Juliette woke from her shallow sleep with the racing dreams of her repose fast slipping from her thoughts. She had slept fitfully, the snoring of her friend mixed up with her own irregular thoughts, and leaving her mind now confused and jumbled. The two women had talked until the fire had died to embers, and they could hardly see each other’s faces across the arm’s span distance between them.
A small candle had led them to Feliciente’s bed, just behind the screen they had sat beside. A Prior’s private quarters were humble, as it should be, though many of the newer, larger priories had started to be built with much larger suites for their Priors. Feliciente had offered Juliette the share of her own bed, rather than bunking in the common dormitories downstairs. Many times the two friends had whispered together as young novices, late into the night, giggling and excited at the lives of duty and responsibility before them. Yet now, older and more sober, they were silent as they lay down, and only a murmured good-night was shared.
They had talked long before the fire, but their conversation was heavy with the sense that the Abbey, the great institution that they served, and to which they wholeheartedly dedicated their lives, was in peril. And not from an outside force but, more insidious and frightening, from a malaise, a great sickness that everyone felt, yet no one could combat, except with angered words, and stubborn reaction. Juliette could not shake the feelings of despair that had clouded her heart as she had remembered the calamities of Grana.
Feliciente had not been there, but even she had felt the growing sense of unvoiced fear that had begun to hide behind the words of cleric and lay faithful alike. But for Feliciente, she was more concerned with her own station, her growing dissociation from the body of her Abbey, from the trusted confidence of her Abbot. She had lost his ear, and lost his trust, and how she could not say. It may be because of her friendships with Juliette and others. Or it could be for another reason, or none. Either way, her enemies would be smelling opportunity.
Soon, quite soon perhaps, Feliciente would no longer be Prior here. The position was supposed to be for life. But in reality, if your Abbot wished it, there were always ways to remove an unwanted face. Feliciente could see the writing on the wall. And she had no longer the influential friends she once had to fight it. Her friends were in the wrong places, and the people who now crowded round the Abbot’s door had no love for her, and their own people they wished favour to be found for.
But there was nothing Juliette could do for her friend. She had spoken what words of comfort she could, and now she had to fly south, to Grae itself. And then, when she had delivered her message and gathered what information she could, she would return north, to her own town of Fierre and to her Abbot Eleanor, whose ear was eager for her to speak. She had been fortunate, taken under Eleanor’s wing. Such a position was dangerous, she knew.
She did not feel she had ever earned her position in such a prominent Priory. She had been plucked from a minor Priory, and a somewhat minor position within it, and as such, she was vulnerable to the whisperings of enemies. But while Eleanor favoured her so obviously they knew to keep silent. And Juliette knew that everything she had, her position, her influence, her power, came from her Abbot. And if she failed to live up to the expectations Eleanor had placed in her? Well, Feliciente gave a good lesson as to what may happen.
Juliette rose, her mind disturbed and disoriented from her unremembered dreams, and from the scraps of last night’s conversation still flapping in her head. She washed herself in the washbasin. She was desperate for a proper bath, she had not had one for more than a week now, and her own smell made her nose twitch in disgust. One good thing about staying here a few more days was that she could reacquaint herself with clean water.
But first, the hour of Vows was on them. Feliciente was rising behind her, and as Juliette dressed, her friend washed and pulled her robes over her linen shift. The two women went sleepily from Feliciente’s private room, down the half-dark hallway, and through the Sub-Prior’s office. Across the landing was the door to the Novice’s Atrium, and then onto the Novice’s landing. They were already there, young girls and boys, some only five or six years old. Juliette remembered her own childhood in the Priory, with Feliciente beside her, the older girl taking the child under her wing, and waking her for Vows. Juliette had struggled to wake on time, those first years.
Now she fell awake a few minutes before dawn without fail, however exhausted she was. The novices stood on their landing, looking down at the stage below , permitted to watch, though not participate in the hallowed actions the monks demonstrated. Feliciente drew herself, up, walking among them with her usual dignity, not a trace of the confused hurt she had shown to Juliette last night showing to her novices. And as she made her way, followed by Juliette, down the staircase to the stage below, Juliette wondered whether this mask of dignity and confidence fooled the elder monks, or any of them.
Juliette scanned their faces, the lined faces of the Ostensor, and the Sanctor, radiating the dignity according their hallowed office. They both could be whispering behind Feliciente’s back, either would be the obvious choice to replace her if the Abbot wished, and either could be eager to push for such an opportunity. Juliette saw the faces of the monks in a different light this morning. Last night as they sang Allowance, they had seemed to radiate a hallowed aura, yet today they seemed shrouded in the darkness. Juliette cast such ignoble thoughts form her mind, telling herself she was being stupid, a product of too little sleep.
And indeed, as the monks began to lift their voices in the familiar notes of Vows, Juliette felt her heart lift again. And perhaps, as Feliciente joined in, the calm smile upon her own face reflected a similar lightness. What seemed so inevitably evil when feared in the dark could so easily be seen as the fancies of a fearful mind when held up against the light. Was that not what the Abbey was all about after all? Juliette joined in the song, and her high, harmonious voice was sincere as she praised God for his grace. She was safe, and happy among her brothers and sisters. And the fears of a violent world seemed so far away, beyond these solid walls.
*** *** ***
It was before dawn in the tavern common room. The detritus from the previous night had been swept up and fresh rushes had been laid on the dirt floor. The smell of fresh-baked bread and frying fish oozed from the host’s kitchens. But the handful of guests staying in the upper rooms of the tavern were not up yet. The Red Ship was an inn of middling sort, hardly the most well-appointed berth on the Scindian islands, but it was comfortable, and well-tended.
