Sandra had no idea what she had been hoping for as she hurried through the heavy wooden doors of the abbey, but whatever it was, she must not have found it, for her shoulders slumped and the breath left her in a soft sigh.
“Mama?” asked Coralie, as she did twenty times an hour ever since she had mastered the word.
Sandra stroked the little one’s silky black hair. “Well! Here we are, Coralie!” she answered in that merry tone that it was so necessary to use with little ones. Why this was, no one had ever told her, but the understanding was instinctual. She was grateful for that, as she had been grateful for so many other instincts that helped her cope through these first two years with Coralie. “Let’s have a look around, shall we?”
Coralie obediently looked around, her big blue eyes — Sandra’s own — drinking in the abbey and all its sights.
Sandra stepped forward, though she did not really know where she wanted to go. Then she stopped. Something — something was wrong.
“Mama?” Coralie asked again, her voice pitching just right for the stones to call as well, “Mama? Mama? Mama?” And Sandra realized what it was that had startled her so.
The echoes. There shouldn’t have been echoes. Even if the stones were naturally inclined to play that children’s game of copying everything one said, their voices should have been too soft and muted to be heard, lost in the din.
“Let’s go look around,” Sandra continued, forcing herself forward.
But where to go? Perhaps the abbey chapel? Surely the good monks and nuns wouldn’t begrudge her appearance there, nor Coralie’s. But who could begrudge Coralie? Such a good little girl, the first few times she and Chris had brought her to their chapel back home, when she was truly was too little to behave herself, she’d been quiet as a little mouse and every bit as good as gold.
Even as Sandra made her way to the chapel, something else caught her eye. She veered to the right.
Her shoulders slumped again, but this time it was in relief, not disappointment.
“You see, Coralie?” she asked, as if her daughter was the one who had needed reassurance. “This is an abbey of St. Coral’s. You see the playground and the slide?” Sandra gestured, Coralie’s gaze following her hand. “That means there are children here!”
Coralie gasped and looked around.
“Er … somewhere,” Sandra added. The silence certainly seemed indicate that if children there were, they were nowhere nearby. “Maybe we’ll see them later,” she continued before Coralie could look too crestfallen.
“Big ones, Mama? Little ones?”
How was she supposed to answer that? First there was the ever-shifting status of Coralie herself — big girl or little girl? And how could she reply when she herself had no idea of the answer?
“I don’t know, baby,” she decided to answer, shifting Coralie on her hip and looking around. “Maybe we’ll find somebody, and ask.”
Coralie looked again at the playground. “Mama, slide?”
“Oh, no, baby. That slide’s too big for you.”
“Maybe Mama come down, too?”
“No, no, baby. Mama has to be very careful now, remember?”
“Baby Pork Chop!”
“Yes, yes, because of Baby –”
“Can I help you?”
Sandra gasped, clutching her older baby to her breast, while the littler one jumped inside her. She spun around, the hand on Coralie’s head crushing the little one to her —
And breathed out a sigh of relief. It was only a Sister! No — Sandra saw the white sash — the Mother Superior. She relaxed her grip on Coralie, and Coralie gave her not even a moment before squirming in her arms to see. “Hi!” she called out.
“Well, hello to you too,” the Mother said, smiling. Not that Sandra would expect anything less out of a Sister of St. Coral. Even the ones who were strict loved children, and who wouldn’t love as sweet a baby as her Coralie?
“Mother Superior,” Sandra said, nodding her head. “For-forgive me for intruding, but I …”
“Mama! Mama, down,” Coralie bounced.
A quick, stricken glance at the Mother Superior, who nodded. Sandra set Coralie down. “But you be careful about those flowers!” she added as Coralie toddled off — right toward the flowers, but she did nothing more damaging than bend her heavy head down to inhale their sweet scent.
“I still have no idea what Father Hugh was thinking,” the Mother Superior sighed. “All these flowers around an orphanage! Not that orphans don’t deserve to see flowers as much as the next children, of course, but no matter who their parents are, children aren’t often very considerate of the local flora.”
Sandra only smiled, and did her best, as she always did, to look unmoved whenever somebody disparaged orphans, or remarked how natural it would for someone else disparaged them.
All these years, though, and she still wasn’t much good at it. “Is something wrong, daughter?” the Mother Superior asked.
“I …” Sandra twisted her hands together. “I don’t know where to start.”
“Begin at the beginning, as I always tell my girls.”
Sandra could only smile in reply.
The Mother Superior’s brows knit. “Are you in need of counsel?” She gestured to the chapel. “Or confession?”
