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When Stars Die - Book 1 of The Stars Trilogy

 

[* *]

WHEN STARS DIE

Book 1 of The Stars Trilogy

by

AMBER SKYE FORBES

 

Gnome On Pig Productions

Written by:  Amber Skye Forbes

Edited by:  Mike Allinson

Cover Art by:  Viola Estrella

Copyright© 2015

The story within is purely fictional in nature.  Any resemblance to any persons, places or events is entirely coincidental.

Amber Skye Forbes has given permission via contract to Gnome On Pig Productions to reproduce, sell, distribute and market her novel When Stars Die in their approved formats.  Any other reproduction of this novel, in whole or part, without the expressed written permission of the author or publication house is punishable by law.

The Gnome On Pig Productions logo was created and designed by artist Elizabeth Eichelberger.  

Second Edition Print (November 21st, 2015)

ISBN 978-1-329-69662-4

Copyright© of When Stars Die belongs to Amber Skye Forbes

www.gnomeonpigproductions.com

Chapter One

The sound is a dagger scraping crosshatches on a frosted windowpane, its echoes loud in this insensible room I’ve been locked in for the past few days. I want to remedy my fears over the sound, but I’m more terrified of the impending trials that will determine my readiness to be professed in the Order of Cathedral Reims. The trials are the reason I have been locked in here.

Colette sits beside me, lost in knitting a scarf she has been working on for a week—the amount of time we’ve been trapped in here with minimal food, water, and sanity. Her ability to shut out the world with a click of the needles is something I have always envied. For her, the world is nonexistent.

But not for me.

The sound strips my nerves raw, so I tighten my shawl and rise from the creaking mattress. My boot-clad feet meet the floor, and in spite of my stockings, cold still shoots through the soles, hibernating in my bones. Pulling in a deep breath of biting air, I tiptoe over to the door and press my eye to the keyhole that overlooks a bright hallway. The air freezes in my chest. I knew I heard those blasted shadows, the eerie, almost impossible sounds they make whenever their black cloaks trail along the cobbled floors of Cathedral Reims. Sometimes I wonder if they’re witches, people born of the Seven Deadly Sins and considered worse than murderers in the eyes of the law. Then I remember my little brother is nothing like them. They are mere shadows. Mere shadows.

Two of them stand outside the room. I recognize them. The tall one is Asch, and the little one is Sash. I don’t know where I heard their names. Here, in my dreams, in nightmares, or somewhere else.

I wish they would go away. I wish, I wish, I wish. I close my eyes. Open them. They are still there. Why must they be here? Theosodore, our Mother Superior’s lackey, could gather us any moment for the first trial, a trial that will test everything we are made of, and here are Asch and Sash teasing my nerves with their cold, white fingers. But I don’t know what it is about them. They haven’t done anything in the two months since I’ve started seeing them, but their presence makes sharp fear burrow into my muscles and knot them. I believe I’m the only one who can see them. This frightens me. Perhaps waiting for these trials has made me mad.

Colette’s voice rises behind me, a quiet thing in the tremors of my mind. “Are you searching for those shadows again?”

I look over my shoulder and into eyes that reflect a blue sky. I have no reason to tell her that I am. She puts down her knitting and tightens the standard gray shawl given to all girls being tested for the Professed Order. Winters are bitter in the city of Malva, especially in this winter of 1880, though the unpleasant chill is a mere prologue to the upcoming trials.

“Amelia, it’s stress. We’ve all been stressed about these trials.” She shows me her bloodied fingers. “See? I’ve bitten them to the nub! Now why don’t you come over and let me braid your hair?”

I shake my head. I will admit nothing. And yet, I don’t know why I can see them and Colette can’t, or why they’re even here. I keep opening my eyes and closing them, hoping they will disappear. But they don’t. For whatever cryptic reasons they have, they are here and have been watching us all for the past two months.

Colette puts a hand on my shoulder that I shrug off. “Stop this nonsense, Amelia. You know how fretful you make me when you act like this. It’s stress. I promise you. Just stress.”

Stress. Yes, just stress. But does stress truly conjure shadows of the darkest thoughts in one’s mind? I thought of tearing my hair out in clumps to reduce the stress of these trials. While I have awaited this period in my time as a sister, knowing that my performance hinges on whether or not I stay and continue on as a nun is trying. I don’t want to go home. I can’t go home. Home is where I’d spend days in my room, sometimes comforted by prolonged sleep, other times tortured by an unquiet mind. Cathedral Reims was the only thing able to give me some purpose, and here I am, and here is where I need to stay.

I turn back toward the door and curl my fingers against it, tapping my nails on the wood. I will not argue with Colette. Even trying to convince myself they are not real is like trying to convince one of our priests to remain celibate.

“Don’t bother with me, Colette. I’ll be—” Wailing erupts far down the corridor. The sound is loud enough to break the icicles clinging to our window. I’d join, but I already ache from stress. That crying has been intermittent since we were shoved and locked in these rooms. The trials are that dreadful, though we have no idea what they consist of. The screams of those being tested assure us they are far from pleasant. I look at Colette and gesture in the direction of the crying. “At least I’m not at that point.”

She sighs again. “All right, then. Once this is all over, I’m certain you’ll stop seeing things.”

I hear the skirts of her gray dress rustle across the floor and the creaking of the mattress as she settles back on it.

I first saw the shadows on the roof of the south transept while Colette and I were in the orchard, picking plums for jam. My little brother Nathaniel was with us, but he was too busy climbing trees to take notice of anything. There were five of them, I remember. I turned away from them and whispered to Colette, “Do you see those things on the roof?”

“What things?”

“There are five of them, all in black cloaks.”

She dragged me deeper into the orchard so that foliage and plums obscured my view. “You’re starting to lose your mind, just like Sister Marie did. Remember what happened to her? She was so stressed about the trials last year she slit her wrists, miraculously survived, but had to be put in an asylum. Don’t end up like her! Don’t bring them up again. Ever. If you do see them again, just keep telling yourself they’re not real.”

But it’s hard to believe they’re not real when I see them every day, amassed in different numbers, engaged in indiscernible chatter. If they were just illusions, wouldn’t I have gone truly mad by now? Wouldn’t I have started seeing other things too? Wouldn’t I—wouldn’t I have ended up like Marie by now? Because I haven’t frightens me even more, for what could this mean? Marie’s sanity fell apart in just a month, and even then we sisters could see it unwinding when she started hallucinating. She saw things, like the suffering witches on the stained-glass windows, or the statues of witches nailed to stakes talking to her. We have such harrowing propaganda around Cathedral Reims.

Colette’s knitting needles start clicking away. I press my eye back to the keyhole. Asch and Sash now speak in hushed tones.

Asch balls his white fists. These shadows have skin the color of clear-day clouds and eyes an endless black. The eyes alone tell me they are far from human. I hold my breath in anticipation of what he’ll say. Sash, however, throws a hand over Asch’s bluish, scarred lips. Thick, disfiguring scars cover Asch’s entire face as though someone took a serrated knife to him. Sash narrows his eyes and opens his mouth. What comes out is loud enough for me to hear.

“You do realize there might be some people here who can see us?”

A painful cramp overtakes my stomach. He has a boyish voice. A boyish voice. He is a child. They cannot be real. They are illogical. They are demons spawned from a stressed mind whose darkest thoughts contemplate all the ways I can hurt myself to feel something other than this impending feeling that I may be inadequate for the Professed Order. But there they are, those shadows, acting, living, breathing, speaking, doing human things.

Asch grips Sash’s thin wrist. Sash is such a tiny thing. He has the face of a fourteen-year-old—soft, sloped jaw, a cocky smile that emphasizes the deep cut on his upper lip. Asch brings himself down to Sash’s stature, mocking the boy for what he lacks.

“You keep your tone down then. I have no doubt there are ones here who can hear and see us, but they’re a minority. No one would believe them, even if they ran all over the cathedral heralding our presence.”

Sash raises himself to Asch’s chin. “Then you—” He looks in my direction and narrows his eyes.

I pull away from the door, realizing I’ve started tapping my nails against the wood again. I dig them into the grain to stop them, then pin myself against the door frame while straining my hearing. Curse my nervous habits!

Sash speaks up. “I think someone is watching us.”

I pull away from the door, final in my decision to cut them from my mind so I can cling on to the last strands of my sanity. I will need to cling to those bits if I am to survive these trials. The swishing of their cloaks meets my ears as I stride over to Colette, keeping my face passive so she suspects nothing is amiss. My sanity cannot spiral in the direction dearly departed Sister Marie’s did. I sit down and start braiding Colette’s tangled, blonde locks. My fingers fumble as they try to remember how to braid.

“Are your imaginary friends gone?” Colette asks, needles clicking away.

I ignore her, sweat beading down my temple. The swishing of their cloaks grows louder. They are not real. Nothing will come in here. The sound will disappear, and I can safely blame stress for their existence. I open my mouth to speak. My voice comes out dry. “I’m just—”

The door creaks open. Colette snaps her head in the direction of the door, while I keep my eyes on the frayed braid in my hand. She pulls away from me like someone screamed her name and sweeps over to the door. Out of my peripheral, the shadows casually glide into our room. They look around like they don’t see us.

She reaches for the knob. “T-there must be some awful draft or something blowing down the hall to push open a locked door.”

This is too much of a coincidence that their presence would push the door open and leave poor Colette believing it to be a draft. There is nothing illusory about their presence.

Colette pulls her shawl around her. “I-it’s quite chilly.” I don’t feel a draft at all, but I’m not willowy like her. She puts her hand on the knob, then stops. “That’s peculiar. The lock has come undone. Faulty lock, I suppose. Well, we’re good little sisters. We won’t go running from our trials.” She slides the bolt back in place.

I’m antsy for the feel of her braid in my hands so the shadows don’t know I can see them. She sits back down. I grab the undone braid, forcing my eyes to be lost in the tangled hair as my fingers get snarled in the straw texture. The shadows walk around our room. Their eyes burn holes in our backs.

“I know one of them can see us,” Sash says, stopping in front of us. “One of them knows something. Isn’t that right? One of you can see us.”

My breath hitches. Now I can’t be insane. The faulty lock, the blown open door—I can’t continue believing they’re not real, especially when Sash implied not everyone can see them. Do illusions often justify their existences to the mentally insane? I wouldn’t think so.

Just don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up.

