Jaban 8, 1014
What a long day! Margery stretched and strained, trying to push the pain out of her back. St. Coral’s Day was always a special one in the school, but special, Margery had realized soon after she grew up, usually meant “more work” for the adults in charge. The littler children loved the special service in the cathedral, led by Mother Julian; the older ones appreciated the fact that they weren’t doing any work. Then there was the school feast, after which the children were dismissed early, and then …
Well, then there was the cleanup. That explained why Margery was coming in so much later than she should have, given the children’s early release.
But all that was over now! There would be another, quieter dinner at the nunnery, that would require none of the special preparation and clean-up that this feast had. At least Margery — and perhaps Sister Angelique as well — had convinced Mother Julian to hire someone else to do the cooking for the school feast, otherwise they never would have had time to do anything.
Margery calculated she had three hours or so until she and Sister Vyn were expected to go over to the abbey for dinner. That would be plenty of time to —
“There you are,” said Sister Vyn as she descended. “Didn’t you let the children out hours ago?”
Damn and blast, thought Margery, and winced. That wasn’t fair. Maybe Sister Vyn was just checking after her welfare. The cathedral school wasn’t far from the orphanage, and Margery’s black habit and wimple were in some ways at least as good at protection as a knight’s chain maille and steel, but … well, you never knew.
“We had to clean up after the feast,” Margery replied. “You can’t expect a room full of children to eat neatly, after all!”
“I thought that the people Mother Julian hired were supposed to take care of that?” asked Sister Vyn.
Margery shook her head. “Just the things they used to cook. Everything else — the serving plates, the utensils, the tables and floor …”
“She should have paid the extra coppers and hired them for the cleaning as well,” Sister Vyn sniffed. “For heaven’s sake, it’s not like we get days off left and right. We might as well get to enjoy our own holy day.”
“Well …” Margery began, trying to think of something to say that could both be truthful and not be complete agreement with Sister Vyn. “You know that the Coralites always try to be as self-sufficient as possible …”
“That’s because the Coralites are usually one order of about a dozen in large cities, getting no tithes because they don’t run parishes, and feeding off the scraps all the other orders leave behind,” Sister Vyn shook her head. “Whereas we’re getting half the tithes, more or less, of the whole kingdom. We can afford to splurge every now and then!”
“It’s hardly keeping with our vow of poverty to be hiring people left and right to do things for us,” Margery hedged.
“Sure it is! As long as we spend the money quickly, nobody can call us rich!”
Margery rubbed her temple. St. Coral’s Day was the last day she wanted to spend nursing a headache … and surely it was the last day she ought to be angry with Sister Vyn for bringing one on … but if that woman wasn’t a sore trial at times … “We have to pay our share of the poor dole, too. And somehow — somehow we’ve never as much as the monks. I’m still not sure how that works,” Margery mumbled.
“I can probably tell you how,” Sister Vyn answered. “You mark my words, that Brother Tuck might still be muzzled — or at least Father Hugh hasn’t let him have services back yet, for all that he’s talking again — but as long as he’s doing the accounts for the monks –“
“Oh, Sister, please don’t –“
“Don’t what? Don’t start?” Sister Vyn’s nostrils flared. “And why not? Why should we be slaving day in and day out, working our fingers to the bone, while they live high on the hog?”
“I’m sure they’re not living high on the hog. It’s just that — well –“
Margery was saved from having to defend conduct of others that she could neither control nor influence by a knock on the door. “Goodness! I wonder who that could be?”
Sister Vyn shrugged, which Margery supposed was lucky, since she had been known to snap, Well, why don’t you open it and see? while in a rotten mood. Still, Margery took the unsaid advice and threw the door open.
“Oh!” she gasped. “Gawaine! Nimue! D–Lady Dindrane! What a pleasant surprise!”
“Hi, Sister!” That was Gawaine, bounding forward to hug her around the middle. He was such an affectionate child, especially for a little boy. Part of Margery hoped that would never change, though she knew he would have to harden into a man someday … and probably someday soon, too. “We brought toys with us!”
“For the little orphans,” filled in Nimue, sailing in with the smug superiority of an older sibling. Still, even if she wouldn’t besmirch her dignity with an impulsive hug — if only because Gawaine had just done so — Nimue would favor Margery with a wide grin that made her look much like her mother caught off-guard and happy. “Because it’s St. Coral’s Day!”
