ten minutes. Sister Scholastique knocked the censer into the fire to clean it, knocked the fire apart so it would settle to coals, snuffed all the candles, and pulled her wooly mitts back out of the sleeve of her habit (She had stitched up the bottom of the opening to reduce the draft that blew up it, and it served as a handy little pocket now).
Sparing her chantry one last backward glance, Sister Scholastique tugged the door shut, locked it, and hurried through the first crepuscular dimness toward the cathedral, which was already lit up for morning services with candles like a jeweled chandelier.
Although she had knocked the fire down for safety’s sake, she hadn’t bothered banking it. It wouldn’t have time to go out. She’d be back after breakfast, for another good few hours of prayers.
Many old women lost the savor of food, Sister Scholastique knew. She considered it good fortune that she continued to be blessed with good teeth and a good appetite, even though nothing else quite worked as it had used to. After her morning’s labors, she bent to her portion of porridge, cream, and dried apple compote with a will, and only looked up to nod a greeting as Father Alfric sat down beside her.
His bowl was full of the same plain fare, though he had a mug of small beer in place of her honey–sweetened mint tea. He nodded back, seated himself, and picked up his wooden spoon.
“You were up late,” she commented. “Curfew is for the curlews, Father?”
He rolled his eyes. Not at her, she understood, but at Bertrand.
“I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation below my window,” she continued.
“I’m sorry,” he answered. “You know how he is.”
“Indeed I do,” she answered. “When were you going to tell me?”
“I assume you know everything before it happens.”
She swatted him with her spoon.
He said, “I was going to let you finish your breakfast in peace before I brought it up. But, seeing as you already know… well. I’m sure Lady Theophaneia’s wishes are devout. But her noble husband…”
“Chantries and obiits are a fashionable flourish,” the Sister agreed. “The more expensive, the more fashionable. As usual.”
The Father reached for his beer. “I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that there’s no current fashion for human sacrifice to the Lady of Mercies. And that worship of the Black Rememberers more or less died out after the Aquiline Heresy. If by died out, you mean the cultists’ strongholds were put to the torch—”
“Yes,” the Sister agreed. “Or he’d be showing up with vagabonds trussed across his saddlebow.”
The next morning, Sister Scholastique awoke before she was meant to, nursing the germ of idea. In her dreams, she had seen those great turning ranks of Gnomish waxen cylinders again, but they had lined the walls of a chantry. She nursed the vision through her morning obligations, and there was a possibility that she was just a little distracted by it, even when her focus should have been meditatively engaged on the sins of the dead, and on how her own failings of the spirit might be productively addressed.
The first Mass of the day dealt with, she was on her way to breakfast when she spotted just the person she wanted to talk to about it just ahead of her—a hundred paces further along the graveled path.
“Father Alfric!” Sister Scholastique picked up the hem of her dark red habit and legged it after him, showing off leather boots that would have been a scandal on any other priest in the temple. They made allowances for her, however. Because she was old, and because she was Elect… and because she had swung a mean morningstar in her youth, and vows of obedience or no, the priest didn’t exist who thought themselves competent to order her into sandals. So she wore boots, and they left her alone about it.
He did not hear her. And he was much taller than she, and not a little younger. Her stomach growled irritatingly as she raced to catch him, but he drew away with easy strides that set his habit swinging, the hem carving swishing tracks in the snow.
“Father Alfric!” she called again, but he still did not hear her. He was heading for the refectory, no doubt as hungry as she. He was one of the few who arose when she did, though in his case it was to prepare the cathedral for morning services.
In a bit of a snit, Sister Scholastique stomped to a halt, flipped her heavy skirts out with a snap, and put a bit of Grace into her bellow. “Dear Father, please slow down!”
Well, that carried. He jerked like a hound when the leash is set against it. She saw him square his shoulders over a deep breath. Then he turned to face her with a smile. “How may I serve you, Sister?”
She came up to him, puffing a little. “I declare, Father, your legs get longer every year. I wanted to tell you that I had a revelation in a dream last night.”
That got his attention. “You don’t say?”
“Indeed.” She settled her skirts again with another practiced flip. “Last night I prayed on the chantry, you see. On how we can intercede for the souls of the dead most effectively, without sacrificing whatever Grace we might be able to plead on their behalves. And in my sleep, the answer came to me.”
She tried to keep her face smooth and serene. Inside, though, she was churning with all the excitement of someone who feels they have had—or been divinely guided to—an absolutely brilliant idea.
Father Alfric’s lips quirked, but he kept the smile inside. “What Grace then have the Gods granted you, Elect Sister?”
She smiled widely. She knew it did charming things to the nest of wrinkles around her eyes.
“Water wheels!” she said, with aplomb.
His brow corrugated. “I beg your pardon?”