Conversation. That’s what I need, a conversation with Colette. Swallowing the lump in my throat and wetting my lips with my tongue, I say, “What do you think the first trial will be?” The ease with which the question tumbles off my tongue surprises me. My calm tone does not match the way my nerves feel, like they’re being drawn taut through a loom.

Asch’s voice comes out in a lilt. “You’re imagining things, Sash. I don’t think we’re any closer to finding one than we were two months ago.”

They are looking for people like me then, ones who can see them.

Colette looks over her shoulder, forcing me to adjust my arms so I can keep braiding her hair. “I’ve tried not to think about the trials. I can’t even speculate. I had nightmares when I first heard the screams from the last group Mother Aurelia put through. I dreamt these trials manifested our greatest fears,” she says.

I have to tense my hands to keep them from shaking. Fear cannot be present on my face, not with these shadows around. “What is your greatest fear?”

I look up briefly to find Asch nudging Sash closer to us. “Just touch one of them, Sash, if you’re so certain one of these girls is what we’re looking for. After all, we can touch them. We just can’t touch those who can’t see us.”

Colette lets out a small laugh, drawing my eyes to the blueness of her eyes as she turns around and looks at me, her braid falling softly against her back. “If I talk about my greatest fear, I think I might go insane. Let’s try not to think about the present. Let’s think about the future, about what great nuns we’ll make.”

Sash reaches out a pale hand. Part of me wants to run, scream, cry, while another part of me desperately prays Sash changes his mind and realizes he isn’t looking for me. I know nothing of what these shadows intend to do with the people they’re looking for, but instinct says what they want to do can’t be good. I have to bite my tongue to keep my voice from wavering. “I suppose you’re right. Talking about fears won’t do us any good. Let’s just remind ourselves why we’re here in the first place.”

Colette nods, breaking into a smile. “I’m here because the physical world isn’t enough for me.”

I grab for Colette’s braid as Sash draws near. “I’m here because—” I can’t say why I’m really here. I promised Nathaniel I’d tell no one. He would never forgive me if I did. “I’m here because I was dissatisfied with my home life and I wanted something more.”

Sash’s fingers are a centimeter from my cheek. He’s going to—

They whip their heads away from us.

“Shit,” Sash says. “He’s coming. I can hear him. We have to leave, Asch. He can’t catch us in here. He can’t catch us at all.”

Asch bolts for the door. “We’ll keep a closer eye on these girls, if that’ll satiate your curiosity.”

They throw open the door and vanish into the brightness of the hallway. Whoever this ‘he’ is has frightened them away. At the same time, I do not want to meet this ‘he,’ not in the least. This person might be more frightening than the shadows.

Colette approaches the open door. For a brief moment I swear I see panic in her eyes. Shivering overtakes that panic, however. Her voice wavers as she says, “B-blasted lock. It’s cold, so cold. I feel like the temperature has dropped tenfold.” An undertone of fear edges her voice—or that could be from the cold. “Let’s be good sisters and let Mother Aurelia know our lock is broken, all right, Amelia?”

I nod, sighing as my nerves release my muscles. I thank our god, Deus. Thank Deus they’re gone. Thank Deus they are gone.

Colette lets out a gasp.

Theosodore, the Mother Superior’s assistant, has a firm grasp of Colette’s wrist. Her wrist looks like a willow branch in his meaty hand the size of my skull. He looks at her with his infamous jagged smile and strokes the thorny whiskers jutting from his chin. “Are we trying to escape, Sister Colette?”

Did the shadows run from this man, this man who must stand seven feet tall, who looks imposing in stark gray robes lined with black threads? He could kill us in silence, and no one would ever know. This is the man who beats us when we step out of line, though he has neither touched Colette nor I. He must be the one the shadows ran from, but why?

Theosodore’s smile turns vicious, shoving all thoughts of the shadows from my mind. His presence means the first trial is here. His presence means our fate has begun. His presence means our futures will be determined over the next month, if we can survive.

Colette looks Theosodore full in the face, fear nonexistent in her eyes. “I wasn’t trying to escape. The lock is broken. The door has been blowing open all day.”

Theosodore narrows his dark brown eyes, forming menacing creases on his forehead. He grabs Colette’s other wrist and pins her against the door frame, drawing his face to hers so that there is barely a space between them. I’ll bet he smells like wine that has fermented for only a week. “Don’t lie to me. You’re not the first to attempt escape.”

She draws her eyebrows together. “Call me a liar if you please, but you will have to let Mother Aurelia judge that.”

Theosodore lets go of Colette’s wrists. He keeps his face close to hers. “I’m not here to start a fight or punish you. I’m here to gather you girls for the first trial. That will take care of whatever misgivings you may harbor about being professed.” His jagged smile returns wider than before. “That will be a punishment in itself.”

He gestures us out into the hall, where we find other sisters in gray dresses and tattered shawls huddling for each other’s scarce warmth. The stained-glass windows make outside bleary, but they don’t disguise the snowfall that curtains the world in white. Theosodore starts to lead us down the hall. Colette latches her icy hand on my own. Despite being couched in a group of bodies, the cold slices through me even more than it did in that room, shivers disguising any nervousness I feel for the impending test. As we make our way to the first trial, I spy Sash peering out from behind a statue of a witch tangled in a noose. He’s looking at no one in particular, until I pass.

Then he locks his eyes on mine, and I find myself pulling on Colette to press us farther in the crowd of bodies. Though I no longer look at him, in that one gaze alone I could see the words on his mind: I know you can see us, and I’m going to prove that you can.

He will be at the trial. He will watch me at the trial. I already know. Deus, if you can hear my prayer, you will steer him away from me. If he is there, if he is present at every trial, then I just know I will never be professed. I will have to go home to parents who haven’t seen my brother and I in three years. I will have to go home to a future far more uncertain than this one.

I can’t bear that. I’d rather die.

Chapter Two

Just as I suspected, Sash and Asch have followed us to the bloodletting room, which sits outside the east transept. It is an innocent structure disguising sinister intentions. No longer in use, it is a relic from a time when people believed using leeches to cleanse the blood of poison would also get rid of demons. It also existed in a time before witches were hated; thus, there is no witch propaganda like there is in every crevice in the cathedral. There used to be chairs for the patients too. Now it’s just a bare room with concrete walls, a scarcely-lit fireplace, and one rose window.

From the corner of my eye, I see the shadows watching through the window, likely crowded on some winter-garbed tree. They merely watch us, waiting for one of us to make eye contact, to lock eyes and stare. Then they’ll know that person can see them. I will not be that person. For now, they will be mere obstacles in these trials.

We sisters kneel on wooden chips scattered on the ceramic floor. We’re clustered in a circle, bare arms brushing against one another, the cold searing through our nakedness. The only thing keeping any of us from going mad is the remaining warmth that hums through our bodies like a string of rosary beads. The chips bite and cut into our knees, but we’re too afraid to adjust ourselves for fear of showing weakness that might make Mother Aurelia reconsider us for the Professed Order. She never told us what she expected. We can only guess. Not moving is difficult though, especially since I’m used to being covered head-to-toe in a wimple and gray dress.

Colette kneels across from me. I can’t help but compare my exposed self to her. Whereas I’m a sickly pale, the color of the ceramic tiles when covered in dust, Colette is a lily white, her hair sunshine flowing over her naked shoulders. If she weren’t in a convent and instead having her season, she’d be the envy at her ball, and every man would be vying for her attention. She is a dance piece in a music box, and shame burns my cheeks over my lack of beauty. I’m too pale, not shapely enough, and my breasts are not full and round like hers, and I have fat in places where fat should never be.

Mother Aurelia’s boots click behind me. Instinct tells me to look up to see what she’s going to do, but I keep my eyes on the blood-crusted drain in the center of our circle, one of the many set into the ceramic tiles. Across the circle, Colette widens her eyes. Her surprise is soon justified when Mother Aurelia wrenches my hair by the roots. Tears leap to my eyes, blurring my sisters, the shadows, and the bloodletting room. A sharp sting ripples across my scalp as my breathing deepens to suppress the intense throbbing. I imagine the Mother Superior wrapping my brunette tresses around her arms like a serpent as she pulls, harder and harder, her face set in a perpetual grimace. For a moment I think she has freed my hair from my scalp, but then realize that is the cessation of pain when she loosens her hold. She yanks again.

I must not cry out. I must not cry out. I don’t know why I shouldn’t cry out. All I know is the lives of professed nuns are grueling, which is why I assume Mother Aurelia’s initiation is so torturous. Professed nuns must be fully devoted to our god Deus in order to carry out His teachings without dispute. Nuns pray all day on a hard stone floor in the cloister, with few toilet breaks, no meals until dinner, and little breaks to stretch their sore limbs. What they pray about is a mystery, yet Mother Aurelia assures us their prayers are for suffering. Some nuns are assigned as teachers, and when I’m professed I hope to be a teacher. On weekends they’ll do charity work, but for the most part their lives are hidden within the walls of Cathedral Reims.

Just when a scream is about to graze my throat, Mother Aurelia lets go of my hair. The area where she pulled pulsates.

Mother Aurelia wordlessly moves on to the next girl.

The tears spill over my eyelashes in little droplets, and the bloodletting room comes back into focus. I glance at Sash and Asch, who no longer seem focused on us. My eyes then move to the drain and remain there. I wonder how much blood has fallen into the darkness and where it all goes.

A scream from one of the girls pierces my thoughts, followed by a smack from Mother Aurelia.

“Quiet, girl! You act is if I’m tearing your flesh from your bones.”

Mother Aurelia’s unrelenting cruelty makes a girl’s finishing school seem like a prerequisite to being in a convent. Her heels click over to Colette. Head still down, my eyes dart from the drain to her. Colette has always been known for her charm and grace and manners. She does all her tasks with a smile: vows of silence, cleaning latrines, hours of study with no breaks, grueling deportment lessons, and a plethora of other responsibilities. When Mother Aurelia comes to her and grabs her hair, she shows neither pain nor defiance in her eyes. She smiles up at the ceiling, as if it’s Deus pulling her hair and not our pudgy Mother Superior with eyes that settle into her doughy face. Tears don’t even appear in Colette’s eyes, and jealousy burns through my veins thinking how easy she makes this seem.