Margery gasped and looked to Dindrane, ready to stammer that such generosity wasn’t necessary, especially since the royal family had been so very generous so very recently, but she was greeted by Dindrane’s quirked eyebrow. “May we come in?” she asked ironically.
“Oh — oh yes, of course!” Margery answered, drawing back. Gawaine and Nimue gravitated toward Sister Vyn, if only because, Margery thought, she was unfamiliar and therefore interesting, and Dindrane — well, any hope of formality Margery had was dashed by her embrace.
She found it rather difficult to be sorry.
“Can we go bring the toys up?” asked Gawaine, turning his flame-blue eyes in all of their puppy-dog intensity on Sister Vyn. Margery glanced sidelong at her companion, wondering if she might unbend in their light.
Sister Vyn seemed unimpressed — but there was something … was that a smile fighting to break loose? It’s a St. Coral’s miracle! Margery thought in a voice that sounded rather too like Sister Angelique.
“Please?” Gawaine asked.
“Well …” Sister Vyn looked at Margery, who spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness, then at Dindrane, who nodded. “Aye. Aye, certainly. Shall I show them up, my lady?”
“Please,” replied Dindrane. “Nimue, you remember which is which, don’t you?”
And with no more ado, the two of them were being shepherded up the stairs and into the nursery.
“Dindrane,” Margery murmured as soon as Nimue had Sister Vyn distracted with her questions, “You really didn’t have to — thanks to the royal family, we’re — we’re actually in good shape for toys –“
“Oh, I know,” Dindrane replied. “You forget both of my sisters-in-law were part of that committee.” She winked. “I just brought the two toys because — well. It seemed unfair to give gifts to an orphanage without giving at least something for the orphans to enjoy.”
“I–what do you mean?”
Dindrane smiled. “There’s more in the carriage. Cloth, mostly, already made into swaddling bands and nappies. Some blankets, and a few loose smocks.”
“Nappies!” Margery gasped. Never in her life had she imagined how happy nappies might make her — but given how many she had to deal with on a daily basis. “Oh, you have no idea how we’re always needing more nappies!”
Dindrane’s rich chuckle burst out, floated and filled the room with its music, then softly died away. “I know what my own children went through. I can only imagine what you must have to deal with on a daily basis.”
“You have no idea!” Margery laughed. It was true that there were only two little boys in the orphanage at the moment, and Harry was potty-trained. But it was always good to have extras on hand for emergencies, and there was no telling when the population of the orphanage might start to swell again.
“So shall I ask Jucentius to bring everything in?”
“Certainly — certainly!” Margery replied. “Although — I hope you know everything you brought? Because … well … I need to make a record …”
For some reason that only made Dindrane smile slyly. “Oh yes. Perhaps we can go to your office and get that out of the way?”
“Certainly!” Margery replied. So while Dindrane went to Jucentius and directed his unloading, Margery dashed upstairs to grab Sister Vyn and explain what else was coming. Then, leaving Jucentius in Sister Vyn’s capable hands, Margery and Dindrane decamped to Margery’s office.
It did not take long for Margery to make her notes about what Dindrane had brought. Dindrane had her usual precise memory for this sort of thing, and while Margery knew that, technically, she ought to have looked over the donated items herself and made her record from firsthand knowledge … well, if she didn’t trust Dindrane, who did she trust? So after she made her notes, she looked over the list and sighed. “How can we ever thank you, Dindrane? These were all things we needed … or that we’re always needing …”
“I listen,” replied Dindrane. “But, if you want to thank me …”
Margery blinked. Then she asked what seemed to her to be the obvious question. “Would you like me to take the value of this off your tithes? It’d be no trouble. Especially since giving in kind is so popular –“
Dindrane shook her head. Her smile flickered like a hummingbird flapping its wings, so fast the eye could barely register the motion. But the sense was not of sorrow hidden, but of a joy so large it was might get loose and run about the room. “No, no — but … I’d like to give you something else … and I’d like to keep this off the record, if possible.”
“Off the record?” Margery asked.
“Because this isn’t for the orphanage.” Dindrane grinned and seemed almost — giddy! What on earth could be the cause of this? “It’s just for you.”
“For me? What on earth could you have gotten for me?”