She waved a hand in agitated pleasure. “Or treadmills, a wheel with an ass walking inside to turn a gear. Anything like that. The point is, think of how many souls we could pray for if we did not have to turn each prayer cylinder individually? Think of how many could be saved from Purgatory!”
Think of the hours of our lives that could be redeemed for our studies.
He was. She could tell by the purse of his lips, the considering tilt of his head. “You prayed on it,” he said.
“And it came to you in a divine vision,” he said.
“I dreamed it,” she said.
“Well then,” he said. “I suppose we must bring it to the Council of Elders, you and I. It won’t happen this winter. Will we have to hire an engineer?” Then he answered his own question. “No, of course we’ll have to hire an engineer. I couldn’t design such a thing.”
She hesitated in surprise, then ventured, “Father Alfric?”
“Nothing. I just—had expected more of an argument.”
“Oh,” he said. “I expect you’ll get one. But not from me. Let’s eat.”
His prediction was correct. They did get an argument—as vociferous, varied, and multivalent an argument as anyone could have desired. Every priest and priestess on the Council of Elders had an opinion. But Father Alfric’s willingness to allow his cathedral and temple surrounds to serve as a test case swayed them, and the divine word of a living saint—who was, after all, supported entirely by the proceeds of her chantry, and who made the Church a tidy profit besides—swayed them more. It didn’t hurt either, Sister Scholastique supposed, that she spent some time passing among the various Elders and laying her hands on their rheumatic or otherwise compromised joints and treating their various organic complaints.
One thing you could say for the council of Elders: it wasn’t a misnomer.
Eventually, the Elders prayed on it—or Sister Scholastique and Father Alfric preyed upon the rest of them—and the word came down. They could try it.
At their own risk.
“Excellent,” said Sister Scholastique, when Father Alfric brought her the news. “I know just the engineer.”
Father Alfric was right. They didn’t start that winter. Or even the following spring. Sister Scholastique was not limited by the slow unreliability of letters, at least—she spoke her words to the wind, and the wind—imbued with Grace—carried those words to their intended recipient. But the intended recipient was busy and thriving, as behooved a guildmaster and professional of great skill. And also crabby, irascible, taciturn, and stubborn as a hammer made of rocks—as Sister Scholastique had remarked during the middle watches, beside more than one smoldering campfire.
These were, in fact, qualities that had always endeared the Sister’s chosen engineer to her.
Said engineer took some persuading, but finally agreed to come in the summer. Alfric protested, saying they could find someone closer—and cheaper, it was implied, though he did not quote numbers out loud. The Sister would hear nothing of it. He mumbled about nepotism and appearances. She breezed over him.
At last a bargain was struck. The time elapsed in endless spins of the prayer cylinders and not nearly enough reading done for a finite lifetime. Lady Theophaneia was blessedly released from her suffering with the coming of the spring, but Sister Scholastique, of course, continued praying in her name. Lord Bertrand had settled lands and properties upon the monastery, the income from which was sufficient to support a full mass twice weekly, so the prayers for Lady Theophaneia took up proportionately more of the Sister’s time than most.
She tried to endure in obedience, but honesty compelled her to admit to Alfric, if no–one else, that she found herself growing crabby with the whole situation. She wasn’t getting any younger, and her piles of research weren’t getting smaller to compensate. There were commentaries she meant to write before she died—commentaries that were the work of her heart, while spinning chantry cylinders was something she did out of obligation.
When word reached the monastery from the ferry landing that the engineer was crossing the river, Sister Scholastique rushed down to the temple gates. There she rocked from booted foot to booted foot, as impatient for the wagons to roll up the road as any besotted young person awaiting a lover’s return.
Father Alfric waited with her, more out of curiosity than eagerness. Sister Scholastique wasn’t certain he’d ever met a Dwarf. They tended to avoid the soft, fertile places in the flat river bottoms where the cities of Men clustered, and when Father Alfric felt called to the priesthood, he had traveled exactly far enough to go to seminary, and then come back.
Dwarves aged more slowly than Men. So Sister Scholastique was not terribly surprised by the nimble agility with which the wiry, broad–shouldered Dwarven companion of her youth skipped down from the wagon box. The black beard was still worn in a daring short crop, but brindled now with streaks of charcoal and silver that matched the steel and leather on the studded armor. They provided the only outward sign of middle age. The engineer stomped up, swinging a manifestly unnecessary wooden staff—the head carven elaborately, gilded, and set with stones—probably sapphires—in a spectrum of blue from cornflower to indigo.
“Well,” the Dwarf said gruffly, frowning up at the Sister.
“Well,” the Sister replied.
The beard split on a grin. “Scholastique, it’s good to see you.”
“Fern,” Scholastique said, and held out her arms for a hug.