Mother Aurelia lets go of her hair. Her smile shrinks, and she looks back down at the floor. My eyes fall to my knees, bruised with welts from the chips, to avoid her small smile. I shouldn’t be jealous of my own best friend, but I feel like her influence should have rubbed off on me and it hasn’t. What’s even worse is I don’t know what Mother Aurelia is going to do next. She could sting us with wasps, wrap barbed wire around our throats, rend into our flesh with her gnarled nails, or any number of things that involve gut-wrenching pain.

Beside me, a plump girl vomits on the floor, then whimpers.

Once Mother Aurelia finishes with the last two girls, I hear her settle her immense bulk behind me. My heart pounds like galloping horse hooves across cobblestones. I squeeze my eyes shut, suck in my bottom lip, and dig my fingers into the chippings. Shivers tease my spine in anticipation over what she’s going to do next.

Time slows down. The world closes in around me. The breathing of the girls pounds through my ears like a steam train. Mother Aurelia shifts behind me. I want to scream, Just do it! Nausea overtakes me, then there is a sharp sting across my back. A scream funnels through my throat, clipped short by the gritting of my teeth. The tears don’t hesitate this time. They fall over my lashes in tiny streams. I’m certain each tear that falls pulls me farther and farther from being professed. My heart sinks down to my knees, which have gone numb and are cracked, beads of black cherry blood staining the chips and floor.

Each lash seems to take an eternity. I constantly have to remind myself why I’m doing this, and that reason is for my little brother Nathaniel. The hope is that once I become a professed nun, Deus can forgive him for being a witch, for being the epitome of sin, for being something through no fault of his own. I’m his older sister, I should take responsibility for what he is, so I should suffer and serve Deus until my death.

On the sixth lash, several of the girls start whimpering. I want to join them, but I keep my cries frozen at the back of my throat.

On the seventh lash, a welt breaks open. The cries frozen at the back of my throat turn involuntary, and one leaps from my lips before I even know it’s coming. It’s a small, pathetic cry, but enough for Mother Aurelia to beat me harder on the eighth lash with her disapproving leather strap. Warm blood trickles down my back, forming a tight knot in my stomach not even a knife could pry apart. At this moment, I think I prefer the stares of Sash and Asch to this. They can watch me in my sleep for all I care, so long as I never have to go through this again.

The tenth lash hits with such force I actually have to plant my palms flat against the floor to keep from falling on my face. My hands clench as I wait for the next lash; it doesn’t come.

Mother Aurelia clicks on over to the next girl. All I can do is sigh in relief that it’s over while internally cursing myself for letting that one cry escape.

For all I know, one cry could cost me the entire initiation process. Then I’ll have to endure another year of silence, isolation, endless prayer, bland meals that make us malnourished, a cold winter with a meager fire, and endless chastising for every little thing, like a drooped fork or a wimple put on wrongly. Life is not like that when we first enter, but sisters are slowly weaned from luxuries as the years pass. Upon our third year, luxuries are removed entirely to prepare us for the professed life.

Mother Aurelia makes her rounds of beating girls. They all cry out, some more than others. I count the lashes for each girl. The Mother Superior is inconsistent: twelve lashes for one, fifteen for another, ten, eleven, and the next two are more than ten. I wonder if the number of lashes is deliberate, or if she just beats however long she feels like with each one.

Colette doesn’t even cry out when it’s her turn. It’s as if she has no nerves in her entire body. Either that, or she has Deus’ divine favor or something. Better yet, Mother Aurelia hits her only five times. That wonderful Seven Deadly Sin of jealousy takes over, and I shift my knees to bring forth a sharp pain that dispels the feeling. A Seven Deadly Sin is the worst thing in the world. Seven Deadly Sins breed witches, after all, a punishment from Deus for the evils of mankind. Should I ever decide to have a child, I don’t want my child to be a witch. I don’t want my child to suffer the emotional burden that Nathaniel suffers through. Mother Aurelia once told me he is an isolated boy, so removed from the social sphere of Cathedral Reims that it’s not normal. Being a witch, I’m certain, has something to do with that.

Mother Aurelia finishes with Sister Colette. My stomach lurches as she moves away from her and toward me. Yet, while she moves toward me, she does not move behind me. Rather, she stands in front of me.

She claps her hands. “All right, girls. Stand and place yourselves against the walls, palms flat on the bricks, if you please. This will purify your souls.”

On unsteady legs, I stand. Pinpricks shoot through my legs from having been frozen in the same position for so long. I feel like a newborn as I toddle to the wall and press my palms against it. The rest of the girls meander to their respective bricks as well.

Mother Aurelia approaches me and removes a metal box from her habit, probably kept tied against her waist the entire time. Only dear Deus knows. She opens the box. Inside are squirming leeches, sluggish beasts with terrible mouths full of terrible teeth. My stomach threatens to implode at the sight of the monsters. She removes one of the writhing things and grabs my arm with cold, bony fingers. Her mouth in that characteristic perpetual grimace, she lets the leech latch on, and she presses my hand back against the wall. Right when the creature sinks its tiny fangs, I begin to question if I am going to be able to survive this. The leech squirms too much, is too hideous, and I can actually feel my blood being drawn from my veins. I’ve always been peculiar about my veins. Even someone checking my pulse makes me queasy.

The leech starts to fatten from my blood. Mother Aurelia pulls it off. Before she can even put another one on, a gasp escapes my lips. A long line of blood trails down my arm, but that isn’t what sends the heaviness of an impending faint through me. It’s the puckered flesh where the leech was, and the vein bulging through my skin.

I look at Sash and Asch one last time. They’re engaged in deep conversation, looking from us to each other. They look alarmed. A black curtain slowly falls over my eyes, and before I faint the last thing I see is Sash pointing. At whom, I’m not certain.

We sisters are in the infirmary, a dull room with bare walls, cheerless windows that show fallow fields beyond the outskirts of Malva, old beds, and the constant scent of disease that presses on our lungs. Candles illuminate our faces. Some faces are streaked with tears, some with frowns, the rest with indifference. We’re all on beds, wrapped in fleece blankets, nursing hot cups of tea. I suppose Cathedral Reims doesn’t want us to die after all, though we could all stand to use a fire in here. The tea at least warms my insides but does nothing to dispel the humiliation of being the only one who fainted.

I’m not going to be professed. I fainted and woke up at the end of the bloodletting session. Fainting means I’m too weak, not devoted enough to Deus, not strong enough to handle the rigors of being a professed nun. I slump, my face downcast, my feet turned inward, and my hands resting dejectedly on my lap. At least Sash and Asch aren’t in here. I don’t know where they disappeared to, but I don’t care now.

Colette sits on my bed and sips from her own cup of hot tea. She makes a face at the blandness, which surprises me. She can handle all manner of abuse, but a little hot tea makes her grimace?

“I think you did great,” she says.

Even through the welts creeping upon her shoulders and the puckered flesh from the leeches on her forearms, she’s still a beautiful lily. “You don’t have to lie to make me feel better. You’re the one Mother Aurelia’s probably going to profess first before anyone else.”

“I just wanted to scream the whole time, honestly. It was so brutal.”

My hand grabs for a candle that isn’t even near. It just meets air. I want to burn this jealousy out of me, the jealousy that will eventually have me wishing for Sister Colette’s failure in the next trial. No, I can’t think such wicked thoughts. I have to wish the best for the both of us.

What I say next comes out defeated. “You were too perfect.”

Colette cocks her head. “You did well too, Amelia. Everyone but you and I had more than ten lashes.”

“What does that mean?”

“I might have been smiling the entire time, but I paid attention too. Whenever a girl did something Mother Aurelia didn’t like, she kept whipping her.”

“But—”

She puts a soft finger to my lips. “Ssh. You weren’t perfect, but you were good enough.”

A heat embraces my cheeks, and the best friend I’ve come to love replaces the burgeoning jealousy. I just want to lie my head on her lap now and let her run her fingers through my hair like she always does whenever I’m stressed. So I fall back against Colette, allowing her clover scent to envelop me. She’s been my dearest friend ever since I came here. Our friendship was immediate. We helped each other through studies, prayers, duties, and even our vows of silence. When we couldn’t speak, we wrote each other letters. When we were in isolation for a month, we tapped our walls to remind each other we were still there, since our cells were side-by-side. And now I must remind myself that if I weren’t sharing a room with her, I probably would have gone madder than Sister Marie.

I look at her face, finding comfort in her warm smile. “I’m sorry, Colette. I’m just…scared.”

“So am I, Amelia. So am I.”

Later, on our way back to our cells, I discover Sash standing next to our room. I gloss over him and look at my door, Colette behind me. He tries to reach out to touch me, but I have hurried into my room before he even gets the chance. A sickening feeling blooms within me. He will not stop following me until he finds out whether or not I truly can see him. Not only do I have to worry about making the Professed Order, but now I have to worry about living to the day of my eventual profession. He might try to get me when I least expect it, like in my sleep. Well, I’m used to little sleep.

I have to be professed. I have to live to be professed. For Nathaniel.

Chapter Three

I jam a piece of wood in the lock with the hope this will keep Sash or Asch or any of the shadows from coming in. This could get me in trouble with Theosodore when he comes to fetch Colette and I for the next trial, but I can lie and say the lock is stuck. In any case, I doubt I’ll be getting much sleep tonight, what with the intense cold searing through the wounds on my back, the stress of vying for a position in the Professed Order, and the gnawing thoughts of those shadows and what they want.

As I turn around to lie down on my bed, a searing pain icicles through my welts, pushing my knees to the floor. They were treated, but that treatment did not relieve the pain—only prevented the possibility of infection.

Colette runs over and bends down in front of me. “Are you all right? Do you want my shawl?”

I shake my head, gritting my teeth against the pain. “How are you tolerating this?” I ask.

Her eyes widen. “Oh, Amelia, you’re bleeding.” She helps me to my feet and draws me over to her bed, removing my shawl in the process. She unbuttons the back of my gray dress and peels away the fabric. Raw cold assaults the welts, drawing a hiss from me.  “Mine aren’t reacting this poorly. I frankly thought the nurses did a fine job.”

My heart falls in the burgeoning darkness inside of me. “Marvelous. I know what’s going to remove me from the initiation and that’s a severe infection that will hospitalize me. I might even die from it, or need my back amputated. Can backs even be amputated?”

Colette presses against my wounds with her shawl. “Don’t talk such nonsense, Amelia. You’ll be fine. They just need to air out and scab over.”

