Author’s Note: Possibly disturbing images at the end. Read at your own risk.
Mother Julian dipped her hand into the water and made the sign of the plumbbob over herself as she stepped into the cold prison chapel. Her movements were absent, her thoughts far away — and at the same time, very near. She was reviewing the facts of the case.
First was time. The execution was at noon. She had approximately an hour with the prisoner. This was the first time they would meet. It should not have been like that; in fact, it was almost enough to make Mother Julian wonder if the Lord Wright was actively seeking to damn this man.
Then again, He probably didn’t have to. From everything Mother Julian had heard, Clarence of Philippine was more than capable of damning himself.
She stopped just behind the guard rail that protected the unwary from falling headlong into the crypt. Even though time was short, she needed to assess, take stock, think. The machinery of the law insisted on grinding and moving on no matter what the circumstances, but even the law realized that here something more important than a man’s life was at stake. This was a man’s soul.
Clarence of Philippine sat slumped over, head in his hands — at least until he glanced up at her. Then he snorted and looked away again, not even bothering to greet her. Well, considering the horror stories she had heard, that was probably a good thing.
Master Tower hadn’t even wanted her to come for this — he’d wanted Father Hugh, or, since Father Hugh was on his pilgrimage, Brother Tuck. “It’s nothing against you, personally, Mother Julian,” he’d told her when the fire leapt into her eyes and she placed balled hands on her hips, “but I don’t trust him alone with a woman — any woman. Even a nun.” That was why they were meeting in the chapel, and not Clarence’s cell. Master Tower didn’t seem to think that the sanctity of the space would keep Clarence in line if it came to that, but it was a big space — there were places for Mother Julian to run if Clarence turned on her, things to duck behind until help came. The small, cramped cell had none of that.
It was this fear on the part of Master Tower that had kept her from meeting with Clarence before. She had intended to speak to him three times before this. Each time, he had been belligerent, swearing, fighting the guards who tried to take him to the chapel. And each time, Master Tower had watched the fighting and refused to allow Clarence to be dragged to the chapel. There might have been a soul at stake, but it was Master Tower who was responsible for the welfare and safety of both prisoners and visitors. He would not take the risk of leaving Mother Julian alone in a room, any room, with Clarence of Philippine.
As she crossed the echoing tile floor, Mother Julian wondered — once again — whether it might have been the better part of valor to force Brother Tuck to take this one on. Once again, she rejected it. First of all, Brother Tuck would have interpreted it as something that put her into his debt — not what she wanted. Secondly, after the debacle with Lord Lot’s funeral … well, the long and the short of it was that she didn’t trust him. He was not above twisting the most solemn events to suit his own political agenda. And there was a soul at stake.
Mother Julian took a seat on Clarence’s pew — though not right next to him — and let the silence stretch for a little while before she spoke. But not too long. They hadn’t much time.
When she did speak, she decided to keep it simple. “Clarence of Philippine, do you know who I am?”
He blinked twice, then turned his scarred face to hers. “Some nun,” he grunted.
“Aye, I am a nun. Do you know why I’m here?”
“I’m guessin’ it ain’t ter deliver a reprieve.”
“No. I’m here to take your last confession.”
He snorted. “Ain’t interested.”
“Not interested? Sir, within an hour, you will be delivered up to the judgement of Our Lord Wright. Your soul is at stake! How are you not interested in doing all that you can to gain your own salvation?”
“There’s a lot of stuff they’ll say about me after I’m dead, but one thing they won’t say is that Clarence of Philippine peached on his friends ter save his own neck. So, I ain’t interested.”
Mother Julian narrowed her eyes. “I’m … not sure I follow.” That was a lie — she had a very good idea what he meant — but she needed to hear him say it.
He sighed explosively and looked up. “I ‘confess’ ter ye, then the lawmen arrest all me mates, an’ it’s their turn ter go to the block. No, thanks. Ain’t doin’ it!”
Mother Julian bit her lip. She glanced toward both doors. There was a guard in sight — and Master Tower — Master Tower would permit nothing else. They were certainly within shouting distance. But could they hear?
She would have to assume they could not — and she would have to talk to them all after this was over, and make it very clear that anything they heard or thought they heard was not to be used in any kinds of investigation. There was no physical confessional here, for reasons that Master Tower called obvious, but the seal of the confessional hung over their conversation all the same.
“Sir,” Mother Julian replied, “you do know that I cannot repeat anything you tell me to the authorities, do you not?”
“Aye, sure ye can’t.”
“It’s true. If I were to tell someone, it would be a mortal sin.”
“Mortal like my sins are mortal, apparently?” he snorted.