Fern (properly, her name was something more like “Dendritic Inclusion Patterns In Transparent Crystalline Quartz,” but that was a concept expressed by a noun and an affix in Dwarvish, so among Men she just went by “Fern”) came up and grabbed the Sister around the waist with the arm that was not carrying her staff. She lifted Sister Scholastique off the ground effortlessly, so the Sister laughed like a girl. When Fern put her down, she swung her around to meet Father Alfric.
“Father, this is Engineer First Class Fern, of Flintharrow, daughter of the Holdfast of Jacinth. We adventured together in my youth.”
“Our youth,” Fern said. “Although I must correct you, Scholastique. Father died last winter; I’m the Jacinth of Jacinth now.”
“Jacinth, then,” the Father said.
“A friend of Scholastique’s should call me Fern.” Fern extended her hand to clasp the Father’s. He took it solemnly.
“A pleasure,” he said.
The Sister snorted. “You’re still young, Fern. What I’d give for a Dwarf’s years now. But I’m just so damn old, and there’s so much left I want to do with it.”
Fern grimaced, frowning. “I wish you wouldn’t talk that way.”
Sister Scholastique smiled and shrugged. “It is what it is. I just want to eke as much out of my last years as I can.”
Fern thumped her—gently, for a Dwarf—on the back. “Well, we’ll see what we can do for you.”
Father Alfric shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. He was no spring chicken himself, though the Sister had a couple of decades on him. He glanced at Fern. “Can we show you where you’ll be staying, Master Engineer?”
Fern must have smiled faintly, because one corner of her beard fluffed up. “I’d like to see the site first,” she said. “And talk over some options with the Sister. But if somebody can carry in my trunk, that would be very fine.”
“Well,” Fern said, pacing, “the Chantry’s a little far from the stream, I’m afraid, and the monastery wall is in the way.”
“Do we need to move the Chantry?” the Sister asked. She was already contemplating the number of acolytes it would take to disassemble the damned thing, or maybe just hoist it up on jacks, slide beams under it, and haul it on rollers to a new site. Could you even do something like that to a stone building?
But Fern shook her head. Her hair was in the same scandalous crop as her beard, revealing the muscles of her neck. She and Sister Scholastique had both adopted short hair when they were living on the trail, and it seemed the habit had stuck, though the Sister’s was hidden under her veil. “Too marshy for stone construction on the bank.”
Sister Scholastique swallowed a well of frustration. “So it’s not going to work, is what you’re saying.”
“You give up too easily,” Fern said. She turned around, wearing an expression of anticipatory glee that Sister Scholastique recollected from the overture to one–too–many death or glory stands in years gone by.
Fern gestured to the wall, to the unseen lands beyond. “This is just about a pleasant challenge. You get the theology working, Schol. I’ll handle the tech.”
“If you cost me a sainthood…”
“You can send me a thank you card from the afterlife. Imagine the fuss of all those people praying at one. Anyway, it’ll have been your own idea. Now. Our best bet is to run a driveshaft through here…”
They ran a driveshaft through there. They built a wheelhouse, and brought in a forge so that Fern could machine a set of intricately interlocking cogs and gears with her own gnarled hands and a hammer rather bigger than the one she used to swing in combat.
She caught the Sister looking at it and grinned. “Less torque in this application,” she said. “You’re a lot less likely to strain your shoulder twisting around, or miss and do in your tendons for half a damn year.” She rubbed her elbow reminiscently.
“As I recall,” the Sister said, “those tendons got healed in significantly less than half a year. Damned or otherwise.”
Fern laughed. “True. But I haven’t had a saint bunking in for the last thirty years. I’ve had to learn caution. Now. Do the prayer cylinders have to spin at a particular speed?”
“We generally spin them as fast as we decorously can,” the Sister said. “I don’t know which unlucky God it is who’s deputized to sit and count revolutions of the prayer cylinders, but the theological consensus is the faster the better.”
“Excellent.” Fern rubbed her hands together.
“Oh, Fern, you’re not—”
“Don’t worry.” But Fern’s eyes twinkled. “Friction on the spindle and the bearing provides a practical limit to how fast we can make them whirl.”
Sister Scholastique nodded, nursing a sinking feeling. Still, it was a familiar sensation, and she and Fern were still around to laugh about it, many dozens—perhaps hundreds—of sinking feelings later. “Will friction be a problem?”
“We’ll rely on theological cooling,” Fern said. “A little chilling–by–Grace will keep heat and expansion from becoming an issue. And I was thinking we could cast the chanting cylinders out of resin. It would last longer than wax, and they could be copied. You just make another cast from a clay mold of the original…”
She carried on, chattering happily, and though the Sister felt that she herself understood one word in three, she was delighted by Fern’s enthusiasm.