I make a face as thoughts of hideous scabs cross my mind. At the same time, the wounds remind me being a nun isn’t about beauty. When I’m professed, I’ll have my head shaved to blend in with the rest of the Professed Order. Serving Deus has never been about individuality or frivolity. Serving Deus has always been about humility. I can only hope this whole process will humble and not break me, because there is a darkness so thick in me that if I make some severe mistake in the next trial, I’m afraid I’ll never be able to rise from my failure.

Colette buttons my dress, wraps my shawl back around me, and sits down, putting a hand on my shoulder. “I can see it in your face, Amelia. Don’t let what happened to you today depress you.”

Her attempt at comfort draws tears to my eyes. My shoulders shake as I try to suppress them, but they come anyway. I end up sobbing and speaking at the same time. “I just—that shouldn’t—why did it have to be me? Why did I have to faint?” I bury my face in my hands, the warmth of my tears melting the chill on my skin. “Mother Aurelia isn’t going to want somebody who faints over a silly leech!”

Colette squeezes my shoulders. “Ssh.” She draws my head to her lap and I bury my face there. The warmth of her lap melts the cold. Even after being whipped to the bone, Colette’s clover scent lingers as a therapeutic catalyst for my nerve-stricken body. “There’s still more to come, Amelia. There’s still so much time for you to prove yourself, for us all to prove ourselves.”

My shoulders hitch up to my ears and freeze there. I raise my face to Colette’s, tears dried on to my cheeks. “Why do these trials have to be so ridiculous, so cruel, so—” I fall back to her lap and sob.

Colette’s voice comes out somber. “The life of a nun is no vacation. Deus demands a lot, so of course Mother Aurelia is going to demand a lot. If we can get through this, then we can be nuns.”

I wouldn’t be feeling this way if the trial we went through was the final trial, but this was just the first. If I feel this way now, like I’m about to break, then I can only imagine how the future trials will make me feel. I stop sobbing and sit up, wiping my face free of tears. Staring out the window at the darkened sky and waxy moon, I say, “I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. Look at what an emotional wreck I am…and this was only the first day.”

“I don’t know what Mother Aurelia expects out of us, but I’m certain these trials were designed to play with our fears in some way, to see how long we’re willing to hold out and put up with what she does to us. You can’t let these scare you, intimidate you, or make you feel like a failure. There is no denying that you made it through today, and you don’t feel like quitting, now do you?”

I shake my head. “But—”

She silences me with a wave of her hand. “If you don’t feel like quitting, then you haven’t failed. We will get through this, and we will be the best professed nuns the convent has ever seen.”

Her words imbue me with some optimism. She’s right. I don’t feel like quitting at all, in spite of feeling like I failed myself today—and my brother. I will be able to get through this, and I have to. I survived today, and I will continue surviving. Yet, it’s moments like these that make me wish Nathaniel were here with me, to curl up in my lap, to tell me stories about his day. His presence would dispel all doubts. It’s also moments like these that make me miss the grotto we used to play in before I uprooted our lives and brought us to Cathedral Reims. Part of me wants to sneak off to see him, while another part of me realizes the danger in being alone with these shadows about.

I smile at Colette. “Thank you for that.”

She smiles and embraces me. I return the embrace, breathing in the scent of her clover. I still don’t know how she manages to smell fresh through the blood and sweat dried on her skin. I don’t even want to think what I smell like.

“We will get through this,” she says again.

A knock on the door freezes me in her embrace. Two things run through my mind: it’s either Theosodore or the shadows. I’m reluctant to say anything for fear of it being the latter. Yet, I want neither. I’m not ready for another trial.

“Amelia?”

I relax in Colette’s embrace, then pull away from her. “Oliver?” I walk over to the door, remove the piece of wood, and push the door aside, elated to see Oliver’s gray eyes, shock of black hair that droops over his eyes, and his thin-lipped smile and skin as pale as mine. But he shouldn’t be here. Having contact with a male during initiation, even one who is in the priesthood, is far worse than escaping our rooms, since the Order can draw a lot of assumptions over a visiting male. We’re supposed to be chaste, and any question of our chastity can result in a tribunal and eventual expulsion from Cathedral Reims.

“You shouldn’t be here. You’re going to get both of us in an enormous amount of trouble.”

He smiles, cocking his head so that his hair falls over his eyebrow. “Believe it or not, I’m on night patrol.”

“What about Theosodore? He’s been patrolling our corridor since we were locked in here!”

“Methinks he had a bit too much wine for dinner after your trial.”

My eyes widen. “Oliver…you didn’t do anything to his wine, did you?”

He rocks back and forth on his heels. “Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t. I heard you had a bad day and figured you desperately needed to get out of this stuffy room. I’ve always thought the trials were ridiculous. I don’t believe in torturing myself to prove I’m fit to serve Deus.”

Colette’s voice rises behind me. “That’s because you priests don’t have to do what nuns do.”

Then why do we have to suffer at all? Is it because we’re women, prone to hysterics, and so this must be beaten out of us? I assume so. There is a strange standard with chastity. It is assumed males are more lustful, but we women must be in charge of controlling that lust.

“We’re all part of the Professed Order, regardless,” Oliver says, looking at her with a smile. “A priest, a nun, we all serve Deus.” He proffers his arm to me. “In any case, would you like to take a walk of Cathedral Reims? I just want to make sure you haven’t forgotten what our dear cathedral looks like.”

I look behind me at Colette who has a wary look in her eyes. Although Oliver is on night patrol, that doesn’t mean someone in the Order won’t happen to cross his path, so I shouldn’t go with him. On the other hand, Oliver is also a dear friend of mine whose presence I’ve desperately craved almost as much as my little brother’s. Colette is my dearest friend, yet sometimes I need a bit of the masculine in my life, a bit of that strength men have that women need to survive in this world. I accept his arm, heat blossoming in my cheeks as I look at Colette with shame burning my eyes.

“I’m sorry, Colette, but I need this.”

She darts her eyes to Oliver, a frown marring her delicate face. “Make sure she doesn’t get caught, Oliver.”

I smile. “Thank you, Colette.”

She looks away from me. “This doesn’t mean I approve, Amelia, and this doesn’t mean I’m simply going to accept your choice.”

“You know you can’t talk me out of it though.”

She sighs and says nothing else. Oliver leads me into the corridor lit by glowing moonlight that flies in pale streaks through the stained-glass windows. They are covered in depictions of suffering witches. There are thousands of these windows all over Cathedral Reims, reminding us in a thousand different ways how we should hate witches.

This is the thing about witches. They are never spoken of. People don’t want to acknowledge they exist because we’ve been conditioned from birth to accept they are terrible beings through our religious text, The Vulgate. I have heard stories of witches being caught and disappearing, never to be heard from again, but rumors circulate these stories. The only reminders we have to hate witches are propaganda all over Malva, ranging from posters, to statues, to engravings, to paintings, and any way Malva can get its message across without having to speak of them.

Oliver leads me out into the nave, and I gasp. I forgot how enormous the nave can be. The nave soars over a hundred feet above our heads, ending at a vaulted roof. Hundreds of jamb statues of fearsome witches line the niches on the uppermost parts of the ceiling, sometimes giving me the feeling that this is an executioner’s chamber and not a cathedral. Their mouths have been carved into screams, their arms and legs twisted around stakes and trees.

We walk over to the crossing, which is the center floor of the entire cathedral. It’s an enormous circular area we call Deus’ Eye because just above it is a large stained-glass dome in the roof positioned where light shines through. We then sit, facing the west transept, the entrance, with its set of thick, heavy doors the height of eight grown men. The stone flooring is cool beneath me, reminding me I should be chilled to the bone. I find whenever I’m around Oliver, however, I can ignore any discomfort.

Oliver reaches out and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. To an outsider, this would seem like an affectionate gesture between two lovers. Of course, Oliver has been my friend about the same length as Colette has. We just don’t get to see each other as often. I will admit I’ve always felt something for this boy, but I have always kept my feelings at that: a little something. Relationships are impossible for those in the Order. He’s also the first boy I’ve interacted with who is my age, so that ‘little something’ could be a false feeling.

“So tell me what happened today,” he says, his voice a whisper to keep sound from echoing in the spacious nave. “Don’t keep all of this to yourself. You know I’m here for you just as much as Colette is…whenever I can be, and I do try, so don’t think I’m not.”

I can’t help but to let out a small laugh over Oliver’s obvious feeling of guilt for not being able to be there for me as much as he wants to be, though this is by no means his fault. The Professed Order just demands different things of the two sexes, things that often keep us separate. “I fainted when Mother Aurelia brought out the leeches.” I show him the puckered wounds on my flesh. That same sickness I had before I fainted creeps up again, so I look away while Oliver inspects the lesions.

He sighs, rubbing a pale finger around each sore. His skin is cool, though his touch sends electric swirls through me I cast out by pressing a welt on my back. “This is nonsense, what they do to you ladies.”

“Those aren’t even the worst. You should see the welts on my back.”

“I don’t want to. If you ask me, I find all of this undeniably cruel. I don’t understand why you ladies let yourselves put up with Theosodore and Mother Aurelia. There is more to life than being trapped here.” A bitterness edges his tone. “There is so much more you could be doing.”

I pull my arm away and bury both of my arms in my skirts. “There isn’t, Olly. You know why I’m here.”

He is the only one who knows my brother is a witch, but only because his younger sister Ella is one. He told me he joined the priesthood in the Professed Order for her, for the exact same reason I did. I suppose all of us with witches in the family desire Deus’ forgiveness in some form, and serving Him seems to be the highest form of asking for it. The only difference between Oliver and I is that he left his sister behind while I had to bring my brother with me. Whatever sins my parents committed to birth him, I didn’t want those sins to eventually come out and punish my brother. There is no happy ending for a family with a witch in it. The Seven Deadly Sins break families apart sooner or later.

“There is no turning back for me. We haven’t spoken with our parents in three years. Who knows if they’re even looking for us?”

Oliver takes my chilled hand in his icy one. Even on warm days he’s cold, due to a blood problem he was born with. “Some days I think that you and I and your little brother should run away from all of this. Then other days I see the determination in your eyes and have to remind myself this is something you want. But mostly, I just wish there were something else out there for us.”

The thought of running away with him makes my cheeks bloom with heat. Again, I stamp this out by pressing one of my welts. His words bring bitter tears to my eyes that I manage to hold back.