“I very much doubt that you would be sentenced to death for committing a series of venial sins,” Mother Julian sniffed. “However, that is not precisely what I mean. A mortal sin, if someone were to die with one on their soul, would result in that Sim being sent to Hell. I assure you, I have no such desire to take such a risk with my own soul. Nothing you say to me will be repeated. To anyone, for any reason.”
Clarence watched her as she spoke, lip curled slightly. When she finished, he snorted and looked away.
“Sir,” Mother Julian continued, “there is nothing you can do to save your life. There is, at this point, very little you can do to either damage or improve the reputation you will leave behind on this earth. But the fate of your soul? That, my son, is still in your hands. Confess now, make your peace with Our Lord, and you can still be saved!”
“Saved from what? The axe?”
“From Hell, then.”
“Yes, if you make a good confession and take your sentence with good grace.”
“I see,” Clarence snorted. “I see. So ye jest don’t want ter drag me kickin’ an’ screamin’ to the block. I ain’t fallin’ fer it.”
“Sir! There is nothing to fall for! This is your fate, your eternity that is at stake! Do you want to spend it roasting in a lake of fire with the cow demons, the Grim Reaper and his hula zombies?”
“If it’s ‘my eternity,'” Clarence mused, “then why is it that ye’re so concerned about it — eh?”
“Because it is the solemn duty of the Church to try to shepherd as many lost souls as it can to the path to salvation — not the path to perdition.”
“Right. Ain’t fallin’ fer it.”
“I bet they told ye all about me, didn’t they?” Clarence interrupted. “Branded as a thief at twelve? Robber, murderer — an’ they says I’m a rapist, but they’re lyin’. I bet they told ye all about that.”
She watched him out of the corner of her eye but said nothing.
“Aye, they did — I can see it in yer eye. Ye know what I’ve never done, though? Peached on me friends. Nope. Never that.” He leaned back, hands behind his head, seeming almost — proud?
“I was told,” Mother Julian murmured, “that you were placed into the keeping and care of a monk at a very young age — twelve, I believe? After you were branded?”
“Aye. Ran off the first chance I had.”
“Because he weren’t ter be trusted, that’s why! Heard him talkin’ ter the guards, I did. When they came ter check up on me. He told ’em that when they caught me old man, he’d get me ter — ter tell the court-folks everything what we done together. An’ I weren’t gonna do that.”
Her fingers tapped on the side of the pew. “Your old man? Your father?”
“Naw, he weren’t me pa — me pa was long dead. Me old man. Ran away from home, I did, when ma took the belt ter me one too many times. Fell in with him. He showed me the business, all the tricks of the trade.”
“How — how old were you then?”
“Ten, I guess.”
Oh, Wright. “And — and this old man — he was a thief? And he took you on as a sort of … apprentice?”
“Aye. Till I got caught. But ye ain’t gettin’ his name from me!”
“I don’t care about his name.” It had been twenty years or so since that time — what were the odds that this “old man” would still be alive? Thieves did not have that long of a life span, when you came right down to it. “I take it he told you never to tell on him, or any of your other … confederates?”
“Aye. ‘Cause know what they do ter squealers?” Clarence grinned. Mother Julian didn’t bother to nod or shake her head — it wouldn’t matter. And it did not matter. Clarence drew his finger along his neck and made a hissing sound. “That!” He leaned back again. “Ain’t openin’ meself up ter that.”
“And do you know why ‘that’ is considered to be such a horrible fate in comparison to execution for keeping your mouth shut?” she asked.
He started and stared at her.
“Because murderers do not give you a chance to confess and receive forgiveness! But the King and his lawmen do!”
She let the sound of her warning echo off the stone walls and tiled floors. Then she deliberately wiped her palms off on her skirt and scooted back into her position — but a little, just a little, closer to Clarence. “Now. Are you willing to try to save your own soul — to take advantage of your reward, as you seem to see it, for not betraying your friends?”
“If it makes any differences, I don’t care to hear any names or places or dates. Make them all up if it suits you. The Lord Wright knows all the details already, and I don’t need to hear them. What is important is that you tell me what it is you’ve done, and that you repent of it.”
“Is there nothing that you’ve done for which you wish to repent?” Mother Julian whispered.
“It’s a hard world. Ye do what ye have ter.”
“You had to kill John Grimble?” Clarence’s eyebrows knit. “The merchant you murdered about five years ago — the one for which you were condemned.”
He shrugged. “He didn’t have ter die. If he’d jest sat still an’ cooperated …”
“While you robbed him? Sir, would you have sat still and let another man rob you?”
“If I were fat an’ slow an’ unarmed like he was — an’ the man robbin’ me had a long knife, an’ were lean an’ quick an’ strong — aye. I would’ve.”
“What about Catherine Vance?”
