“Dear, blessed St. Robert,” Mother Julian began her prayer, and then she stopped.
How did one ask this great saint, the only saint who truly mattered, what would be the best way to avoid going about his work?
There were stories in the Book of Wright of cases such as the one she faced. There was one in particular, the story of the conversion of Lord Don of Lothario and his so-called wives. There were at least six of them, she thought, though she could not remember their names. No — it was not that she could not remember their names, it was that their names were not given in the great Book. But the names did not matter.
What did matter was their story. Lord Don had been one of the latest converts of the lords on the Glasonland/Gaul border, probably because of the issue with his wives. Yet the first of his wife, Cassandra the Goth, had seen the good light and had pleaded and cajoled her husband to accept it. So Lord Don had. He and his wife Cassandra had been re-married in the sight of the Lord Wright, as was good and holy. And his other wives …
They had been sent to a nunnery, to atone for their sins in calling themselves the wives of a man already married, with his wife still living. They went “weeping and lamenting, and tearing their hair, to be separated from the man they called husband.” And yet, the stories claimed that they eventually found peace, “for yea, they gave thanks to the Lord Wright, and called it His blessing upon them, to deliver them from lives of such sin to such holiness.”
But Angelique was a good Wrightian girl; as far as Mother Julian knew, she had no dire sins she needed to be delivered from. It was not the nunnery or damnation for her. And, had Angelique come to Mother Julian of her own free will —
She would not, Mother Julian told herself in the midst of her prayer, and sighed. That was the crux of the matter. Angelique would not come to a nunnery of her own free will — at least, not at this point in her life. What right had she to force Angelique to walk down a path that she did not seek out?
Yet, what if it was the Lord Wright’s Will that Angelique walk this path?
Sir Bors stood at the door to the chapel, carelessly holding open the door. A woman slipped in behind him, her red dress the most bold and striking thing about her — other than that, she was blonde and pale, with eyes that fell toward the floor, making it impossible for Mother Julian to see their color.
These were Angelique’s parents. These were the ones who had marked out the path for Angelique to follow. Mother Julian prayed that they had done so with the Lord Wright’s good guidance. Otherwise …
Mother Julian forced herself to smile. “Forgive me, Sir Bors,” she replied, allowing her voice to boom and echo over the chapel walls. In a way, she was glad that he had found her here, and aye, interrupted her. Here, she had the advantage of acoustics. “I was praying.”
“Let me not interrupt your orisons, then,” he answered. Yet he gave no hint that he intended to move. Nor did he introduce his wife, but then again, Mother Julian already knew her name. He merely stood there, arms crossed before him, looking around with mild interest.
Mother Julian sighed. She would get no more praying done with his presence disturbing her peace of mind. Besides, at this point, she had done all the praying she could. It was up to the Lord Wright to help her now, or not.
So she made her way to her feet, slowly. Her knees protested more and more every year with each climb from the cold chapel floor. She had only been a nun these past seventeen years; she shuddered to imagine how women who had been on their knees all their lives felt. What would Angelique’s knees be like, twenty or thirty years from now?
She dusted off her skirt and walked to the front of the chapel. Sir Bors reached out and enveloped her hand in a hearty shake. “Good Mother,” he said. “What is it you wished to see us about?”
His wife wandered over to the stoop and blessed herself with the holy water. She said nothing.
“I think this is a conversation that would be better had in my office. Will you follow me, Sir Bors — Lady Claire?”
“Of course, of course,” Sir Bors replied. Lady Claire said nothing.
“An–Sister Angelique is well,” Mother Julian said as they walked down the steps that led into the chapel. “In case you were wondering.”
“Of course she is well,” Sir Bors answered, but Mother Julian saw the Lady Claire’s head come up.
“Is she?” asked the lady. Her voice was the whisper of the wind through a meadow.
“Claire! None of your nonsense. She is doing the will of the Lord Wright and her family. How could she be anything other than well?”
Mother Julian almost stopped and stared at the man, but she caught herself in time and kept walking. She did allow herself one quick glance over her shoulder at his wife, though.
And that made her stop dead. The look in the Lady Claire’s eyes, so wide, so helpless — Mother Julian had not seen that kind of despair in over seventeen years! Yet when she had seen it, she had seen it all around her … she had seen it after the fire in Pompeius, the fire that had wiped out whole families, whole streets, whole neighborhoods — the fire that had claimed neither her life nor her daughter’s, but their home, their little shop, their livelihood … Lady Claire wore, she thought, the look she herself had worn when she made her way back through the wreckage to where her husband’s shop had stood, had seen the ash and charred wood that were all her husband had left to her, and when she had known herself to be utterly lost, and utterly, utterly alone …
“They look so happy,” Lady Claire murmured, and Mother Julian almost jumped before she realized that the lady was talking about Nyasha and Rhoslyn, who played on their wooden structure, and laughed and chattered, and were utterly oblivious of the strange adults tramping through their garden. Just as children should be.
“I suppose it must be an advantage of youth,” Sir Bors murmured. He wrinkled his nose, as if he smelled something distasteful. “Do they know of the sin that went into their making?”