“There isn’t, and there never will be. Face it, Olly. This is the way the world is and always will be. People like Ella and Nathaniel, they’ve always been hated, always been a blight upon this world, and we don’t even understand why.” My voice rises with fervor. “Day in and day out, it’s drilled into our heads that Deus works in mysterious ways. We’re not supposed to question what he does for us, only that what he does is for the best in the end. But you can’t say that when you’re suffering until the end of your life.”

My own cynicism makes me want to cry over the unfairness of what I’ve just said. This would be different if humanity were doing this to us, but it’s Deus, a being we can’t see, a being we only believe in through faith. How can one change something whose image is impossible to picture?

Oliver squeezes my hand, trying to infuse me with warmth I doubt will ever be there for me again. “We’ll change the world, Amelia. We’ll rise so high in the ranks of the Professed Order that every word we speak will not be questioned, even when we tell people to start accepting witches as human beings. We’ll just have to push through this, and everything will work out in the end. It has to.”

I almost want to laugh over the enormous amount of hope he has for our futures. But as I look into his gray eyes, I realize he is serious, and a small part of me wants to share in this dream—no, needs to share in this dream. I need a new dream, one that is beyond being professed. Even if this dream isn’t tangible, I need some sort of hope to cling on to, something that will push me to keep going despite insurmountable odds.

I turn to him, moving in close so that there is only an inch between our faces. “Let’s make a promise then. Let’s promise that no matter what, we will encourage each other to keep going, to keep rising, right until the very end. Even if I’m dying, I want you to keep pushing me, and I’ll keep pushing you.”

Oliver smiles, his eyes brightening. “How will we seal this promise?”

I kiss him on the cheek, his scent of winter and ice catching the edge of my nostrils. Like Colette’s clover scent, his wintry scent is not unwanted. “Like that.” He kisses me on the cheek too, and our promise is sealed. On occasion, we will risk daring affections with one another, but nothing ever beyond a light kiss on the cheek. I yearn for more though. “There is no going back. If you break this promise, you’re telling me you no longer wish to continue our friendship, and it is the same if I break the promise as well.”

Oliver nods, a smile planted firmly on his face. “I like this nightly jaunt. We should have this every night.”

“And increase our chances of finding trouble? Then we’ll have an excuse to break the promise because expulsion can’t be helped by that point.”

Oliver holds up his hands. “All right then. Every once in a while. How does that sound? I hate thinking of you locked in that room for most of the day. I know how close you are to Colette, but it sometimes helps to speak to someone outside of all this, doesn’t it?”

“It does. But only once in a while. I hesitate to say once a week.”

“Then whenever I know it’s safe.”

Oliver takes me back to my cell. When we come upon it, Sash is leaving with a smile. He doesn’t make eye contact with me, yet that smile indicates Sash discovered something. I don’t want to know what it is, so when Oliver hugs me goodnight, I throw the door closed and jam the piece of wood back into the lock. I try to hold on to the warmth of the promise I made with Oliver, but thinking about these shadows elicits a vicious chill.

Chapter Four

Despite seeing Sash last night, I face this next trial with a renewed sense of vigor, even with pain that shoots through me with every step I take. I am taut and sore from the thick scabs that cover my upper back in whorls, and stiffness has caught up to me from kneeling on those wood chips. Each step I take is small and filled with splintering agony, but I am determined to share in the next trial with my sisters.

Today we’re all in the basement of Cathedral Reims, a place filled with abandoned tunnels that smell like distilleries. Cracked, wooden beams crisscross above our heads, occasionally dropping dust and dirt in our hair. Tapers sit cradled in wall sconces, the basement’s only source of light. The walls are made of rough-hewn stone, and as we walk through, Theosodore informs us that this basement used to be a wine cellar a few centuries ago. There are remnants of barrels and broken wine bottles lining the walls.

The basement is even colder than outside, the dirt flooring moist from snow that somehow slips into the basement through cracks we can’t see. I’m somewhat used to the cold, though I find myself pushing against Colette to share in her warmth; she is unresponsive. When we woke up this morning, she was silent, passive, and unmoving. Only Theosodore’s whip of a voice could get her to move, and even then she took tiny steps to line up with the rest of the sisters in the corridor. I have no idea what caused this sudden change in her.

I look at her down turned face and whisper, “Are you angry at me for going off with Oliver?” This would be a ridiculous reason, but I can’t think of anything else.

She shakes her head.

I suck in the frigid air through my teeth, the coolness chilling my lungs and making my bones rattle. “Then what is wrong? You’re usually not like this.” I’m usually like the way she is today. “Did you have a nightmare? Do you not feel well today?” I pause, trying to sort through my distressed thoughts. I can’t think of what could be bothering her. “Tell me, Colette.”

She shakes her head again. In a small voice, she says, “Later.”

Theosodore pushes on a flimsy door with an iron rung for a knob and leads us down an even narrower corridor with closed doors made of iron. Once we walk a few paces, he stops and gestures around the small space. “Two sisters to each cell. Today you will spend the day praying.”

We bristle over the simple request. Praying itself is never a simple matter, yet compared to yesterday’s trial, this one seems too easy. Theosodore starts unlocking each cell and instructing two sisters at a time to enter. He bolts the doors behind each group, and when he gets to Colette and I, he does the same, ushering us into our own cell. When he bolts the door behind us, I realize just what is so challenging about this particular trial. The cell is only big enough to fit Colette and I, who stand with elbows touching. There is only a prie dieu and one taper already melting to a stub. There is no latrine, no space, no way to keep warm besides the wick, and when the wick goes out, we’ll be left in impenetrable darkness.

Colette takes in a few gulps of air before settling herself on the cushion. I sit down beside her, our arms cushioning each other. I’ve never been prone to claustrophobia, but I can see myself developing a fear of small spaces by the end of the day. With the cell being as small as it is, and being so close to Colette, the temperature rises a few degrees and stops torturing my wounds.

“We should pray together,” I say to Colette as she clasps her hands around her rosary beads. “We can pray for a bigger candle, more matches, even more candles, a fleece blanket, even a toilet.”

Colette says nothing at my weak attempt at humor. She only stares at her hands, whose thumbs toy with the rosary beads. I thought my comment would have brought at least a small smile to her face.

I stare into the candle flame, thinking of what to say next, thinking of what to even pray about. I’ve never prayed much and only do so when I’m supposed to, or when Colette wants me to. I’ve never willingly prayed alone because I’ve never had anything to say.

I sigh, looking sideways at Colette. She’s still toying with her rosary beads. By looking into her eyes that reflect the candle flame, I know she is not praying. “Colette, please tell me what’s wrong. Are you certain you’re not angry with me for last night?”

She looks at me. I swear to Deus I see the reflected flame in her eyes flare. “No, Amelia, it has nothing to do with that. I’m not angry with you, I promise.”

“Then what’s wrong? You’re usually not the sullen type.”

“I just—” Her voice cracks, though no tears come. “Amelia, what would happen if I were to die?”

The question takes me by surprise. “Why are you asking me such a preposterous thing?”

“Because I want to know. I need to know. How would you feel if I were to die?”

The question is so far flung from our current reality that I don’t even want to answer it. How can she think about this when there is so much more at stake than our insignificant mortality? There is a deep seriousness in her eyes though, one I can’t ignore. “I’d be devastated, of course. You keep me grounded, and you’ve always kept me grounded. I don’t think I would have even made it to initiation without you by my side.”

Colette narrows her eyes, the flame dancing in her irises. “You have Oliver.”

I unclasp my hands and lay them flat on the prie dieu. “I knew this had something to do with Oliver. Colette, you are my best friend, and you always will be. Of course Oliver is very dear to me, but I hardly ever see him and I get to see you every day!”

She shakes her head, looking away from me. She reaches out and teases the flame of the candle, putting her finger through and then pulling it out fast, her lily skin untainted. “This really has nothing to do with Oliver. I’m just trying to say, would you be able to move on if I were to die?”

“Colette, this is ridiculous. Why are you so fixated on your own mortality now? You’re the same age as me, eighteen, for Deus’ sake! Instead of speaking of something so gloomy, why don’t we actually pray? You always have the most enlightening things to say.”

She looks at me, her eyes muted. “I have nothing to pray about today.” She falls silent, going back to toying with her rosary beads.

I sigh, closing my eyes and resting my head against the cold, gray stones of the cell. Outside the cell, Theosodore stomps up and down the corridor with his self-righteous strut. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Mother Aurelia would choose to make him her companion. There is nothing remarkable about the man, other than his possible ascension to cardinal in the Professed Order. Other than that, he’s a lout with a penchant for flirting with the sisters, and I’m not talking about those already professed, but the ones who come in young enough to be his daughters—and the man is in his thirties! He hasn’t tried anything with me, but I’m not pretty. My age shows twice over that of Colette, who can pass as a fifteen-year-old.

I close my eyes, hoping I can fall asleep to pass the time. If I can, then this trial will have proven itself to be far easier than the first one, though I suspect Mother Aurelia expects us to do more in these cells than sleep. I suppose she believes in the old adage that guilt is punishment enough if we don’t spend this time actually praying. Guilt is only punishment for me though when I hurt people I care about. What a terrible person I am. Only Deus knows. Mother Aurelia will never have to know, so on the outside I can appear like the best nun in the world, when on the inside I’m far from it.

A few restless hours pass, both my body and mind screaming to be set free from the confines of this cell. I’m pacing the few feet in front of the prie dieu, though this is not enough room to fully stretch. Pressure weighs my bladder down with uncomfortable pinpricks that shoot through me each time I take a step. Soon I’ll have to urinate, though I don’t know where I could.

Colette, on the other hand, has managed what I consider to be impossible for me. I believe she is in prayer, assuming she has decided to keep all thoughts in her head this time instead of saying them out loud like she usually does. To further pass time, I press my ear against the wall for any other sounds besides my own. I only hear murmurs of what sound like prayer. There must be someone in at least one of these cells that wishes to go as mad as me.  The rhythm of Theosodore’s plodding steps indicates otherwise. I suppose no one has cracked yet, and I’m even wondering what this trial is designed to do for us: make us pray all day or lose our sanity? I sit down next to Colette and lay my head on the prie dieu, willing for sleep to come.

Colette shifts next to me. She opens her eyes, staring down at her rosary beads. She opens her mouth to speak. “Do you know what I’ve been praying about?”

I sit up straighter, elated Colette has finally come out of her stupor. Whatever she prayed about should keep me captivated until we’re released from these cells. She’s prayed enough, after all, so she must have a lot to say. “What? Tell me everything.”