Dindrane only smiled. “Turn around and I’ll show you.”
Margery could have protested. She perhaps ought to have asked for an explanation. But days and months and even years into the future, she could never manage to be sorry that she hadn’t. She turned around.
The first thing she felt were Dindrane’s deft fingers feeling under her veil, near the base of her wimple. “Oh! Dindrane, what are you doing?”
“I’ll –” She felt a sudden weight slide off her shoulders, a small one, but one so familiar it was practically part of her very being. “My cross!”
“Relax.” The cross floated up before her before her before being whisked over her head. “I won’t do anything to it. I just want …”
More fumbling — another weight settling around her neck and shoulders — the slight click of a clasp closing. “There!” Margery heard Dindrane step back. “Tell me what you think!”
“What I …” Margery’s mouth started to say, but her hand was wiser. It reached up to cup the new pendant. She brought it up and gasped. “Oh — oh, Dindrane!”
“You like it?” Dindrane asked.
Margery stared in wonder at the cross: an elaborate model of gold filigree, nothing like the simple copper cross the Coralites wore normally. Even Mother Julian only wore a silver cross to mark her as abbess. “Dindrane — it’s lovely — but it’s too much!”
“It is not. Sister Angelique has one very like it.”
“But …” But Margery knew why Sister Angelique wore that cross, and the reasoning was simple: it was a family heirloom left to her by her grandmother, and Mother Julian wasn’t foolish enough to possibly annoy the de Ganises by forbidding Sister Angelique to wear it. This, however … “I can’t get away with the sorts of things Sister Angelique can!”
“Have you ever tried?” Dindrane asked, smiling impishly.
“No, but — but I can’t accept this.” Margery felt for the clasp. “Dindrane, this — this was incredibly thoughtful, but –“
“No.” Dindrane’s hand closed over Margery’s. “No, don’t — Margery, you do so much for so many people — why shouldn’t you have something nice?”
“I swore a vow of poverty.”
“That hasn’t stopped any other order of nuns. Some of them adorn themselves like brides, you know.”
Margery tried not to wince. “Yes, but … but I can’t …”
“You don’t like it?” Dindrane asked, and there was something — a ghost of a quaver, a hint of an inflection, something that usually only came out when Dindrane was discussion Mordred and something he had done to or around the children.
“No, no, no!” Margery gasped. “Of course I like it! Dindrane, it’s just …” Margery absently — she knew not what demon put the idea into her head — and brushed Dindrane’s cheek.
Or was it an angel whispering advice into her ear that made her do that?
Dindrane blinked. Margery felt her swift intake of breath. And then — before Margery could realize what she was doing and, presumably, stop doing it, Dindrane’s hand came to rest on Margery’s wrist.
She was so pale. Mostly Margery did not notice that, but Margery’s own sun-darkened and work-roughed hand made it impossible not to notice. And Dindrane’s cheek was so smooth, so polished … it was like stroking a doll of porcelain, or perhaps alabaster.
Yes. Definitely alabaster. Porcelain was so often cold and lifeless — only alabaster seemed to have a fire within, just like Dindrane …
Dindrane’s hand slowly edged along Margery’s sleeve, down her arm to the elbow and then up it to the shoulder. Finally her thumb came to stroke Margery’s lip. It seemed almost a silent benediction. “Dindrane –“
“Sh,” Dindrane replied. “Just …”
Margery shushed. She waited.
And then — when Dindrane closed her eyes and leaned closer, some level of Margery too deep for mere thought knew what was coming next. She closed her eyes —
She’d never kissed a man in her life. She’d entered the nunnery too young for that. But she had imagined what it would be like. His beard or stubble scratching her face. Rough hands pawing all over her, tugging at clothes and hair, trying to cop a feel on the breast or anywhere else that presented itself. For her own hands, there was nothing to rest on but muscle, hard as rock and twice as uncomfortable.
Somehow, those thoughts had never managed to appeal.
The last time Margery had kissed someone … that someone had been Dindrane. And back then, Dindrane had been just a slip of a girl. Her body bony and boyish, her lips pillow-soft but innocent, unformed. Now Margery held a woman in her arms. A woman with all a woman’s softness, curves, places to touch and be touched. A woman who had kissed and been kissed before, who knew just where to nibble at Margery’s lips, just how far to press, just how to turn her head for maximum exposure. Their dresses rustled and crinkled against each other.
