After Vows were sung, the monks filed together in silence up the stairs and across the landing to the Refectory, where breakfast was served, bread, some small fish, fruits, and small beer brewed by the monks themselves. The meal was served and eaten in silence while the Lector arose from their seat, and stood at the lectern at the head of the tables, and read from the rule.
Juliette had been Lector, in her younger days as a common monk, and still she remembered those years with great fondness. It was a position that was not fought over, as though it was a role of dignity and responsibility it did not naturally lead one towards the higher offices. And so the role was untainted by the petty jealousies and ambitions that could so easily sour other positions. Juliette had enjoyed the calm dignity of standing at the head of her brothers and sisters and reading from the hallowed Rule, or the Book of Sephira, or even the Book of Anaeus if she felt it was appropriate.
This Lector was old though, and her voice not as clear and confident as Juliette’s had been. Feliciente should have words with her. If she could not perform the office well, then she should step down and allow another to do so. It was poor form to hang onto one’s position after one’s ability to fill it had passed. Though of course it was not uncommon for the elderly to continue in their roles, despite the dwindling of their bodies and minds. Juliette had served as sub-Prior for the esteemed Prior Hubert after all, a man of little means by the end. But no one had dared to suggest that he give up his position. Eleanor had instead brought Juliette, young and energetic, in to assist him, practically, at the last, to be Prior in his stead, while he dozed and sat in the sun remembering his younger days.
When the meal was cleared, and the Lector finished, the monks filed out, still in silence as was custom, heading to the dormitories to wash and clean themselves ready for the morning’s activities. Feliciente had slipped out early to head back to her rooms, and Juliette headed towards the dormitories alongside the monks. She found a senior-looking monk and greeted him.
“Brother, good morning to you.”
“And to you sister. Was the repast to your satisfaction?”
“It was. The beer was especially good. You brew it yourselves I assume?”
“We do. And that we don’t drink the merchants give us a god price for. It is well known in the city.”
“I am not surprised. Brother, I wished to ask a favour. Your good Prior has invited me to stay a few days more, but I have no duties to busy myself with here. Can you point me to the Deacon, and I can speak to them about whether there is any way I can be useful here while I stay.”
“I am the Deacon sister. Brother Martellus.”
“An honour to meet you. I am Prior Juliette, from the Priory of Fierre in Alduin.”
“I have heard. I am surprised to hear you are staying though, the Prior said you were only expected for a single night.”
“It has been some long years since I saw your Prior last, and we have much to catch up on. Another day or two will not delay me too greatly.”
“Well, you are welcome, I am sure. But I am afraid we do not have any tasks fit for a Prior to stoop to.”
“Nonsense, brother, I am not infirm. I have two hands and two feet. I can turn my hand to anything the Priory finds useful.”
“Well…if you’re sure. I know the allotments always need more hands. But you do not have to…I hear you have travelled many leagues already, surely you wish to rest first?”
“I am not used to idleness. Show me a vegetable patch, and I will show you a Prior can work as hard as any labourer.” Juliette’s eagerness to help finally made the Deacon’s face warm. He showed her through to the gardens, and soon she had engaged him in animated conversation about the plants and the weather. He obviously had a love of growing things, and as he spoke about them his initial surliness melted from him. Juliette was surprised at the feeling of this Priory, the tension under the surface, the closed-off faces, the silence among the monks as they worked. Too much conversation was distracting of course, but a healthy Priory was filed with good humour, and the cries and calls of friends.
Here, her friend appeared to be presiding over a community of hard faces and stiff necks. At least on the surface. Juliette was sure that underneath their sullenness they were good people, and could well be loyal friends. She picked up the spade that Martellus gave her, and began to work the earth. A bath would be very pleasant later, but for now, she luxuriated in the feel of the earth under her feet, and the sweat on her brow. Good hard honest work in the morning sun felt like a cool rain on her mind after the weeks of hard words in close rooms.
It was about an hour later when the porter arrived with the letter. Another man was with him. She looked up to see them hurrying towards her, the porter endeavouring to be first.
“Jacques,” she cried out. “What is it?”
“A message for you my lady.” Jacques replied. The other man stepped forward and Juliette, recognised him with surprise. He was an agent of Eleanor, one of the Abbey’s messengers. He handed her the paper. It was sealed firmly with Eleanor’s wax seal, and the sight of it, and the face of the exhausted road-weary messenger made the tension of last night flow back again. “Thank you Martin,” she said, and gave the messenger a coin. As she took the message he gave a brief bow to her and headed quickly back to the building. He would be under orders to return as soon as possible to tell Eleanor of his success.
Jacques looked astonished that Juliette had known the messenger. She nodded to him, “thank you Jacques.” She paused, and as he turned to follow Martin, she called to him again. “Ready my bags please Jacques. And call a ferry to take me to where I can get fast passage upriver. I’ll be leaving within five minutes.” Jacques paused, eyebrow raised, but when Juliette was not more forthcoming, he nodded, “yes, my lady”, turned and hurried to the building.
Juliette broke the seal and read the message quickly. The messenger had ridden for weeks from Eleanor’s Abbey, as fast as it was possible to go, changing horses every ten miles or so. This was unprecedented. Any instruction from Eleanor or her Provost was always sent by pigeon to Priories on Juliette’s route, to be kept for her to pick up. But this way was more secure, placing the message in the hands of one trusted agent, to give the message to no one but Juliette. Far more secure than pigeon which could be intercepted by anyone. All this rushed through her mind and her hand shook slightly as she broke the seal. She read the message within. It was short, but it changed everything.
“J. Change of plan. Travel to our friend’s guardian’s house on the River. I have received word that grey birds fly swiftly to meet with him. I do not know why, but this will have great consequence. I must have you there; ensure that you arrive before them as witness to whatever is said. Fly safe, my falcon. E.”
Juliette shivered, suddenly feeling cold in the weak morning sun. “Our friends” were the independent faction within the Abbey, not reformers themselves, but unwilling to take sides against them. It was the faction Eleanor herself supported. The “guardian” of the Independents could only be Abbot Henri himself, the one man who had the reputation and influence to act as bulwark against the Braemorians. And Eleanor was telling her to go straight to his Abbey on the Lorelei River.
The “grey birds” must refer to agents of the Abbey Superior of Grae, prelates most likely. She had noticed them leave the conclave of Grana before she did. Their leader was the Abbot Superior’s Provost, Urion, a lean, hard-faced man who had stayed silent throughout the conclave, while his functionaries whispered behind closed doors. He had observed everything though. And he had left with his men on a private boat a few days before Juliette. He was ahead of her then. And she had to catch him up if she was to get to Justin before they did. She did not know why there was such urgency, but Eleanor did not send such orders, at such expense and risk, without a good reason.
Juliette was already hurrying to the Priory building as her thoughts raced. Henri’s Abbey was in Amolea, and the best way to Amolea was upriver along the Vasser River. A long way crawling against the current, but there was nothing faster except the post itself, and she could not use it and keep her mission a secret. Eleanor would not want everyone to know she had sent her closest Prior to rush to Henri’s Abbey to spy on the Provost of Grae. When she arrived it must be thought it was because she just happened to be in the area, and was stopping in as a friend. Would the river get her to Henri ahead of the Provost though? That would rely on the barque she could get passage on.
She was already composing her apologies to Feliciente in her mind, and counting in her mind the coin she still had on her, pricing the cost of fast passage as she took the stairs up to the Prior’s office two at a time. A twinge of sadness touched her thoughts as she realised she was leaving her friend, and letting her down when she obviously needed Juliette so much. But she pushed the feeling to the back of her mind, and hurried on. Regret had no place next to duty.