There were others involved in the project: tradesmen, mostly Men, but including a few Dwarves who had come along with Fern as contractors and supervisors. Acolytes, laborers, and others who could be recruited for heavy lifting. Teamsters and their teams. All of these came with their attendant factions, frictions, and labor disputes, but it was nothing Sister Scholastique couldn’t handle with a quiet word here and an implied threat there.
The quiet corner of the monastery behind the cathedral was as busy as it had been decades before, when the chantry was being built. And—now that her brilliant idea was finally in irrevocable progress—the Sister couldn’t help but worry that it would have damaging consequences. But despite all that, it was an immense pleasure to Sister Scholastique that she and Fern were a team again, working side by side for the greater good. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed their partnership until it was rekindled.
There had been other allies in the old days. They had traveled and fought and problem–solved on behalf of the old Prince Regent and the Church for thirteen years, as members of several groups of adventurers. But it had been Fern and Scholastique at the core of each of those (at least, in so far as Fern and Scholastique were concerned). And despite all the others involved in the chantry project, it was Fern and Scholastique now. That made up for any irritation.
Fern even managed to arrange things so that Sister Scholastique could continue her contracted prayers while the chantry was being modified. She moved the rack of prayer cylinders forward, installed a new rack behind, and work both secular and holy went on simultaneously.
Fern’s efficiency and pragmatism meant that it was over too soon. The renovations were installed and tested while the first few leaves were just beginning to turn crimson and umber. After a few tune–ups, the new racks passed, and the old were removed. Sister Scholastique stood in the chantry door and watched boys sweep up the last of the sawdust and powdered stone.
She felt odd, melancholy, as she thought that this might be the last time she saw this small building with its cylinders all silent, with no sound of chanting incised into records of resin.
If she listened very hard, with the chantry as quiet as it was now, she could just hear the creak of the enormous wheel turning, turning, turning beyond the monastery wall.
She felt Fern come up behind her. “I’m packing off in the morning,” Fern said, her gruff manner disguising the same mourning Sister Scholastique felt.
“You’re staying for the dedication, then?”
“Well.” Fern winked. “It was that, or sneak out in the middle of the night, and the Council of Elders hasn’t given me my final payment yet.”
Word got back to Lord Bertrand, of course, and of course Lord Bertrand insisted on being shown the facility before it was dedicated, and likewise insisted on having the whole thing explained to him in excruciating detail. Sister Scholastique felt nothing but gratitude that Father Alfric offered to join her and Fern in taking their benefactor around. It might have been by the grace of the Gods, but the Sister suspected it had more to do with Alfric not trusting her to manage anybody who she held in as much contempt as she did the Lord.
Bertrand walked around the chantry several times, frowning from his feathered cap to his tippeted velvet boots. He had to be stopped from poking a fingertip against the spinning cylinders. Sister Scholastique imagined the outcome there would not have been beneficial to cylinder or finger. He said nothing while they were inside—the layering of Sister Scholastique’s voice over itself to create the harmonies of a choir made speech daunting—but once they were on the stoop and the door was safely shut behind them, he folded his arms and said, “You’re not thinking of converting Tiffy’s chantry to this system?”
“It’s the state of the art, my lord,” Father Alfric said, so obviously parroting Fern that Sister Scholastique bit her lip to keep from giggling. The Sister noted that he did not mention that they had, in fact, already converted Theophaneia’s obiit.
Fern pursed her lips behind her beard and said, “We can provide a seventy–five percent increase in theological productivity for half the cost. My lord would have to place an additional priest on retainer to obtain those kind of returns, and that would double the outlay.”
Bertrand huffed through his mustache and fiddled with his lace–pointed cuffs. “I cannot believe it can have the same beneficial effect as the Elected Sister’s direct personal intervention!”
“Sister blesses the prayer cylinders daily, my lord,” said Father Alfric. He paused for effect, then added, “And the entire operation is carried out under her direct supervision. I hope my lord will make allowances, and understand that the Elect Sister is not growing any younger, and this allows her to continue to carry out her duties with no loss of quality despite the burdens of age.”
“And,” Fern said, “it can nearly double the number of prayer cycles your blessed wife can receive in a given day, and it can also insure that she gets those prayers every single day rather than merely on Saturday and Thursday, as under the system you’re familiar with, my lord.” She’d obviously picked up on Alfric’s lead, without ever quite lying to Bertrand about where Theophaneia’s prayers were coming from.
“It lacks a personal touch,” he said. “I fear the Balance of the trade is out of order and unfair.”
Sister Scholastique cleared her throat to encourage a meeker tone than was her usual wont. She tried to look like the popular conception of an elderly saint—or, failing that, at least like a nice old lady. “With the cylinders, Lord Bertrand, I can still be praying for your wife after I, too, am gone. The Balance is addressed, and all is fair and well.”