This, came the thought in the very small part of Margery’s mind that was capable of thinking. This is what’s been missing.
Then the kiss ended, as all kisses had to end — and Margery stumbled back with a gasp. “Oh Lord!”
For that split second before Margery spoke, Dindrane had been smiling. She wasn’t now. “M-Margery?”
“Oh — oh, Lord! We — we can’t do that, Dindrane! It isn’t right!”
What Margery was thinking was, It can’t be right, nothing so true and so beautiful and so — so wonderful could possibly be right, we are not put on this earth for our happiness …
Dindrane’s lips went white. So did the rest of her face. There was no glow of alabaster now, only the rough bluntness of chalk. “No.”
“We can’t! We can’t, we can’t, we can’t –“
“No!” Dindrane somehow managed not to yell above a whisper — but it was a yell all the same. A yell from the soul. “No, don’t you tell me that! We can! We did!”
“Who says? And who cares?” Dindrane challenged.
“Who — who cares? The Lord cares!” Margery gasped.
“I don’t believe it.” Dindrane was shaking her head so firmly, so quickly, her headdress would come lose and fly through the room. Already strands were beginning to break free. “And — and even if He does care — I don’t!”
“Why shouldn’t He let us be happy?” Dindrane went on. “After — after everything! Everything I’ve suffered, everything you’ve suffered! Why would He give us something so beautiful inside only to demand we stifle and kill it? What could we have possibly done to deserve that?”
“I don’t know … it must be a test …”
“A test? Margery, you’re a teacher! Would you ever give your students a test like this? One that pitted their heart against their soul? And damn it, Margery, if this is a test — I choose my heart!”
“No! Don’t say that, Dindrane, don’t say that!” Margery put her hand over her friend, her dearest friend, her only friend, her so much more than friend’s mouth. “He’ll hear you! He’ll damn you!”
Dindrane pulled away. “Then let me be damned! I’d rather risk it for eternity than live it here and now!”
“What? How can you say such things?”
“Because I know what Hell is, I’ve lived it — and loving you, being near you, but never getting close enough, always having that distance — that’s Hell! What could the Lord possibly do to me that’s worse than that?”
“Don’t say that, Dindrane, don’t say it!”
“I will say it! I will! And I’ll keep saying it, until the Lord either strikes me where I stand, or you tell me that this is all in my head and that you don’t feel for me as I feel for you!” Dindrane’s blue eyes practically burned before her. “That’s the only way I’ll stop saying it, I swear it, Margery!”
But Dindrane was wrong. There was something else that would quiet her. That something was Margery bursting into tears.
She didn’t know where the tears came from, or what they were hoping to accomplish. All she knew was that one moment her eyes were dry — and the next they were wet. It was as if the Lord decided not to strike Dindrane down with lightning, but rather send her a warning with a rainstorm.
“Margery?” Dindrane gasped.
“Don’t s-s-say such things!” she sobbed. “Dindrane! I can’t s-s-s-stand to think of you — in Hell — and all because of m-m-me!”
“Margery …” Dindrane edged closer and put her arm around Margery’s shoulder. Margery practically fell against it. “If Hell is where I’m going, it won’t be because of you.”
“How could it n-n-not be?”
Dindrane didn’t answer that. She dried Margery’s tears one by one with the tips of her fingers. “But I can’t live my life fearing it, Margery. If I spend my days in fear, I won’t be living at all.”
“It’s only r-r-rational to be afraid!”
“No. It is not. It can’t be. If we spend all our time fearing the dark, how will we ever gain the courage to step out into the light?”
“And … I want to live, Margery. What happens after … whatever happens after … if I can tell myself, if I can tell the Lord, ‘At least I lived‘ — it will all be bearable.”
At least she lived. Margery shivered. Could she say that of herself? She was doing good works — she was helping so many other people — she was praying as hard as she could for as much as she could — but at the end of the day, was she living?
“That’s all I want, Margery,” Dindrane whispered. “To get to the end of my days, and say I lived.”
That’s not so much, Lord, Margery asked, is it?
Margery swallowed. And then she whispered, “I — I want to live too.”
“Then let’s live, Margery. Together, you and I. And hang everyone else.”
Margery didn’t answer. At least … she didn’t answer in words.
And somehow that said all that needed to be said.