The host was a congenial man, and Michel had met him before, having stayed at the inn the first time almost fifteen years back now, and now whenever he passed through Scindia he made it a point to visit. He stretched his aching back as he descended from the parlour he and Tabitha’s other manservant shared with two other guests. He and Will had shared the first bed, while the two Swartian sailors had shared the other. They had stank of fish and rum, and spoke in a guttural dialect of their own that Michel couldn’t penetrate. He spoke Swartian a little, strange and ill-used outside the land it was. But it had never helped him speak with anyone who called themselves Swartian, since they all seemed to speak their own village dialect as distinct from each other as a different language.
Will was still abed, sleeping off the quantities of wine he’d downed last night. Michel’s head hurt only slightly. Mostly he felt the self-reproach of falling for the two Acadan’s card-tricks. He had seen what they were up to, but couldn’t catch them in a cheat, no matter how hard he studied their hands. The fair-haired one kept laughing too much, and the quiet, swarthy one just sat and drank, and eyed Henriette with an eye that made Michel’s hackles rise. But neither of them had done anything. Just played cards, and drank wine, and won all of Michel’s money.
As Michel stepped down into the common room, he stopped, and his eyes met the Acadan’s as he looked up from his breakfast. The fair man grinned, though his swarthy friend kept eating steadily.
“Michel. Come and join us. Unless you’re still sore from last night of course.” Michel grimaced and continued down towards their bench.
“My purse is sore, but it’ll heal.”
“Aye, course it will friend. Bridgett, more wine, and some food for our friend.” The one named Aquila called out.
“I can still pay my way lads. And I won’t have the wine,” he cried to the young maid coming out of the buttery room, “just some small beer I think. And a little of whatever pottage you’ve got on the fire.” Michel settled himself on the bench opposite the two young lads.
“And how did you boys sleep. Well I trust.”
“Well enough. Not so used to feather beds though. Give me a blanket and some good soft grass and I’m content.”
“Really, a man of the road I take it?”
“You could say that.”
“We’re soldiers,” the swarthy boy added, not looking up from his breakfast.
“Veterans I assume.” Michel replied with a raised eyebrow.
“We’ve seen action.” Aquilla grinned.
“Have you now.” Michel replied.
Michel sighed. He saw too many such lads these days, desperate to throw their lives away on some battlefield in the hope of adventure, or glory, or just a handful of coins in their pocket.
“And there’s not enough war in Acada for you lads? Michel asked.
“Bits and pieces. Nothing a man can get his teeth into though.” Aquilla laughed, and relaxed, leaning back against the wall. “Time you’ve signed up and marched halfway across a province to get where some petty lord wants you, war’s over. Then everyone has to make their own way home with whatever you can force out of the paymaster, if you can find him.”
“Ah the age old problem. Too much war and not enough coin to pay for it.”
“Except I hear they’ve got a different problem up in the Empire. They’ve got too much coin and not enough soldiers to spend it on.”
“Emperor’s raising troops.” The dark-haired youth looked up at Michel, still chewing. “When an Emperor goes to war he empties his treasury, coin enough for everyone.”
“And whatever they’re fighting about, if it’s serious enough for an Emperor to put his name to, it’s not going to blow away overnight.” Aquilla added.
“He’s fighting a Palatine Duke.” Michel said. “That’s what I heard. “No Duke can last for long against the Emperor.”
“Well, as long as his purse holds out for a couple of years, that’s all that matters.”
“You’re signing up for the Emperor’s regiments then?”
“Maybe, or the other guy. Whoever’s offering more coin.”
“You can’t be serious. The Duke will lose.”
“We’ve lost battles before. It’s not so bad.”
“Just gotta know when to run.” Seville added.
Michel stared at the two boys as Bridgett brought up his bowl of pottage and cup of beer, and fresh jug of wine to the others.
“Lads, listen to me.” Michel implored, unable to help himself, “I’ve fought, aye, I’ve fought in many armies, in many lands. I don’t know what kind of fighting you’ve seen, but I don’t see the eyes of a soldier when I look at yours, aye, even yours lad,” Michel nodded at the dour Seville. “So I doubt you’ve seen proper war yet. It aint all cheering, and marching and playing dice in the lines with your mates.”
“We’ve seen killing.” Aquilla interrupted.”
“Aye, seeing is seeing. And doing is something else. You aint stared into a man’s eyes as you’ve felt his blood spill out over your hands. You haven’t looked into a man’s eyes when he’s trying to stick you with his spear.”
“Give it a rest, we know what war is. We aren’t scared of dying.”
“Everyone’s scared of dying. And if you haven’t felt it yet you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Michel replied more savagely than he intended. The boys glared back at him, angry now. He’d lost their attention, if he’d ever had it. “There’s war, and then there’s war.” Michel tried, but their eyes were rolling. “And when a war goes bad, when you’re in the middle of the push, and you don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t know where the enemy is, among all the bodies and blades crushed together, being raked back and forward…and everyone’s yelling, and you can’t move, or see, and you imagine you feel the pike sliding into your stomach every second…”
“Yeah, well, fuck that.” Aquilla snapped. “We’ve heard all that before, from better men than you.” There was nothing left for Michel to say. He couldn’t describe what it felt, not even to himself, not at the time, not twelve years later. He rose from the table, unable to think of any more to say. He was filled with some undefinable emotion that made him want to grab these two lads and shake them and shake them until they understood what they were about to do to themselves. But he said nothing, and turned and went back upstairs with his bowl and beer.
Aquilla shook his head, and made himself grin, as though the old man’s word’s had slipped off him like water. “You know,” he said to Seville. “If I ever start talking like that when I get old, just shoot me.” Seville smiled, and finished his breakfast as the sun rose.