“A young woman — she was traveling with her family, merchants with their goods. Your gang robbed them. You — according to her brother — raped her. Six weeks later, she drowned herself. So, a young, innocent woman died — condemned herself to Hell — ultimately because of your actions. How can you not repent of that?”
Clarence sat up. “She went ter Hell?”
“She killed herself.”
“So ye jest think she went ter Hell.”
“To murder is a mortal sin. That includes self-murder. So, unfortunately …” She sighed. “Yes.”
Clarence said nothing. To fill in the silence, Mother Julian added, “She was sixteen.”
She heard the tap of hobnailed boots against tile.
Her wimple whipped around as she spun to face him. “Does that mean nothing to you? A sixteen-year-old girl! Dead and damned! Because of you!”
“She were a slut — she were goin’ that way anyway.”
“What? By what — according to what — good Lord, what made you think that?”
“Virtuous women don’t get raped.”
Mother Julian stared at him. “You think that?”
“Virtuous women don’t go around makin’ men want ’em. They knows better. If she weren’t headin’ that way already –”
“You judge whether a woman is virtuous or not by how much you desire her?”
“How — that is one of the least logical things I have ever heard!”
“Works fer me.” He shrugged. “After all, I ain’t feelin’ nothin’ fer ye right now.”
If she were not a nun — if she were not trying to save a soul — she would have slapped him.
But there was a soul at sake, and for the sake of that soul — little as he might deserve it — she took a deep breath. “Sir, judgment is reserved to the Lord Wright –”
“If that were true, we wouldn’t be sittin’ here right now, would we?”
“It is true, and the Lord Wright understands that order must be kept. The people must be protected from those who would do them harm. There is a need for laws, and punishments, and judgments. But the worst the courts here on earth can do is sentence a Sim to death — they cannot touch a Sim’s soul. And by that same token, the death penalty is meant for serious crimes. Not for young women who may — or are probably not — a bit free with their favors. But if even the courts are not free to judge in such cases, and they generally are not, then still less so are ordinary Sims, like you and me, equipped to judge! We cannot hold others accountable for what they may or may not have done. We can only examine our own consciences and do our best to make up for the wrongs we have committed in this life.” She took a deep breath. “Now, sir, is there anything which you have to repent — before you are called to answer to the Lord Wright for all your deeds and misdeeds?”
“Repent,” he snorted. His nose wrinkled. “Aye. I repent I didn’t strangle that bitch Joyce Pelles when I had the chance!”
“Dead women don’t tell no tales — an’ dead women don’t scream no screams!”
“Is this the attitude you wish to go to judgment with? You’re not sorry for doing wrong — only for getting caught?”
Clarence only grinned — the way a weasel might grin before laying hold of a mouse. “Me ma always told me it were a sin ter lie ter monks an’ nuns.”
And with that — as if he had passed judgment upon himself with his own words — the bells began to ring.
With the bells came the sound of more boots tapping against the tile. “Clarence of Philippine, it’s time. Mother Julian, are you quite finished?”
Mother Julian looked only at Clarence. “Clarence, you have one last chance. Is anything you wish to repent? To confess? To beg for mercy for?”
“Already tried beggin’ mercy. King wouldn’t hear it.”
“There is another King and Lord who would, though.”
Clarence of Philippine only snorted. “There’s a reason, I think, why they call ‘im the Lord Wright. ‘Cause he’s a Lord. He don’t care about the poor man, Mother–”
“All right, that’s enough from you — no insultin’ the good Mother,” the guard snapped, grabbing Clarence’s arm and hauling him to his feet. “No blasphemin’, either!”
It was all Mother Julian could do to not close her eyes as the condemned man was bound.
“Is there anything else you would like to say, Clarence of Philippine, to the good Mother?” Master Tower asked, arms crossed before him. He had done this, handled this all before. She spent far too much time fighting for her independence and that of her nunnery to expect anything other than that first leap of suspicion as Master Tower, a man, took charge — but perhaps she was enough of a woman, for once, to lean on his strength and experience, at least in this.
Clarence did not answer.
Master Tower sighed. “I suppose I must take that as a no. Take him away, Hood. Mother Julian?”
She looked up to see Master Tower offering her his hand.
“Are you coming?”
For once, Mother Julian took the proffered help of masculinity. “He cannot die without what spiritual comfort I have to give him.”
“You’re a brave woman, Mother.”
She did not answer. She waved Master Tower forward, letting him lead the way, Clarence next, the guard Hood behind Clarence, and she herself bringing up the rear.
But before she left, she cast a glance at the image of the crucified St. Robert at the front of the chapel.
Dear St. Robert — help him now. Help him see the light. There’s a soul at stake.