There came a time in every young novice’s life when she realized that even tasks that had formerly seemed the height of drudgery and the depth of servitude were preferable to spending one more minute in a room with six toddlers. For Angelique, that time was now.
Even though the toddlers were napping at the moment (how Sister Margery managed to get all six of them to sleep at the same time was another story entirely), she still had to get away. And so here she was, in the cool shadowed sewing room at the back of the house, sewing diapers. It beat changing them, for sure, but not by much.
She fingered the absorbent linen, wondering if she might dare to add some embroidery. Anything for a bit of creative outlet. A cold had swept through the orphanage, and between stanching dripping noses, keeping the babies from coughing on each other, and picking up the slack from the stricken Sister Margery, she hadn’t had a music lesson in a fortnight. Her voice would probably creak the next time she tried to sing. She had even, at one point, tried to sing scales in tune to Jean’s playing on the plinky toy.
To say that it hadn’t worked would be an understatement. But it had kept Jean, who at that time was the only one of the bunch who was well, occupied for half an hour and had won them all some peace. Perhaps it had been worth it.
Angelique tossed the cloth back to the table and began to stitch again. Not worth it for me to even try, she decided. Sister Margery won’t care, but Mother Julian would probably make me take the stitches out to save on thread.
… Well, maybe not if she saw it on a baby’s ass first …
Angelique grinned and reached for the black thread — then thought better of it and went for the satiny red, the most expensive thread in their arsenal, a spool that had been donated by Lady Morgause. Lady Morgause had expensive taste and a keen sense of what sort of gifts would make the biggest splash when she (publicly) handed them to the nuns “for the poor little orphans.” Unfortunately, she also had no idea what the nuns actually wanted or needed (or, more likely, knew but didn’t care), and so this spool of thread had sat on the shelf for months while Sister Margery dithered and dallied and tried to find a “good” use it.
Lady Morgause would probably have a fit on the scale of Mother Julian if she knew what Angelique was going to use this precious thread for.
Angelique jumped and gasped. “How — how did you know?”
Mother Julian raised one eyebrow, then said, rather pointedly, “Good day, Sister Angelique. How are you?”
“Good day, Mother Julian. How are you? Er — that is, I’m good. Well, that is,” Angelique corrected.
“I’ve actually heard that ‘good’ is the correct usage in this sense, so well done, Sister. Unless, of course, you mean to update me on the status of your health?”
“Whatever the babies have, I haven’t got it yet.”
“Good, good. And now, pray tell, what is it that you’ve done that I’m not supposed to know about?”
Mother Julian replied to that with the kind of eyebrow-raise that was worth ten of her father’s rantings and ravings.
“… I hadn’t done it yet.” And Angelique nudged the red thread away, to make it that much less likely that she would do it in the future.
Mother Julian watched the thread, glanced at the diaper, and — grinned? “I see. If what you’re doing isn’t too pressing, Sister, Sister Margery and I would like to have a chat with you in her office.”
Angelique took one look at the diaper and decided, “I’m free!”
Mother Julian smiled, nodded, and ushered Angelique out of the sewing room and into the door to Sister Margery’s office, which was about half-a-dozen steps away.
Sister Margery shot Angelique a nervous, trembling smile that lasted only about half a second before she had to scramble for a handkerchief. Angelique winced as the nose’s trumpet blared through the small space. Mother Julian nodded her toward the bench, and Angelique sat.
Then Mother Julian sat by her side.
Sister Margery took the handkerchief from her nose with a sigh. “Will I ever be over this blasted cold?”
“Have you been drinking the ginger tea, like I said?”
“To the point where I feel the steam coming out my ears, Mother.” There was a strange dryness to that last word — at least until Angelique remembered, again, that Mother Julian was not just Sister Margery’s spiritual mother but her bodily mother as well.
“That just means it’s working,” Mother Julian replied. “Well! Now that we’re all here, Sister Margery, why don’t you start?”
Start? Angelique thought, while Sister Margery looked at Mother Julian with an expression that asked, Me?
Not for the first time, Angelique cursed the wimples that the full nuns wore. She could peek sidelong at Mother Julian all she wanted, but the damn cloth folds made it impossible to read the other woman’s expression from this angle.
“Er … well then!” Sister Margery gave the cheerful smile she used when telling the toddlers it was bedtime, or bathtime, or time for whatever revolting concoction was passing for medicine this week. “We got the results from your test for Camford entrance exam back, Sister Angelique! Congratulations! You passed!”
I didn’t think failure was an option? And the test hadn’t been all that hard — true, it had been a pain to study for it in between diaper changes and bottle feedings, but the actual test itself hadn’t been that bad. “So … I’m heading to Camford in a few weeks, then?”
“If you desire,” Mother Julian replied.
Are you kidding? No diapers, no bottles, no kids puking on me for FOUR YEARS? Where do I sign up? “Of course I want to go. When do I leave?”