“And,” said Fern, “my lord, I guarantee that every chantry in the realm will be looking at how to convert to a similar system within ten years. This is going to become the fashion before you know it.”
Lord Bertrand perked up. “The fashion, you say?”
She touched her cap to him. “My lord. The rage.”
The dedication ceremony that afternoon was exactly what the Sister would have expected. Nobody who wasn’t required to be there came, but in all honesty Father Alfric and the Sister had been keeping things sort of quiet, on the theory that the Gods could look to matters themselves if they disapproved. And as for the people of the keep and the village, well, what the eye didn’t see, the heart didn’t grieve over.
The Council of Elders looked suitably impressed, in any case. And the next morning after breakfast, a Sister Scholastique who was actually a little logey with too much sleep bid Fern a fond farewell, replete with many promises to stay in touch. She then performed a half–hour of blessings in the chantry, then went around with the oilpot and made sure everything was lubricated and the chilling prayers were operating properly. A couple of acolytes had been detailed to perform the same office on the waterwheel, amidst Fern’s many dire warnings of the sort of conflagration that would result if the task were neglected.
The Sister performed her offices while listening to the soft whirr of all the prayer cylinders. She switched off the recording of her own voice singing while she worked, because it sounded so different from how she thought her voice should sound.
Then, with a good four hours left before dinner, she retired to the library, and her carrel, and her pen.
It was too good to last, but Sister Scholastique at least got several blessedly serene and studious years out of it. Her health continued good, and her old age continued vigorous, and Fern was proved right that water– and wind–driven prayers were an immediate and widespread fad throughout the Realm to the point that engineers here, there, and everywhere were hard pressed to keep up with demand.
Sister Scholastique concerned herself with all that very little, although it pleased her when the Council of Elders relented enough to congratulate her and Father Alfric on their innovation. The Sister, of course, placed all credit at the door of the Gods. She had actually begun to hope that she might be blessed by the Gods with sufficient time to complete her monograph on the conflicting renderings of the Mother of Dark Blessings in pre–Ruairhian Church writings before she died.
She was hard at work in her carrel—she’d prayed a little light into a fist–sized quartz crystal, which she set on the edge of the shelf above the desk as an aid to fading eyes—when Father Alfric startled her into squeaking by laying his hand on her shoulder. It was only by the Grace of the Gods that she didn’t knock her inkwell over with her elbow when she jumped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You were too absorbed to hear me come up.” It was a polite fiction, and they both knew it. Her hearing was growing worse than her eyes.
“You’ll scare a body to death,” she protested, then caught sight of his expression. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Lord Bertrand,” Alfric said sourly. “Apparently, the fashion in prayers is about to change.”
“It’s just,” Lord Bertrand said, sipping the sherry Father Alfric kept in his study—just in case of the sort of noble or wealthy guests who were accustomed to their creature comforts, of course. “It’s just, don’t you think the automated prayers are a little, well. Accessible?”
Sister Scholastique considered her tea, and said nothing.
“Common, you mean, my lord?” Father Alfric asked, in that dry tone that concealed what he really thought.
“I understand that the prices have come down drastically.”
“Isn’t that a positive development?” the Sister asked sweetly. “My lord? Making divine intercession more readily available to the masses?”
“Maybe,” said Bertrand. “But it’s hardly exclusive anymore, is it?”
“’Exclusive,’” the Sister said. She eyed the sherry decanter. Then Father Alfric. Then the sherry decanter again.
“Well, yes. One hardly wishes to do what just anyone is doing.”
There were a couple more glasses on the sideboard. Sister Scholastique went and fetched one in preference to giving the monastery’s patron a detailed piece of her mind.
“You gave me to understand, my lord,” said Father Alfric as Sister Scholastique poured herself a healthy ration, “that you had something else in mind.”
“I did! I’ve spoken to several of the Trustees, and what I’d like to do is encourage the Council of Elders—and the Elected Sister, of course—” —Lord Bertrand toasted her with his sherry glass, and she managed a nod from behind the armor of her own, and no comment that she was a member of the Council of Elders, thank you very much— “—to consider adding an exclusive level of Special Chantry service. Something not available to simply anyone.”
“Something more artisanal, perhaps?” Father Alfric’s tone was somewhere north–northeast of the sherry itself in dryness. Neither one was doing as much to soothe Sister Scholastique as she might have preferred.
“Artisanal!” Lord Bertrand ejaculated, waving his free hand in the air. Bead-work sparkled on the back of his blue kid glove. “Exactly, my good Father!”
Sister Scholastique really should have poured herself a larger glass of sherry. Or perhaps had none at all, because she downed the rest of her glass, stood, and as she was leaving the study said tartly, “A return to the human sacrifice would be artisanal, too.”