I expect her to smile, for her eyes to brighten, for her to look at me, but her voice comes out bland. “To not die.”

Losing my composure, I grab Colette by the shoulders. “What is wrong with you? Colette, please tell me why you’re suddenly feeling this way? What happened last night? I demand to know!”

She starts shuddering in my hold. Her voice comes out between small sobs and hiccups. “P-promise me that when I-I’m gone, you’ll keep t-trying to be p-professed.” The tears come, and she hides her face with her hands. Her voice now comes out controlled, though subdued. “I mean it, Amelia. No matter what happens to me, you can’t stop for my sake. You have to keep going.”

Only silence comes from my open mouth. I don’t know what to say. Colette insists on speaking as though she’s going to die within the hour. I loosen my hold on her, my hands remaining on her shoulders. “You’re not going to die Colette, so stop speaking like you’re going to…unless you have some chronic illness you’ve never told me about, some fatal disease you were born with that’s just been ticking your life away each day.”

Colette shudders once more, and what she does next sends the world spiraling away into darkness beneath my feet. She heaves blood all over the front of my dress, and falls in my arms, her eyes rolling up to the ceiling. My mouth opens in a scream, but the cell wavers and folds in on me in accordion pleats. The space around me pushes inward, crushing the breath from my lungs until I’m gasping for air, holding out my arm while the other clings to Colette, whose breathing comes out raspy. An intense heat swarms through my body and seems to travel under every edge of me. Smoke rises from beneath the hand that holds on to Colette. To my horror, I know what is going to happen next—even worse, I don’t have time to pull away.

Sister Colette bursts into flames.

I pull away too late, plastering myself against the wall. She falls against the wall opposite of me, her limbs jerking, her eyes rolling around like marbles, and her tongue lolling in her mouth like she can lick the flames away. The flames burn through her dress, then snake along her naked flesh. They blacken her skin at an unnatural rate. Beads of blood seep through cracked flesh. I cannot move, breathe, scream, feel anything. Neither fear, sadness, anger, nor hurt.

Reality flies by me in bits and pieces. It flies by me so fast I cannot process what I have done. All I can process is that Sister Colette is on fire, and there is a burgeoning scream that comes out as several loud screams, then one long scream. I leap from where I sit, throw myself against the door, and start pounding the iron so hard my fists want to crack from the force I exert.

I screech. “Someone, help! Anyone!” Heavy footsteps plod by, but they don’t stop at my cell. Of course he wouldn’t stop. This is what he expects after our being in these cells for so long. So I muster my remaining energy to scream out what I know will have Theosodore pulling the door open and getting us out. “The cell is on fire!”

I look behind me one more time at Colette who lies in a rumpled pile while fading flames lick at what remains of her. The weight of being alive while she burns with my being unable to do anything takes its toll on me, and blackness envelops me in a warm sleep I never want to wake from.

Chapter Five

There was nothing special about the day I found out Nathaniel was a witch. We went about our usual routine: breakfast, afternoon lessons with our tutor, adventures in our grotto, evening study before dinner. The same routine, day after day after day. Father was an accountant, our mother a seamstress. They had little time for us, so Nathaniel and I kept to ourselves most days. The time they did spend with us was precious though.

Nathaniel and I were in his room after dinner, studying a language called French with origins we didn’t understand but a language our tutor expected us to learn. My little brother rose to close the curtains since the sun was dipping behind the rolling green hills on the horizon and blinding our eyes. When he touched the curtain, smoke started to rise beneath his palm, and the curtain caught aflame.

That day I learned there is no warning when one will find out whether or not one is a witch, so Nathaniel and I left the next day, my mind set on Cathedral Reims. Our tutor gave us an extensive lesson of this cathedral, and my heart told me this was the best place for us. I knew that whatever Seven Deadly Sin my parents committed would catch up and tear our family apart one day, and I didn’t want to subject my little brother and I to that potential disaster.

A warm light tickles my cheek, rousing me from sleep. When I open my eyes, I’m in the infirmary. Since sleep still cradles my mind in a fog, I have to blink and stretch several times before I realize Oliver is next to me on a small stool. His presence should comfort me, but all I want to do is retreat back beneath the blankets and forget what I did. Nathaniel was lucky to find out he was a witch the way he did. Why did I have to find out practically through murder—and my best friend no less? A stabbing heat courses through my entire being as the sickening reality of what happened in the cell settles in my mind. I wish I could deny and say it was a nightmare, but I am not one for denial. I am one who does not choose to escape to fantasies to elude reality. I ground myself so much in reality I’ve grown cynical.

It seems to make sense now why those shadows are after me. Do they want witches? It looks as if they do. But I don’t know and won’t ponder on it too much.

Oliver brings out a wet rag and dabs my face. “Seems your fever’s gone down.” He pulls the rag away and wrings the cloth, looking down at his fidgety action.

“Olly—” A sob cuts off my words, and I throw my face into Oliver’s lap, letting the tears come. My words come out choked. “I—I—”

Oliver looks away from me and averts his gaze to the corner of the infirmary. On tired arms, I pull myself up and look where he looks. Colette lies in bed beneath a white blanket, burnt arms, face, and neck exposed. Her appearance brings bile to my throat that I quell with deep breathing.

I bring my fingers to my face as the horror of what I did plays as a clear slide-show in my mind. “Sister Colette—” I set her on fire. I killed her. “She—she—”

Oliver grabs my hands with his slim, cool fingers, and pulls them away from my face. “It’s all right, Amelia. Sister Colette only fainted. Mother Aurelia said she had an epileptic fit, that it’s an affliction she’s had since she was a child. It’s not uncommon for epileptics to have fits in tight spaces.”

I shoot up straight and look at Colette, blinking my eyes at the pace of a bee’s wings to assure my reality hasn’t become distorted. “Epilepsy?” No. What happened in the cell was not epilepsy. I saw fire on her, real raw fire that came from me. Now she lies in bed with unmistakable burns and no bandages to stop the bleeding. “But she…No, she…” I don’t even know how to get out the words without sounding like a complete loon.

Oliver brushes his bangs out of eyes that have taken on a patient look. “She what?”

I just have to come out and say what I saw. My voice trembles, tears threatening to pour down my face. I bring my voice to a soft, audible whisper. “I-I’m a witch. I set her on fire.”

Oliver pulls me up fast and plants his hands on either side of my face. Though I know he is naturally cold, the iciness of his hands nonetheless brings a yelp from me. I grab his wrists, instinct goading me to pull them off, but I leave them there. His eyes bear down on me. “Don’t speak such nonsense. It’s these trials. I shouldn’t have made that promise with you, should have figured it was too much to expect. Besides you’re—”

He lets go of my face, but I keep a grip on him. “I’m what?”

He disentangles my fingers from his wrists and looks away from me, darting his eyes to the white ceramic tiles. “Mother Aurelia removed you from the initiation process. I overheard her speaking with Theosodore about this decision. They thought it was best. It was nothing personal against you. They just didn’t want you…damaged, so to speak. Mother Aurelia thinks you need another year, some more maturity before you can pick up the process again.”

Too stunned to speak or even process what he told me, I look back at Colette who is now surrounded by other visitors. A nun with a vase of roses leans into another nun and smiles. She puts the vase down and begins to speak. Though her voice is a whisper, I can still hear what she has to say.

“Her epileptic fit must have been caused by all the excitement. My grandfather was an epileptic, and he was an easily excitable old man. We could never keep a fit away from him, not even for a mere week.”

The nun who isn’t holding anything fingers the petals. “It was still frightening though, to see her like that. Deus will be kind to her. She’s been a good girl since coming here, and there’s no sense in Deus doing away with her when she will be such an asset to the Professed Order.”

They continue prattling, but I’ve had enough. I know what I saw. I did not see an epileptic fit. I saw fire. Either everyone is in denial about Colette’s condition, or I have gone mad.

Oliver puts a hand on my shoulder and draws me down on to the bed. He pulls the covers up to my chin, and pulls away with a small smile. “You need your rest too, Amelia. I can tell you’re still not convinced, but I promise you’re just really stressed. You’ll feel much better when you wake up, and when you do, I’ll be out in the plum orchard, the usual place. You can vent then. It’s not the end of the world. You still have a chance to be professed. Just not right now.”

This is just a nightmare, that is all. I am not one for denial, but this reality is too surreal to be anything but. This is one of the many nightmares I’ve had about failing ever since I started the initiation process. When I wake from my nap, Colette will be asleep in our cell, her skin lily white, untainted. I’ll hug her, cherish her clover scent, and we’ll face the next trial with combined determination no one can break.

With this on my thoughts, I soon fall into a quiet sleep.

A groan punctures the membrane of what was a peaceful sleep. The groan is soft, insistent. I find it peculiar such a soft noise could even wake me, but I nonetheless sit up in bed to investigate. Because my limbs and mind are still bathed in drowsiness, a large part of me is unsure whether or not this is reality. I’m certain I fell asleep in my cell and just had a previous nightmare about waking up in this exact infirmary, Oliver telling me I’m no longer in the initiation for the Professed Order, seeing Colette with burns while Oliver convinces me she had an epileptic fit. Even so, there is a frightening realness to this that has my mind doing the spins of a whirling dervish.

The infirmary is empty, a hollow shell that echoes the moan. I look in Colette’s direction. A curtain surrounds her bed. I see her shadow through the white fabric, and she’s sitting upright, her chest rising and falling.

Pulling in a deep breath, I slip away from the warmth of my bed and slowly approach her. I hold out a hand, my fingers trembling, ready to grab the curtain when I near. My throat goes dry. “C-Colette? Are you all right?”

Her voice is raspy as she answers. “Amelia, come here.”

I dig my fingers into the folds of the curtain, my heart tightening in my chest over what I may find. Will I find Colette free of burns, or will my mind keep playing tricks on me? I pray for the former. No girl wants to admit she is insane. The insane end up in asylums that often become permanent homes. I just want this all to end well, dream or not.

“I’m here,” I say softly.

In one swift move, I pull back the curtain, a gasp escaping my throat that wants to turn into a scream. Up close, Colette’s burns look like scorched bark. Her eyes are red and veiny. Bits of skin flake off her body, creating small piles of ash on her white bed sheets. Where she once had beautiful, golden curls, are now patches of hair of an indistinguishable color.

Colette reaches out for my wrist. I pull it behind my back. She freezes and looks down, a deep sadness blooming in her eyes. “Amelia.”

“W-what?”