“I …” To buy herself time, Sandra glanced around for Coralie. She was still smelling the flowers, one by one. “I suppose I probably should have confession,” she admitted with a sigh.
“How long has it been since your last?”
She’d last had confession right before they had left Glasonland. “About six weeks ago.”
“Two months? That’s not so long.”
“Perhaps, but …” She caught her lip between her teeth. “Isn’t ingratitude a sin?”
The Mother Superior shrugged. “It depends. We should all be grateful to the Lord Wright for the blessings He bestows on us. And we should be grateful to others for the good they do us, and show it to them. However, I don’t think despising the ugly wall hanging your mother-in-law bought and insisted you hang in the front room is particularly sinful.”
Sandra blinked, not sure what was more surprising — this strange gradation of sin, or the fact that a Mother Superior was making a mother-in-law joke.
Then the Mother Superior tilted her head a little to one side. “Daughter, you do seem very troubled. Why don’t we go into the chapel and talk about whatever is disturbing the quiet of your mind?”
“Oh, thank you, Mother!” Sandra gasped. “I — I would like to talk, I mean,” she murmured. Then she looked around. “Coralie! Coralie, come to Mama. We’re going into the chapel.”
She would not have been a Sim, and certainly not a woman, Sandra thought, if she hadn’t glanced up through her lashes to see how the good Mother took to hearing that name. Sandra was rewarded by seeing the good Mother blink.
And when Coralie ran on her chubby little legs to collapse against Sandra’s skirts and be picked up, Sandra was further rewarded when the Mother remarked, “A pretty name for a pretty little girl.”
“Big girl!” Coralie replied.
“Oh, I’m sorry! How silly of me,” the Mother laughed. She stroked Coralie’s cheek. “A big girl. How did I not see?” The Mother glanced at Sandra. “Shall we?” she gestured to the chapel.
The Mother led the way, short as it was. “You can put her down and let her run, if you like,” the Mother remarked as they stepped inside. “If the chapel isn’t pretty well childproofed by now, I doubt if it ever will be.”
“Oh, no, Mother, Coralie is always very good in church.” Sandra kissed Coralie’s forehead. “Besides … wouldn’t that be disrespectful?”
“For you or I to run about? Aye. For children a bit older than Miss Coralie? Aye. For Coralie to run around during services? Aye. But to let the little one explore while her mother has a quiet conversation? I don’t think that’s disrespectful.” The Mother sat herself on one of the nearest pews, patting the seat beside her to invite Sandra to join her. “I can’t imagine that the Lord Wright wouldn’t like to see little ones being themselves in His own House.”
She had never thought about it like that. Back where she had grown up, little ones were not allowed in the chapel — except for their own baptism, of course — until they could be relied upon to sit still and be quiet. Then, the bigger ones were not allowed into the chapel, either, unless for services or their religious instruction.
Sandra sat herself down and tried to get comfortable, if not physically — for pews were never made for comfort — then mentally. Coralie’s familiar weight on her lap helped that. But beyond that …
The sights were familiar — wood, stone, cut glass in a thousand colors painting both in an ever-changing mosaic. So, too, was the sound, or lack thereof. There was no quiet quite like a chapel’s quiet. Only in a chapel did one get the impression that angels had been whispering just before one walked inside. The coolness, too, welcomed her like an old friend. But something still was off.
Sandra took a deep breath — and then she had it. Beneath the customary smells of incense and perfumes there was the faintest hint of new-hewn lumber. It was the same smell that chased her from room to room in her new home. It was the smell that never seemed to fade. Thus, this chapel, unlike the ones back home — which all seemed so ancient, they must have been grandsires when St. Robert himself first came to Glasonland — was new, like so many other things in this strange land.
“And where are my manners?” the Mother added, jolting Sandra back to the presence. “Goodness. You seem to recognize who I am — my station, at any rate, my name is Mother Julian — but I don’t know your name. Have we met?”
“No, no, Mother. I’m Sandra — Alexandra — Alexandra Tower. And this is Coralie.”
“Hmm,” Mother Julian murmured, and Sandra’s mouth opened, as it often did, to apologize for her name and mention that the nun whose turn it had been to name the newest baby left on the doorstep was rather fanciful.
An inquiry about “Alexandra,” however, was not forthcoming. “Tower,” Mother Julian murmured. “Would you be Master Tower’s wife, then? The prison’s new governor?”
“Yes, yes, ma’am.”