As the door closed behind her, she felt Bertrand’s gimlet eye boring into her back as if he needed a hole to string her up with.
“It won’t be so bad,” Father Alfric told her later. “It’s only two masses a week. That’s less than I do.”
Heroically, Sister Scholastique refrained from pointing out that she was twenty years older than he was. Obedience, she told herself. And wondered, uncharitably, if the late Lady Theophaneia had been driven to her piety as a shelter against her husband’s dandyish ostentation.
She considered hermitage. Life as an anchorite held a sudden appeal. But she would have to cook her own food, and it seemed unlikely that they’d let even the Elect Sister cart off priceless books into the forest.
So she resigned herself to celebration.
But it wasn’t so bad, in truth. She had grown accustomed to her early rising time, and if she got up and performed the Mass for Lady Theophaneia before breakfast on those days, then she had the rest of the day free for studies. She had to go by the Chantry and see to her daily blessings and inspection in any case. And if she was feeling charitable she had to admit that the practice, and the meditation, didn’t hurt her own devotions in any way. She adapted, and—in obedience to the Gods and priesthood—performed.
A war against Arcadia was started, on one of the usual pretexts. But it was far away, and it was hard for Sister Scholastique to concern herself too much with it. She had seen so many wars—a few of them firsthand—and they seemed these days much of a sameness to her. A trumped–up pretext to clothe, however diaphanously, some warlord’s naked grab for land and power; some bloody fighting; a few dozen or hundred or thousand maimings and murders; and then back to the better–cloaked grabs for land and power. Sister Scholastique found it exasperating, heartbreaking, and irritating in equal measures.
Her patriotic fervor was at an all–time ebb. At least Bertrand marched off with his men to fight in it. That limited his importuning. But the elderly saint felt rather unable to enjoy the reprieve, when it was paid for on the backs of so many young soldiers.
In her youth she would have marched off with them—to fight if she thought the cause was just, and if nothing else, to heal. She was not young anymore, and for a change she felt a little bit relieved about that—and then a little bit guilty that others were suffering and she was not.
A few more months passed her by in blessed sameness and routine—during which she learned some very interesting things about the cult of the Black Rememberers and the Aquiline Heresy. Several others sought to endow the temple to have her personally perform the obiit for their dead loved ones, but none of them had the temporal or financial power to bring real pressure on her or on the Elders, so she stood on her theology and continued to spend the majority of her time in the library.
That was where she was when Father Alfric found her nodding over the desk in her carrel. She was four–fifths of the way done with her monograph, and halfway through her latest letter to Fern, and fortunately it was the latter that her pen had blotted as she dozed.
She startled awake and blinked at him. The brown study of his expression told her everything.
“Lord Bertrand,” she said, knowing it as if it were a revelation. The unoiled creak of her own voice surprised her. Lately it seemed like everything surprised her, or nothing did. “Has he gotten himself maimed, then?” She moved to gather her things.
But Father Alfric put a hand on her arm to stay her. “Worse.”
She extracted her liver–spotted appendage from under his grasp and went back to tidying papers. It helped to have something to do. She waited.
“He’s home from the Arcadian war,” the Father said wearily. “And he’s brought some prisoners with him. He’s already started pressuring some of us on the Council of Elders to allow… a special ceremony. To repay the favor in combat of the Mother of Dark Blessings. A… washing. Of her altar.”
“I haven’t heard of this,” she said.
Alfric grimaced. “I’m telling you now.”
Sister Scholastique recollected the last time she had spoken to Lord Bertrand. Her mind flashed to her hasty words in the study, before she had stormed out. She put her hand to her mouth as if she could stuff those long–flown words back in. “A return to the human sacrifice would be artisanal, too.”
Bertrand knew she had been being sarcastic. He was doing this to punish her for her insolence. Her intransigence. For the simple sin of insufficient reverence to his lordliness.
“He can’t. The Aquiline Heresy—”
“The war,” Father Alfric said heavily, “has left Lord Bertrand considerably more wealthy. And… second in line to the throne.”
Sister Scholastique felt her frown on her face as heavy as a mask of stone. She thought it might have sunk in and settled there forever. “That must have taken an unusual number of deaths among the peerage,” she said neutrally.
“Twelve,” Father Alfric remarked.
The Sister wondered how many of those had been due to enemy action. And how many had been… arranged.
She selected a bit of blotter paper and began wiping her nib. “When are we hearing him?”
For once, Sister Scholastique was not concerned that the opinions of her peers would differ much from her own. The Council of Elders would have pushed to have the meeting with Lord Bertrand before morning services, just to discommode the Lord. Unfortunately, the Lord would have just ignored them and shown up at his own convenience, and they would have been forced to hear him anyway. He had an army at his back and the weight of the peerage behind him now, and if there was one thing the Church was short of (a few martial monks and priests aside) it was armies.