“Not so fast,” Mother Julian answered. “In order for the Sisters of St. Coral to pay your tuition, you must, of course, be a full member of our order.”
“Oh. Right. So when do I take the vows?” Angelique asked.
“It will be the end of your novitiate,” Mother Julian continued as if Angelique hadn’t spoken at all. “As a full member of our order, you will be expected to deliver unto your Mother Superior unquestioning obedience …” She sighed. “Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. There is also the vow of poverty to consider, and that of chastity. The purpose of the novitiate is, of course, to accustom yourself to these restrictions and decide whether the rewards of life in the service of Our Lord Wright is worth the price you will pay.”
Angelique thought back over the past few years. She thought she had managed a reasonable facsimile of obedience, and as for poverty and chastity … they were a bother, to be sure. But they could be gotten around. Besides, she had been chaste — technically — and as for poverty, well, for all those times she’d kissed or touch (or been kissed or touched by) boys in exchange for this or that, no money had changed hands, so she was still in poverty … technically.
“Sister Angelique,” Mother Julian asked, boring into Angelique with those freakish golden eyes of hers, “have you given this question the thought it needs?”
“I … guess?”
Mother Julian sighed. “You haven’t thought about it at all, have you?”
“Well … maybe not so much, but …”
“But I haven’t had time!” Angelique snapped. “Between school, my music lessons and running after the six hooligans upstairs, I barely have five minutes together to use the privy! When was I supposed to be thinking about this?”
“We are awfully busy here, Mother,” Sister Margery interjected.
“And yet, Sister Angelique so often refers to her service to these young children as ‘mindless’ — one would think that she might have been able to use her mind for a constructive purpose even while her body was otherwise occupied.”
“Oh, Mother, please!” Sister Margery sighed. “You actually had a little one, once upon a time! You know that you can’t exactly be contemplating the secrets of the universe when you’re too busy trying to keep up and keep your sanity! Truly, I might have expected a speech like that out of Mother Hildegard, not out of you.”
Angelique couldn’t see Mother Julian’s expression, but all the same she couldn’t help but wince on her behalf. She remembered Mother Hildegard. The woman put the “battle” in “old battle-axe.”
Mother Julian sighed. “You’re right, Sister Margery — that was unfair of me to say that. Sister Angelique, I apologize.”
“The fact remains, however, that you still need to think about your future. Do you want to become a full member of the Sisters of St. Coral — or do you not? You need not answer now, of course — indeed, I would prefer you did not, and instead gave this matter the thought and consideration it needs.”
Angelique blinked. “But …”
“But if — if you don’t want me to be a nun — where else can I go? What else am I supposed to do?”
“Oh, Sister!” Sister Margery gasped. “Oh, don’t think it’s that we want to drive you away! Oh, goodness, no!”
“If nothing else, we need all the warm bodies we can get in this order,” Mother Julian muttered. When Angelique turned to her with her mouth agape, Mother Julian … winked.
All right, I get it now. I’m sick, aren’t I? I have what the kids have! Only in my case it comes with a high fever, and I must be delirious!
… Either that, or the kids really have driven me completely around the bend. That’s always a possibility.
“The Lord Wright will provide,” Sister Margery replied staunchly, even as her lip quivered. “Somehow or other. But — but you see, Sister, the last thing we want is for you to feel obligated or pressured into this decision, or as if you have … no other choice …”
Why did Sister Margery’s hand fall to the desk as she said that? Why did her face fall? Why did she sigh?
“Sister,” Mother Julian said in a tone that would have fit “Daughter” or even just “Margery” so much better, “why don’t you check up on those little ones and leave me to explain this to her?”
Sister Margery stared unblinking at her mother, then without a word rose and left the room. As a rule, she never slammed doors when she left a room — but somehow, the thud when the door shut was louder that it had to be.
Maybe it was just the silence that blanketed the room in the wake of Sister Margery’s passing that made it so loud.
Mother Julian sighed. “Well,” she murmured. And with a swish of skirts she rose and scrutinized Sister Angelique. “You really do feel as if you have no other choice, don’t you?”
How exactly was she supposed to reply to that? “No, I don’t”? Angelique might have been bad at the whole “obedience” part of being a nun, but she was fairly certain that pointing out that her Mother Superior must have taken leave of her senses to be even asking this question fell rather firmly under the “disobedience” category.
So Angelique said nothing.
“You do have them, you know. I’ve already acquainted your parents with the fact that your … acceptance into the Order of St. Coral wasn’t guaranteed.”
“What?” Angelique gasped.
“Sister, Sister — please, be calm. I don’t mean to throw you out of here on your ear. But … I think we can both admit, between ourselves, that the life of a nun isn’t your first choice, is it?”
Angelique felt herself gulp. “I … I don’t know.”
“Come now. You’ve certainly given some thought to what you wanted to do with your life?”