“Sir Bors, Nyasha is the eldest and she is only eight.”
“Still, they should know what they are.”
Mother Julian glared at him. “They are children,” she replied. “They are children who have parents who cannot take care of them, and so, we nuns do. They are children who are loved and cared for, because they are Children of Wright, just like you and me.”
Sir Bors snorted, but Lady Claire sighed. “How lucky for them.”
“Aye, that’s true, wife,” Sir Bors replied. “They could have been exposed at birth, or, worse, left with their sinful mothers.”
“All mothers are sinful. All Sims are sinful,” Mother Julian replied as she opened the door to the nuns’ wing of the abbey. “We of the Sisters of St. Coral do not judge which sins are worse than others. We leave judgment to the Lord Wright.”
Sir Bors snorted. “Aye, that’s all well and good for you, but I find that a dose of healthy judgment keeps most of the people in line. And is it not better to keep sins from being committed in the first place?”
“Certainly. I do not say that there is no place for compassionate judgment in this world. One must keep order, after all. But at the same time, these children have nothing to do with the sins that went into their making — if any sin at all went into their making — for, Sir Bors, unless you somehow gained access to our records, I have no idea how it is that you can be certain that these girls are not legitimately born, and unfortunately orphaned due to some catastrophe or catastrophes.”
She let his jaw move up and down as she ushered the two of them into her office, shut the door, and sat down behind her desk. Sir Bors instantly took the seat across from her, and his wife took the one next to him.
“Well!” Mother Julian said with her best and falsest smile. “I suppose you are wondering just why it is that I called you here?”
“Aye, we are,” Sir Bors replied. Lady Claire looked at him, face blank. “Is it a question of donations?”
“No, no, nothing like that — and your tithes to us are, of course, fully paid.”
Sir Bors snorted, and from that Mother Julian divined that Brother Tuck had gotten to him with his ridiculous notion of “streamlining” tithing by sending all the money directly to the monastery. Over my dead body will Brother Tuck be in charge of the whole abbey’s budget!
But she had not called Sir Bors here to convince him that Brother Tuck was a power-hungry fool. She would never need to, so long as she was Abbess and could look Brother Tuck in the eye and say, Over my dead body! — which, as it so happened, was exactly what she had said to him. “It has to do with Sister Angelique–“
“Oh, she is well, isn’t she?” called Lady Claire, wringing her hands together.
“Claire! Of course–“
“She is quite well physically, Lady Claire,” Mother Julian replied. “But … but I want to make certain that both of you understand the purpose of a novitiate. It is, you see, to weed out unsuitable candidates for religious life, rather than let them take their final vows, and make themselves and everyone else in the abbey miserable thereby.”
“Are you saying,” Sir Bors growled, “that my daughter is somehow unfit for religious life?”
Lady Claire gasped and held her stomach, rocking to and fro as if it pained her.
“Lady Claire, are you all right?” Mother Julian asked. Her hand reached out automatically to hold her, comfort her — or to push off the desk and run for Father Hugh, if that was what was necessary.
Sir Bors stared at his wife and blinked. “Claire?” he asked, putting a hand on her shoulder. Lady Claire took a deep, shuddering breath, shook herself — conveniently shaking off her husband’s hand as well — and looked up.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Truly. It was just — just a passing pain.”
Her face was pale and peaked; the only color in it from her lips, red from being bitten. If this was what “fine” looked like, Mother Julian prayed she would never be “fine.”
Sir Bors snorted and turned away from his wife. “Anyway, what is it that you were saying, Mother Julian?”
Mother Julian blinked and took a deep breath. “I was about to say, Sir Bors, that … actually, I was about to ask you and your wife what your alternate plans were for your daughter, should it … should it turn out that the Lord Wright has not called her to the religious life.”
“And you can tell the Lord Wright’s Will, Mother Julian?” Sir Bors snarled.
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you implying that you can, Sir Bors?”
“‘It is the husband to whom the Lord Wright speaks, it is to him that the Lord Wright reveals his Will. For the husband is the master of his wife, and his children, and his servants, and his chattel; just as the head of the body is the master of the heart, and the hands, and the legs, and the feet.'”
“Sir Bors, while St. Consort of Thebe was, in many ways, an inspired thinker and sage, his words are but the words of one man — a sainted man, but only one man. They are hardly infallible!”
Sir Bors snorted. “They are the words, as you said, of an inspired thinker and sage–“
“Who would have done much better had he kept his thinking to subjects in which he had some expertise — certainly not family life, considering what a mess he made of his own life!”
“A mess? A mess? Aye, his daughter and son-in-law died at a tragically young age –“
“Because of a feud St. Consort began with the Monty clan!”
“Even saints have their — their bad days! But he raised his grandson and granddaughters to be model Wrightians! Both of his granddaughters became nuns! Lord Tybalt, it is true, also died at a tragically young age –“
“In the same feud that killed his parents! And by the way, do you not remember — or did they not tell you, in St. Consort’s abbey — how Lord Tybalt was killed? His sister Juliette tried to make peace between the families by marrying Lord Romeo, heir to the Monty clan — and St. Consort ordered Lord Tybalt to kill Lord Romeo! They slew each other while Lady Juliette watched!”