Better to make it look like their own idea, and not cede too much turf to the bastard. They scheduled the meeting when he requested, an hour after lunch, even though the Council of Elders would normally have been at afternoon prayers.
Lord Bertrand still made them wait.
Father Alfric leaned over just as the Lord was finally announced, before he came in the room, and murmured in Sister Scholastique’s ear. “The gloating bastard is feeling his oats.”
He straightened up fast, though, when the Lord entered with his entourage. It included two armed swordsmen, and he himself wore a longsword openly: a blatant insult to the Elders. They all stopped and fanned out across the room in a formation that made the Sister slide her fingers in among the folds of her robe and clutch one of her symbols of mystery. Her hand found the Irreproachable Balance of the Mother of Dark Blessings, symbol of the bargain of mutual obligation made and kept centuries before by gods and men, symbol of the perfectly fair scales upon which the Mother weighed each new–dead soul.
It had a sharp edge that slit her finger when she clutched, but Sister Scholastique let no discomfort show. Perhaps she paled a little; the flesh of her cheeks chilled, but other than that, she could not tell.
Lord Bertrand could bring his thugs and bully boys. But she had not forgotten how to call down lightning, if that was what it took.
If she did that, the Church and the Crown would themselves be choosing sides in a war. He hadn’t sent his lackeys this time. He’d come himself, and Sister Scholastique knew exactly why that was.
It was because to lay hands—or even ill–will, backed by magic or theology—on the person of an heir to the throne was treason. And the Crown would come to deal with whoever did such a thing, no matter what the provocation. Politics would not allow them to ignore such an insult.
So she took a breath and steeled herself against too–fervent prayer.
“My Lords of the Covenant,” Lord Bertrand said—conveniently, as he always did, eliding the Sister’s presence. “I come before you as one touched by revelation and the will of the Gods. For as I lay wounded and fevered in the mud of Arcadia, I was vouchsafed a vision!”
He assumed a mien—a mask—of pious reverence. Sister Scholastique managed somehow not to turn her head and spit.
“I saw holy messengers descend in a great array of lights, my Lords of the Covenant. And those messengers told me that the Gods were angry. That they had not been paid their due in proper prayer and sacrifice of late, and that the only recourse for this debt is to now pay the balance, and to pay it in blood.”
The Council of Elders watched him as with one set of eyes. The Sister felt a deep–ingrained urge to show him exactly how effective a simple prayer could be, in the hands of one who had earned the regard and the Grace of the Divine.
Somehow, she restrained herself.
Father Alfric knew her too well. He caught her eye sideways. Behind his hand and his moustache, he silently mouthed, “That’s why you’re the saint, Sister.”
“I have three captives,” Lord Bertrand continued. “Soldiers who are born to the heathen enemy, who are godless, who have committed horrific crimes. I offer them to the Temple in payment of this blood debt, that the Gods may continue to smile upon our continued prosperity—verily, our continued existence. For it teeters in the Balance even now.”
The Elders sat for a moment silently. They traded glances. There were murmurs that the Sister’s ears were too dull with age to hear.
Father Alfric leaned forward.
“We’ll take it under consideration,” he said, out loud.
“You won’t mind then if my guards remain here to observe your decision,” Bertrand replied, all unctuosity. Then he bowed—sketchily, as to an inferior—and swept out of the room.
The vote, taken before Lord Bertrand’s guards after much constrained debate, ran eight to three in favor of allowing the sacrifices. As the ballots were read, every member of the Council scowled.
Sister Scholastique stood, before dawn, in her chantry. It was a chill spring morning, and the air was moist and scented with daffodils. She did not spark a candle, or kindle a light by prayer in stone. She stood in the darkness and listened to her spindles purr. She closed her eyes and opened them, and saw no difference in the quality of the light.
She came to a decision.
They assembled for the sacrifice in the Cathedral. The acolytes had been excused; the general press of usual worshippers had been banned from the temple on this day. No one would be in attendance except the Council and Lord Bertrand’s people.
And yet, the cathedral was full… of Lord Bertrand’s people.
Sister Scholastique scanned their faces, so many of them unfamiliar. She didn’t think that was just the blurring and dimming of her years, because the unfamiliar faces were the ones that seemed most avid. The ones she thought she had seen before wore very different expressions: cowed, nauseated, horrified. Her regular parishioners who looked to the Lord were here under duress, she decided.
They brought the trio of prisoners in in rough undyed tunics, barefoot, in chains. Their hair had been clipped. They had been bathed and deloused, but the tunics were so short she could see the knobs of their knees, and cut so low she could pick out the jut of their collarbones. There were two men and a woman, all fair as was common among the Arcadians. They looked hungry and miserable and naked as shorn sheep. Not one of them was over twenty.