“Mother Julian … I’ve known since before I could walk that I was supposed to become a nun. There’s — there’s a story — something my grandmother let slip before she died …”
“My father tried to gift me to you when I was three days old.” Angelique made sure her voice was flat and expressionless. If that story had ever had power to hurt her, it had lost it years ago. It had lost it when she had heard it first, and run back to her room to cry, and her grandmother had went after her and held her on her lap and told Angelique that it didn’t matter, that her father was just trying to take care of her in a very silly way, and even though it didn’t sound good, it really wasn’t that much different from the betrothals he was trying (and failing) to set up for her sisters.
The thing Angelique remembered best about that time, though, was the smell of her grandmother’s perfume — honeysuckle and jasmine. Even now, when her father did something stupid and hurtful, she tried to bring that smell back to her. It also helped to imagine her grandmother spitting and railing at him from her cloud.
“Yes, your father,” Mother Julian sighed, driving that comforting smell — and grin-worthy sight — away. “That’s the trouble, isn’t it?”
Angelique said nothing.
“Look, Sister — I’m going to be very, very honest with you. If your father was … something approximating a reasonable man, I would have sent you back home months ago.”
“What?” Angelique gasped.
“It’s not because you haven’t tried, or because you’re not good enough, or anything like that — believe me! It’s because … well, you can try all you want, Sister, but I don’t think you’ll ever be a model Sister of St. Coral the way Sister Margery is.”
Before Angelique could protest, Mother Julian held up one finger and said, “The beauty of it is, though, that you don’t have to be.”
“… What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you’re a remarkable girl, Sister Angelique. I didn’t realize how remarkable until I had the … pleasure of having to deal extensively with your father. That man …” She frowned. “Do you mind if I’m blunt?”
Oh, now you ask? But Angelique shook her head without a word.
“Your father sucks the spirit from the women who are forced to deal with him like a whirlpool sucks ships to the bottom of the ocean. But not you.”
“Sister Angelique, I’ve tried to turn you into a nun of Sister Margery’s mold. I’ve been strict, and harsh, and you’re probably convinced that I’m a bitch of the first water.” Angelique thought she could never be more shocked in her life after hearing that, but scarcely had time to get the thought across her mind before another, greater shock followed on the first’s heels. “And you’d probably be right about that.”
“I … would?”
“Probably. I thought I was doing well by you, Sister Angelique — or if not well by you, then well by everyone else in the situation. I won’t go so far as to say I was wrong — you’ll see why in a minute — but that clearly was not the proper way to handle you. But I’m glad I did, because you … you fought me every step of the way. At first I wanted to pull my hair out, but now I realize why the Lord Wright sent you to the Sisters of St. Coral. It’s because you’re exactly what we need.”
“I’m … exactly what you need?” Angelique perked up.
“We need someone with spunk,” Mother Julian continued. “Spirit. Fight. Because a fight’s coming.”
“With the monks.”
Angelique blinked. “With the monks?” she squealed. “With — with Father Hugh? And Galahad?”
“Oh, goodness no, not those two! Poor dears wouldn’t know a fight if it came up and hit them in the head with a two-by-four.” Clearly, the good Mother Superior has never met Leona. “I mean with Brother Tuck.”
Brother Tuck was a different story.
“That boy,” Mother Julian snarled, “has ambition. Far too much ambition. The minute — and may it be long in the future! — that dear Father Hugh goes to his reward, may it be great, etc., that boy is going to take over the monastery and go on a power trip the likes that this land has never seen before.”
“It’s only about twenty years old, Mother Julian.”
She glared. “That’s longer than you’ve been alive, young lady. Anyway. When that boy gets shot down — which he will — the whole Church in Albion is going to be damaged. And what’s worse, we might come to the attention of the larger Church — the Church in Glasonland or Reme — that will, of course, swoop in and try to use both the Sisters of St. Coral and the Brothers of St. Pascal to their own ends. We can’t have that.”
“I suppose not,” Angelique murmured.
“And you could stop it! Imagine! By keeping Brother Tuck too busy with in-Church infighting, you can keep him from ever trying to go on a power trip outside — and keep the whole Church safe!”
“I suppose …”
“And in the process, might I mention, by neatly countering Brother Tuck at every turn, you can prove that everything your father ever said about women is dead wrong.”
Angelique sat up straighter.
Mother Julian saw, and grinned. “However,” the grin dropped away, “you’re going to need to behave yourself in order to do this. I mean it. I know you’ll never be a model Sister of St. Coral the way Margery is — but I will insist on the three mainstays of our order. Poverty, chastity and obedience.”
“Or a reasonable facsimile thereof?”
“Or a reasonable facsimile thereof,” Mother Julian sighed.
“I do have one question, though,” Angelique mused.
“If Sister Margery is supposed to be Abbess when you’re gone,” Angelique asked, “then how I am supposed to be the one who counters Brother Tuck at every turn?”
Mother Julian only smiled.
Sister Angelique grinned in reply. She stood. “Then, Mother Julian, I must ask again …” She stuck her hand out to shake, “When do I take these vows?”