“You’re going to be next, if you’re not careful.”

Something about the way she says this—the guttural way she pronounced the words, the darkness edging each syllable—has me immediately turning on my heel and running out of the infirmary. A single scream erupts in my head, and all I can think is how this is all a nightmare.

I will wake up. I will wake up. I will wake up.

I. Will. Wake. Up.

Chapter Six

The plum orchard’s fifty or so trees are crusted in ice and snow, some of their drooping branches forlorn. They’re all lined up in rows that look beautiful in other seasons, but now look like soldiers failing to line up in two straight lines. With the condition these trees are in, it’s hard to believe they produce lush, green leaves with beautiful plum blossoms in the spring. And the way I feel today, I look at those trees and wonder if they’re ever going to be beautiful again. I’ve always hated winter, and even more so now.

Above, the sky is an icy gray thick with clouds that look as if they’ll yield a flurry of snow soon. Since it has been weeks since I’ve been outside, I decided to go to my actual room for fur-lined boots, a wool gray dress, and a thick overcoat.

Snow crunches beneath my feet as I make my way to the gazebo centered in the orchard. Currently nothing goes through my mind other than this immediate reality. I have constructed an ice barrier against all that is negative in my life right now, so I feel nothing and do not want to feel anything for a long time. All those negatives, they’re just nightmares, and maybe this too is a nightmare I’ll eventually wake from. I’ve had nightmares before that felt like they lasted days. This can’t be any different. Or maybe I’m just in denial and will always be in denial. Either way, I’ll keep myself from breaking if I deny, deny, deny.

Oliver waves to me from the top step of the gazebo, his thin frame wrapped in a thick, black coat with a surplus of other layers underneath to keep him from going into hypothermia. His gray eyes match the sky but have far more life to them than this Malva winter. His appearance brings a small smile to my face, if only because I still have someone I can depend on, someone who makes me feel less lonely, someone who will never judge me for what I am or for what I do.

Oliver holds out a gloved hand to me and helps me up the steps, then guides me over to a white bench and sits both of us down. He smiles with lips that are a light blue. He pulls his lips inward to warm them up, and they come back out a light pink. “You look like you’re feeling a lot better.”

I lean up against the frame of the gazebo, and look out beyond the plum orchard, at the cemetery tucked in the back. The gravestones bring one thought about Colette to my mind, one I suppress by turning away and looking back at Oliver. To say I feel better would be a lie, but to tell the truth would prompt questions from Oliver I don’t want to answer. I give him my best smile and say, “I do…a lot better.”

Girlish screams arise from the other side of the orchard. In the distance, blurred gray figures throw snowballs at each other. Monday afternoons are the only times those training to be professed or those already professed have a break. Those in the trials have no such breaks. The professed relax in the cloister, away from prying eyes, during these breaks, while everyone else takes pleasure at the south transept, where there is an endless field of white and plenty of snow to build all manner of creations the mind can conjure. If I were over there, I’d dig an endless hole in which to pitch all my darkness.

Oliver grabs my hand, makes circles on the top, and looks at me with concern in his eyes. His touch brings some warmth to me, always brings warmth to me. There are times when I hate these feelings because I know I can never act on them. Then there are times when I am just appreciative of his friendship, and it is during these times when I can best suppress anything I feel for him. This is, thank Deus, one of those moments. “You’re awful at hiding misery, you know that? Now tell me what’s really wrong.”

There are too many things wrong: Colette, my sanity, those shadows, my being a witch, being out of the trials. Blast you, Oliver! I didn’t want to think about any of these things and there you go shoving them in my face as if I need to deal with them right now.

I yank my hand away from Oliver, my breath coming out in cold, ragged puffs. “I don’t need to talk about anything right now. I’m going to be fine.” I squeeze my eyes shut, the sound of my cold breathing thrumming in my ears. I snap them open. “I’m going to be fine!”

Oliver raises a black eyebrow, resting his arms on the gazebo’s frame and propping a leg on a knee. He looks like he should have a pipe in his mouth, or a Persian cat snoring at his feet. “I don’t believe in locking away pain for a later day. I believe in getting it all out in the open. We can talk about Colette, you know. I know I don’t have the relationship you have with her, but she is a coveted member of Cathedral Reims regardless.”

A coveted member, like a piece of jewelry, or a favorite book. Does anyone else care for the person she is, or is she only of use because of the strength she has that is needed to be a nun? If she dies because of her epilepsy, Cathedral Reims will move on because the girls that go through the church are just bodies in gray dresses. But not I. I will not—no, never move on.

Tiny snowflakes begin falling from the sky. I catch one with my leather-gloved palm and watch it melt into the fabric. “It’s not so easy to talk about her.”

“You’re still not convinced, are you?”

I look up from my palm. “What are you talking about?”

“That you didn’t burn her, that she just had an epileptic fit?”

Last night spirals into my head in a sickening wave. I don’t know if what I saw was real or a nightmare, but I still saw the burns on her body, and the haunting words, whatever they meant, come into my mind like a heavy waterfall: You’re going to be next, if you’re not careful. What would Oliver say if I told him this? Does it really matter if that was a nightmare or not? Either way, the premonition is chilling enough, whether or not it actually occurred. I’ve never believed in coincidences. With the presence of those shadows, which I haven’t seen recently, almost anything is possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if what I saw was a vision.

I clasp my hands in my lap and look down at them. “Oliver, can I tell you something without your thinking I’m some harebrained girl who never should have been allowed in Cathedral Reims?”

“If you’re going to convince me you set her on fire, then just stop.”

I shake my head. “That isn’t it at all.” Watching my breath plume out, I suck it in and tell Oliver about last night, even reassuring him that I’m not sure if what I saw was real, or just a nightmare. And as I’m telling him, I then begin to wonder why I’m telling him at all. Maybe it just has me scared that much and I need someone to reassure me that I’m not going insane, that I’m still all here and won’t suddenly unwind like thread from a bobble. When I finish, I pull my arms in my coat to keep myself together.

Oliver reacts in an unexpected way. He stands and pulls me in an embrace. My breathing becomes strangled as his wintry scent fills my nose. I close my eyes, pushing back the tension that swirls through me in bursts of pleasant warmth. I could melt here, slip inside Oliver and never come out. I could, and yet I shouldn’t.

He continues to hold me. “I didn’t realize how much all of this was really killing you. Poor thing, suffering with these nightmares all alone. It must have been really frightening for you, being crammed in that cell with Colette and no idea what to do when she fell into an epileptic fit. That would drive anyone to have terrible nightmares.”

His reaction wasn’t what I wanted, but the hug is pleasant, not unwanted at all, never unwanted. His hugs are the only hugs that can make me feel untouchable. Colette’s hugs can’t do the same, but I’ve accepted his hugs as a type of armor for me. Even so, I hoped he’d tell me that the nightmare meant nothing and to forget about it. I suppose in a way he’s telling me that, but his comfort is not conclusive enough. I pull away from him, fixing my eyes on the bangs that obscure his left eye. I sweep them away, and they go sideways like silk in the wind.

He resumes his usual position, arms on the gazebo’s frame, one foot propped on a knee. “What are you going to do now that Mother Aurelia won’t let you partake in the trials for another year? Go back to studying, maybe do an apprenticeship? The latter is always an option.”

His question makes me go cold all over again, and I feel my eyes darken.

“Who said I was out? I know what you told me yesterday, but I refuse to believe that…that…” I don’t even know what to say. The anger, the unfairness of being removed without another chance, consumes me, and my fists shake in a desperation that wants to leap forth in a torrent of hate. I can’t hide my feelings though. Oliver is right that I’m lousy at hiding what I’m thinking. “Mother Aurelia can’t make Colette’s problem mine!” I might regret saying this later. In the heat of the moment, I mean it.

Oliver’s eyes soften. “Amelia…”

“She can’t! Is it my fault Colette allowed her weakness to overtake her? No! So why should I suffer for what she lacks? She should have known cramped spaces would be her undoing. She should have told me. But she didn’t.” The more I talk about Colette’s epilepsy, the more I begin to believe she had an epileptic fit and I didn’t set her on fire. After all, she was writhing about, and that alone seems uncharacteristic for someone on fire. The fire could have just been a hallucination. “I’m going to go to Mother Aurelia and demand that she put me back in the initiation. I made a promise to you, Olly, and I can’t break that.”

I stand up to go, but Oliver grabs my wrist. “Amelia, you’re…I don’t even know how to put it, but this is a promise that can be broken for your sake.”

I pull my wrist away. “If you’re suggesting I’m too incapable right now, then I can’t believe you. Olly, I am determined to become professed this year. Not next or the year after. This year. For Nathaniel, for your sister Ella, for…for…for you.”

I turn away, run down the slick steps, and push through the snow as fast as my determined legs will carry me. The warmth of Oliver’s promise begins to stagnate.

Mother Aurelia’s vestry sits comfortably on the east transept, a room that opens right onto the center floor of the nave. A roaring fire commands a marble fireplace sculpted with calla lilies that make me think of Colette as I trace their stony petals with my eyes. I haven’t been near a true fire in so long. It should warm me, but I can’t even care at the moment. Mother Aurelia’s vestry is cluttered with leather bound books, and papers drown the mahogany desk. She sits among the clutter, her hands neatly folded on top, and her dark eyes studying mine. She doesn’t even offer me a chair because I didn’t knock—I barged in.

I’m generally not a brazen girl. I’m the type of girl any man would love to have for a wife if only because I make myself seen but never heard. Being professed is something I need though, so hiding my submissive qualities was easy, even after what Mother Aurelia did to me in the bloodletting room.

“What is this nonsense about your removing me from the initiation?” I ask.

She keeps studying me, her mouth a line, her face indifferent to my boorishness. “Those of us in the Professed Order just agreed you needed another year.” Her voice is kind. It is hard to believe this is the same woman who beat me, but she is only kind outside of teaching and training. Otherwise, she is a cruel schoolmarm.

I close the space between me and her desk, planting my palms on the polished wood. “But what happened to Colette wasn’t my fault.” Even if I don’t believe she was struck with epilepsy, I have to make myself believe this to get what I want. “So why are you faulting me for this?”

Mother Aurelia looks down, and to my surprise, a faint blush sneaks into her sagging cheeks. “You don’t remember, do you?” She cocks her head as though she expects me to bring up whatever I’ve forgotten. “You aren’t…mentally competent enough to handle the rigors of being professed, Miss Gareth. You proved that when Theosodore found you banging against the door, screaming Colette was on fire when she clearly wasn’t.”