These were not officers, nobles, anyone who had any part in causing or directing the war. These were humble folk, their eyes wide with terror. She wondered if they understood a word of the babble that surrounded them. If they knew what Lord Bertrand intended. Surely they saw the black stone altar with its gleaming polish, the young priest beside it with his sickle honed to glitter, edged like a razor. At least it wouldn’t hurt much.
Sister Scholastique’s heart ached. Not the least for the young priest, who looked as if, at any moment, he might vomit. Then the altar would need a washing in truth.
Lord Bertrand stepped forward. His speech was longwinded, tiresome, eminently forgettable. He thanked the Mother of Dark Blessings for success at war. He said, “In thanks for her divine intercession, I bring her this sacrifice—”
Sister Scholastique found herself standing. Her chair must have scraped hard on the flagstones, because Lord Bertrand stopped talking as if his voicebox had been slit. Everyone in the room was staring at her.
“Sister,” Father Alfric said. She stepped away from him, moving faster as he stood and reached after her. She surprised herself with her own nimbleness as she hopped down from the dais.
“Sister!” he hissed.
She ignored him, his voice and his stricken look both. If she was a saint, she thought, it was time she bloody well acted like one.
Sister Scholastique stepped out onto the mosaic tiles of the cathedral floor. “If a sacrifice is to be offered to the Mother of Dark Blessings,” she said, “then I volunteer to be that sacrifice.”
They were still staring. Sister Scholastique drew herself up against the curve of her spine, trying to recollect a little of the ferocity of the battlefield.
She said, “I claim my right as a Elect Priest of the Mother of Dark Blessings to offer her my life in her honor, replacing these others.”
She focused her attention on Lord Bertrand’s face. His mouth still hung open, as if the last word were jammed in the hinge of his jaw. His complexion blanched pale, then flared crimson.
His jaw closed with a snap. He worked it, swallowed as if it hurt going down, and snarled, “Then let it be so.”
“You’ll make a martyr of her,” Father Alfric cried. He was on his feet too, and now Sister Scholastique realized that the whole room had stood up. The prisoners were regarding her with confusion and wonder. Her colleagues were aghast.
But what was the point in being a saint–presumptive if you didn’t take a chance on martyrdom now and again?
“But who will perform the Special Chantry?” That was Lord Bertrand’s chatelaine Martin, in even oilier, more whining tones than she was used to. She was surprised by his courage nonetheless, that he would speak up to his lord on her behalf.
Bertrand sneered. “I’m assured that the water–driven prayers are just as effective.”
She walked calmly toward the altar. The priest stationed there—some young fellow whose name she ought to remember—looked if possible both greener and paler than he had a moment before. She lifted the sickle from his limp fingers and smiled encouragingly. She murmured, “There now. It will all be fine. Just step back, there’s a good lad.”
The room was hushed. She half–expected Father Alfric to lunge across the cathedral and pile into her, but something held him in place. Possibly just the weight of her own regard as she turned to him, smiled, and nodded.
The sickle was sharp, all right. She raised it and held it steady in her right hand. The curved tip pricked her flesh just below her right ear. One clean, hard pull—
Mother, she prayed, let this be the right thing.
Every eye in the cathedral rested on her. She felt the regard of so many—some horrified, some avid, some shocked beyond measure. She drew the blade across her own throat.
It rang as if she whetted it on stone. It rang like a struck silver bell.
She felt no pain. She hadn’t expected any. She had expected the hot gush of blood across her hands and her habit.
When that didn’t come, she raised the fingers to her throat and felt the smooth, soft, wrinkled, unmarked flesh there. Her hand was clean when she pulled it away.
She held it up to show them.
“The divine mothers and fathers refuse the sacrifice,” she said. “Release the prisoners.” She let the sickle ring again, this time upon the altar where she cast it.
The sound followed her all the way out of the cathedral, but by the time she reached the great outer doors, the murmurs of the crowd were rising to drown it.
“There’ll be trouble,” Father Alfric said later, in his study. “He’s not cowed.”
“No?” Sister Scholastique said. “Not even a little?”
The Father studied her, appraised her, and smiled. “Perhaps a very little.”
“I thought I wasn’t going to get to finish my monograph,” Sister Scholastique admitted.
“The gods must have wanted to read it too.”
The saint–in–waiting held up her hand. A gentle, generous light flared around the tips of her age–blurred fingers. She laughed softly. “Maybe they knew what they were about after all.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you,” Alfric said. He put a glass of sherry in her upraised hand, so the light she had prayed into being shone tawny through the jewel–colored liquid.
She shook her head. “I’m still stuck spinning those damned cylinders of his for all eternity.”
Father Alfric laid his hand on her arm. He smiled. “I’d take it and count my blessings, if I were you.”
© 2015 by Elizabeth Bear