“Ah. Your husband has said so much about you,” she nodded.
Sandra gasped, unable to quite comprehend the relief that flooded through her at this, at any hint of familiarity. “You know my husband?”
“Aye. Father Hugh and I flipped for it, and I’ve had the prison ministries added to my docket,” Mother Julian chuckled. “I apologize for not having sought you out sooner, my dear. Your husband did ask me to speak with you, but generally, by the time I’m done with the prisoners, I need to get back here.” Probably observing Sandra’s crestfallen face, she added, “Oh, I am sorry, though. Was there something you really needed to talk about? Master Tower should have said so; I’d have made time for you when I was there, instead of making you come all the way here with a little one.”
“No, no! That is …” She bit her lip. “I didn’t ask Christopher to speak with you, or anything like that.”
Mother Julian said nothing; she only raised her eyebrows.
“I … I didn’t think he knew I was unhappy,” she whispered.
“Now, why would you think your husband wouldn’t know that? He seems very fond of you, and rather worried about you. He would notice if you were sad.”
Sandra gasped — no scolding, no demands as to why she was unhappy! She pinched the skin on the inside of her arm, to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Mother Mary-Sue, back home, would have surely scolded her. She had no right to be unhappy when she was so blessed.
She swallowed. “I didn’t want him to know. I was trying to hide it.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful …”
Mother Julian only raised her eyebrows, inviting Sandra to continue.
“He — he didn’t have to marry me, you know,” she said. “When — when he first met me. When he began courting me. I was only an orphan girl hired out to him as a maid in the daytimes. If he’d wanted me, he could have had me, willing or unwilling, and nobody would have thought the worse of him for it.”
“Other than the Lord Wright,” Mother Julian remarked in a tone that, had she not been a nun, Sandra would have called sarcastic.
“Well, of course …” Sandra made the sign of the plumbbob over herself out of habit. “But — but socially, I mean. He didn’t have to do that. He was the Warden of Tower Prison! That’s — that’s practically nobility! Me, I’m a nobody.”
“I should hardly say that you are nobody — or even were nobody, before your marriage. You are a Sim, with thoughts and feelings and what is most important, an immortal soul. If he got to know you and wanted to marry you, what wrong is there in that? And why should you be unduly grateful? You’ve certainly done your duty by him,” she nodded to Coralie, “and from everything I’ve heard about you from him, you make him very happy.”
“I — I hope I do,” Sandra murmured, staring at Coralie’s head.
“And you clearly care enough about him not to want to trouble him overmuch with your burdens.”
“Oh, I don’t, Mother Julian! I truly don’t! He has enough to worry about. And it’s not as if this is his — his fault.”
Sandra winced. “It isn’t.”
“Yet, by your tone, you seem to put some blame on him all the same.”
“I don’t mean to! I truly don’t!”
“Hush, hush, child,” Mother Julian patted her shoulder, “it’s all right. We must give ourselves leave to feel what we feel. Trust me, the more we admit to ourselves the thoughts we feel are unworthy, or ungrateful, or wrong, the more we bring them into the light of day, the easier it will be for us to conquer them and move on.”
Sandra had never thought of it that way before. She took a deep breath. “Well … perhaps.”
“So what is it that is making you unhappy?”
Sandra bent her head. “Did — did Christopher tell you why we had to leave Glasonland?”
“I didn’t ask. Our conversation did not tend along those lines.”
“Oh.” Sandra swallowed. “Has he — has he told you who he is?”
Mother Julian’s face was a bit blank. “I’m afraid I don’t follow?”
Sandra flushed. “You — you won’t tell anyone?”
“Chris … Christopher is King Vortigern’s son. One — one of many,” Sandra flushed.
“Ah,” Mother Julian replied, then, “Oh! Oh, dear. I’ve heard rumors …”
“He was so afraid, after what happened to Brother James of the Order of St. Robert — and this after the mission Sir Dustin of Pleasant led to help free Simspain … they said that Sir Dustin was one of King Vortigern’s by-blows, you know, and …”
“And?” Mother Julian prodded.
“They all died,” Coralie murmured. “At least, all the officers and men of rank. Earl Constantine of Caernavon led a rescue mission, and he was able to save some of the common troops, but the noblemen were all dead. And now some people are saying that it was a setup — that Sir Dustin was meant to die — and Chris, he wasn’t sure, but he said he wasn’t taking any chances. Especially not with Coralie …” Sandra rubbed her baby’s shoulder, doing her best to soothe away the fear that had leapt into her throat when Chris told of her this, and then his eyes had gone to Coralie’s crib …
“And so you came here.”