“And after that, St. Consort realized the errors of his ways, repented, and founded a monastery–“
“And after that, St. Consort realized he had no heir and didn’t want his money going to his daughters or his granddaughters, so he spent it all to found a monastery, and spent the rest of his days writing anti-woman screed and rubbish! Did you know, Sir Bors, that serious scholars now believe that all of St. Consort’s so-called ‘insights’ and ‘discoveries’ were not actually his at all — but his son Kent’s, whom St. Consort had disowned years before for not being ‘manly’ enough?”
“Now, look here!” Sir Bors shouted. “How dare you? How dare you? You are but a humble nun, a woman — how do you dare to malign the name of the great saint, Consort of Thebe? What can you possibly know of the matter? Me, I spent two years in the great abbey that St. Consort founded –“
“What does all of this have to do with Angelique?” Lady Claire wailed.
One look at Lady Claire’s wide and glassy eyes was all it took to silence Mother Julian. And one look at the way Sir Bors wrinkled his nose, took a breath and opened his mouth was enough to start her speaking again.
“I will admit that St. Consort has nothing to do with Angelique–“
“Sir Bors! I am Abbess here, and I will decide who is to be called ‘Sister’! Your daughter, as — as lovely a young woman as she is, does not yet merit that title, and she may never!”
Lady Claire moaned and flopped back in her seat.
“What? What has she done?” Sir Bors demanded.
“Done? What do you mean?”
“What has she done? What has that ungrateful chit done to make you say she cannot be a nun? It must be grave!”
“Bors!” Lady Claire moaned.
“Hush! I will not –“
“Sir Bors, you hush! Hush and let me explain!” Mother Julian waved her finger before him, as if he were a misbehaving student in one of her classes. “The only thing Angelique has done is her best — her best to force herself into a mold that was not made to fit her, her best to force a spirit that was meant to flourish in the wide world not to languish behind abbey walls, her best to fulfill your will, which she and you together have somehow managed to confuse with that of the Lord Wright!”
Lady Claire shrieked aloud, and without another word ran from the room. Her sobs echoed off the abbey walls.
Sir Bors was younger than she, was fitter than she, had military training — but somehow it was Mother Julian who first leapt to her feet and followed the fleeing noblewoman.
But she was not quick enough to reach the courtyard before Lady Claire disappeared.
Mother Julian looked left and right, frozen, like some sort of foolish character in a children’s story–
“Mother Julian!” Rhoslyn called out. “The crying lady went into the chapel!”
Mother Julian had only time to send a quick smile in Rhoslyn’s direction before she lifted up her skirts and ran for the chapel.
Oh, Lady Claire was in here, all right! Her sobs echoed from the vaulted ceilings. And though it was but one woman sobbing, somehow, it sounded more forlorn and despairing than all the sobs of all the women crammed on the floor of the Chapel of St. Coral, back in Pompeius, after the fire …
Mother Julian walked slowly up to the other woman. “Lady Claire?” she whispered, creeping closer. One hand moved as if it was underwater to try to rest on the other woman’s shoulder. “Lady Claire, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Lady Claire looked over her shoulder and tried to take a deep breath. It sputtered and shuddered with unshed tears. “Everything,” she whispered.
“Everything? Everything can’t be wrong. Come now, talk to me, I can help you …”
“Everything!” Lady Claire shouted. The chapel called Everything! back in some sort of demon’s chorus. “I have failed in everything I tried to do! I’m a horrible mother, a horrible wife, a horrible — a horrible everything!”
“Oh, Lady Claire, surely –“
Mother Julian jumped, and beneath her breath, she murmured some words that surely were never meant to cross a nun’s lips.
“Sir Bors, I don’t think –” she began.
“Claire, enough is enough!” Sir Bors shouted, ignoring her. “I’ve been more than patient with — with your moodiness, and your crying, and even that horrible noise you insist on calling ‘music’ –“
Why was it that it was only the last insult that caused Lady Claire to wail?
” — but enough is enough! I thought you, of all women, would know how to act like a lady in public! For Heaven’s sake! How do you think it can possibly be acceptable to put on such a display? Don’t you know better?”
“Sir Bors! She is upset! Leave her –“
“You! You stay out of this! This is a private family affair!”
Mother Julian gasped. Then, her teeth clenched, she turned to Lady Claire.
She was about tell Lady Claire that all she had to do was say the word, and she would have this beast removed from the premises. She was about to tell Lady Claire that the nunnery had plenty of spare beds and one of them was hers for the asking. She was about to say that they would send to the King, both of them, because Mother Julian knew that the King was a compassionate man and would surely not allow this kind of treatment to go on beneath his nose —
But Lady Claire’s cringing posture silenced her with shock.
She said only one thing before she trotted back, obedient as a kicked dog, to the creature standing in the doorway. She whispered, “I just can’t take it anymore.”
That night, Mother Julian would pray with all her might that Lady Claire would do nothing desperate before help could come to her.