“And you’re not happy?”
Sandra flushed and looked away. “I know why we had to …”
“But that does not mean you are happy about the necessity.”
“I see,” Mother Julian murmured. “How long have you been here?”
“Almost a month.”
“A month! Well, that’s hardly enough of a trial period for Albion, don’t you think?” Mother Julian asked. She pursed her lips together. “Mistress Tower … have you met any other young women near your age and station?”
Sandra shook her head. “I’ve been so busy since coming here …”
“I understand. Well, on Sunday, when you come to services — will you be coming to the cathedral for services?”
“I … Chris and I usually go to the prison chapel, but perhaps I can ask him to take me to the cathedral.”
“Ask him, then. And afterward, come find me. I can introduce you to some young women near your age. Mistress Danielle Wesleyan, for one. She was just married a few weeks ago, and is … well, she always likes newcomers.”
“Oh! Oh, that would be wonderful, Mother Julian!”
“Good. Does that make you feel any better?”
“Yes, it does. It would make feel so much less … homesick …”
Mother Julian’s eyebrow rose. “Is there something else?”
Sandra bit her lip. “Mother Julian … I was raised at an orphanage of St. Coral.”
“Ah!” Mother Julian murmured, casting a quick glance at Coralie.
“Yes, and — and, well, for all the girls who got married, the sisters used to — when we were expecting, they’d do a special blessing … and when I was expecting Coralie, it made me feel so special, and loved, and — safe.”
Mother Julian smiled and patted her hand. “Well, if you should find yourself expecting a baby –”
“Baby Pork Chop!” Coralie giggled.
Mother Julian glanced at Coralie, then at Sandra’s flush. “Ah. I take it you have a …” She glanced sidelong at Coralie. “Pork chop in the oven already?”
She was still blushing, but she managed to nod.
“Well then! I suppose there’s no time like the present for a blessing!” Mother Julian remarked. “If you wouldn’t mind …” She shooed Sandra out of the way so she could scoot along the bench. Sandra scrambled to her feet and rested Coralie on her hip.
“Oh, Mother, you don’t have to do this now! I just — I would come back when you have more time –”
“Nonsense, this is my calling. Why not do it now?” She beckoned Sandra forward. “You stand there, and I’ll do the prayer.”
Mother Julian knelt before the image of St. Robert crucified, and Sandra bowed her head. Coralie did too — she was only two years old, but she already had learned this much about her faith.
“Holy St. Robert, Blessed St. Brandi, and our own Good St. Coral,” Mother Julian began. “We humbly beseech you to look on this daughter of all of ours, Alexandra Tower, and the new life she has growing within her. We ask you to guide and help them both through the trials and travails of the next few months. And when this new life comes safe into the world, and its mother is strong and healthy again — and we pray that both will occur — we pray that you guide and strengthen both parents, the better to raise this child.” Mother Julian glanced up sidelong past her wimple. “We pray, too, that you give young Coralie the patience to be a good big sister, and the understanding, once her new little brother or sister is born, to not call the child ‘Pork Chop,’ unless it is so named by its parents.”
Sandra giggled, and Coralie called out, “Pork Chop!”
“Pork Chop,” Mother Julian agreed, “and amen.”
“Amen,” Sandra murmured belatedly, while Coralie echoed, “Amen!”
Mother Julian got slowly to her feet. “Oof,” she murmured. “One of these days, I need to remember to swipe the pillow off the prie-dieu before I do this.”
“Mother, are you –”
“I’m fine, I’m fine — just getting old, alas!” Mother Julian rubbed her back and managed a rueful smile. Then the smile dropped away, her face becoming solemn.
“In the name of our Lord Wright,” Mother Julian touched Sandra’s forehead, “all of his angels,” she touched Sandra’s right shoulder, “our holy St. Robert,” she touched Sandra’s chest, “and all the other saints,” Sandra’s right shoulders, “but always our Lord Wright,” her forehead again, the sign of the plumbbob, “we bless you, and pray for your happiness and health — both of your happiness and health.” Mother Julian made another sign of the plumbbob in the air over Sandra’s womb.
Mother Julian glanced at Coralie, smiled, and made another sign of the plumbbob. “All three of your happiness and health.”
“Thank you — thank you, Mother Julian.”
“No trouble at all, Mistress Tower. Now — do you feel any better?”
Sandra brought her daughter up for a hug, and smiled, a real smile. “Yes. Yes, Mother, I do.”