A fiery heat ripens my cheeks. Now I want to hide away from the world by burying myself in the snow and hoping I’ll have a quick death by being frozen. “But…but…considering the circumstances under which it happened…” I trail off, grasping for words with a dry tongue. “It’s not fair! If Colette didn’t have epilepsy, that never would have happened!”

Mother Aurelia closes her eyes, deep ravines forming at the corners. “We cannot blame Sister Colette, Miss Gareth. What happened to her is indeed a tragedy and will be a setback to her professing, but what happened to you seems like it would have come out sooner or later. We think it might be best if you go home for the year, your brother included. He hasn’t been doing well either, and I think you know this. His socialization skills have not improved. He does not get along well with the other children.”

My mouth falls open, my fingers turning into claws as they grasp for purchase on the desk. There is fight in me still, but no more words to convince Mother Aurelia into letting me back into the initiation. Even worse, I do not wish to go home at all. Coming to Cathedral Reims was a way to keep me from ever having to go back home. My voice comes out a pathetic whimper. “I don’t want to leave.”

“That is not for you to decide, Miss Gareth, but we will discuss the matter of your going home further, if that will placate you.”

I pace my own room, throwing my hands down, spewing out words I don’t even think about. “Can you believe Mother Aurelia won’t give me another chance? She wants to send my little brother and I home, for Deus’ sake! That’s the last thing I want to do!” I stop, breathing heavily and hugging myself to keep from breaking the brick-a-bract I brought from home that sits on a cracked dresser. “Olly, I don’t want to go home. Do something!”

I turn toward the window where the moon hangs high in the air, surrounded by stars that make me think of the snowflakes falling outside.

Oliver sits on the edge of my bed in a heavy nightshirt, purple bruises beneath his eyes that stand in stark contrast against his snow-white skin. “Maybe you do need to go home for a bit, Amelia. Take a breather, a break from the convent life. You never exactly spoke horribly of your parents. You only told me you left them because you didn’t want to face whatever Seven Deadly Sin they committed that made Nathaniel a witch, or chance that they find out he is one.”

I throw myself next to him, burying my head in my hands. “And I still don’t! Going home will tear me apart, Olly. I won’t be able to see you, and I won’t know Colette’s condition.” I sigh. “It’s difficult to explain. Sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my mind around why I left, but I know it was for the best.”

He puts a hand on my back. “We’ll be all right.”

I turn toward him, my eyes wide and pleading. “Please, Olly. You have to talk them out of this decision.” The only good thing going home will do for me is I’ll be out of the reach of those shadows. Since I haven’t seen them in two days, when I used to see them every day, I’d prefer taking my chances with them than having to face two parents I left three years ago. “Please, I’m begging you.”

A small blush creeps into his cheeks. He looks away with half-lidded eyes, biting his bottom lip. He fidgets with his hands and rubs his feet over one another. “D-don’t look at me like that.”

I pull away, throwing my hands on my hips. “I’ll look at you however I please, and I’ll keep looking at you this way until you tell me you’re going to talk to the Order about sending me home.”

Oliver holds his hands up. “Fine! Fine, I’ll talk to them tomorrow. Just don’t look at me like that again, please.”

I cross my arms. “Thank you. And just what is wrong with the way I looked at you?”

His blush darkens. His words come out jumbled. “Youlookedadorable.”

“What?”

“You just—” He shakes his head. “That look does things to me, things that make me uncomfortable.”

I smile, the first real one I’ve managed in a while. “Oh, I thought you said I looked adorable.”

He snaps. “That’s not what I said!”

I laugh. “Liar.” But truthfully his compliment has me giddy in a way I’ve never been giddy before. At the same time, I don’t know why he’d believe I’m adorable. I’m far from it. I’m a wilted flower, one that has been introduced to neither sun nor water. Can male friends even think their female friends attractive? I suppose they could, if I find him attractive in a charming way. We’re strictly platonic though and will never go beyond that. Oliver knows this. “But thank you.”

Oliver looks at me, smiling as he says, “I never said you were adorable. I said nothing at all.”

Chapter Seven

When I visit Colette in the infirmary in the morning, the burns are still on her body. She does look at peace though, fully alive in a white gown, tucked under crisp sheets, and her breathing is a steady rhythm that seems to indicate she is in no pain. I want to sit down next to her and hold her hand, but fear keeps me at arm’s length from her. The fear isn’t present because of her appearance but present because I don’t understand why I can see burns no one else does. Or why I can’t see what everyone else sees.

I don’t want to believe I’m insane. I don’t feel insane, so why am I experiencing something only the insane do? I want to touch her flesh to feel for raw skin; I am too afraid of what I might feel. The life flowing through her body will have to be enough to assure me she will be all right. The tangibility of what I see before me will have to be something I accept and keep to myself, lest I give the Professed Order a reason to send me home.

Breathing in, I sit down on the stool next to her bed. The physicians haven’t determined what’s currently wrong with her. They think epilepsy might have put her in a coma—or done something worse to her mind. Those with epilepsy often recover within a few hours. Not Colette. The physicians claimed she has not stirred since the incident in the cell. I have seen her stir though. I just do not wish to remember that moment.

I think to say a prayer to her, yet the longer I stare at her, the more I become uncomfortable with the thought that I may never stop seeing the burns. “Colette, please wake up and tell me you’re all right, that you’re not in any pain,” I whisper. “Tell me you are free of wounds.”

She doesn’t move, and just continues to lie there, breathing her steady rhythm.

I groan, then smile to shadow my displeasure. “Oliver called me adorable.” A soft laugh escapes me. “I already know what you’d say to that, Colette. You’d tell me, ‘Now you know you can’t have feelings for him, Amelia. It’s forbidden. If you continue this flirting, it will only grow. Either you force yourself to banish you feelings, or you break your friendship with Oliver.’ And of course I’m not going to listen to you, I’m going to continue seeing Olly, and I’m going to promise you that nothing more will come of our friendship.”

Her eye twitches, drawing me to my feet. With my breath held, I wait for her to open her eyes. She doesn’t, and I sink back down on the stool.

“I tried, Colette. I really did.”

A groan escapes my lips over the realization that the only way for me to accept this is to touch her. As I reach out to brush the pads of my fingers over her face, I hear the sounds of boots stomping behind me, followed by a voice that sends me spiraling back to the trials, to the hair pulling, the lashes, the leeches, the fainting, the cell—all of it.

“They say if you speak to those lost in sleep, they will eventually wake up.” The words sound mocking to me. “I don’t believe in such nonsense though, but if you feel you must speak to her to comfort yourself, then carry on.”

Theosodore moves to the other side of Colette’s bed and replaces a vase of wilted flowers with freshly cut perennials. “Really, carry on. Don’t stop because of me.” He arranges the flowers in the vase. “That girl has quite the tongue on her though. Perhaps she needed a long nap.”

I shift on my stool, my nerves cutting through my muscles. I have never spoken a word to this man before and know not what to say. The spiteful part of me wants to curse him for what he just said. Another part of me, however, knows he is in Mother Aurelia’s favor, and should it get back to her that I said anything sinister to him at all, I’ll be granting the Professed Order more reasons to send my brother and I away. The only thing I can do is practically kiss his scuffed boots.

“Why don’t we pray to her then, Mr. Branch? That’s the least we can do to try to aide in her recovery.” I fumble with my hands, trying to find more words to say. “Why don’t we say our Master’s prayer to her?”

Theosodore stops arranging the flowers and looks at me with a cocked eyebrow. I think he was expecting something more biting from me. He won’t get that, not today. “Our Master’s prayer? Why, Miss Gareth, you know that is reserved for Mother Aurelia only. Allow her to grace Sister Colette with it.”

I’ve never understood why that prayer is reserved strictly for her. There aren’t any special words. It just repeats ‘O Master, O Master,’ sometimes followed by ‘free us from despair’ or ‘raise us with your light.’

“Well,” I say, “I just assumed that since Mother Aurelia is so busy, she hasn’t been able to grace Sister Colette with this special prayer. I thought that since you’re close to her, she would have entrusted you with the power of our Master’s prayer.”

Theosodore’s jagged smile overtakes his face as he turns on his heel to exit the infirmary. “That is a lovely thought, Miss Gareth, but I know what is at stake for you.” He turns to leave, pauses, and looks over his shoulder. “Between you and I, I think it would be in your best interest if the Professed Order sent you home. But not for any reasons they have.” His smile turns lascivious. He turns his head away and exits. “Mother Aurelia is nonetheless concerned. She knows what’s best for you.”

An uncomfortable heat rises in me as I watch him go. What was all that about? Why does he believe it’s in my best interest to send me home? I grip Colette’s bedspread, my knuckles whitening. Theosodore…how dare he say what he said. He has no say in Mother Aurelia’s decisions; therefore, he has no right to comment on what to do with my well-being. I stand and walk to where the perennials sit. I grab the vase, dash over to a window, and dump his “thoughtful” gift all over the snow. I then think to hurl the vase out, but other sisters might want to bring her flowers, so I set the vase back on Colette’s nightstand and settle myself back on the stool, some of my anger cooled.

I will not let the Professed Order dictate my life!

I sigh and turn my attention back to Colette. “If only you knew what Mother Aurelia wants to do with me, but I think that’d be too distressing for you to hear with the state you’re in. You only want to hear nice things, don’t you? I don’t have much else to say that is nice. Just consider Oliver’s compliment to me nice.”

Colette’s hand twitches. My eyes widen, all of me hoping that the next thing she’ll move will be her eyes. Instead she moans and starts twitching. I think to shake her by the shoulders to pull her out of this fit, but she starts writhing, and all I can do is shove the stool out from under me and start backing away. Her eyes fly open in harmony with her mouth that forms a wide o. Her face begins to crack like a dry desert, and I swear to Deus blood seeps from her flesh and slides down her face.

My hands flutter while my mind tries to grasp what I should be doing. My pulses thrum all over my body, speeding my heart rate so that it slams against my chest. My breathing comes out hurried. “C-Colette…please…stop.”

I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I can do. Deus, why are you doing this to me? Just when I think my fear can’t mount any higher, Colette contorts her body at an unnatural angle and locks empty eyes on me. Her arm reaches out. Any closer, and she will be a foot from the hem of my overcoat.

The voice that rises from her throat does not sound like hers. “They’re going to come for you all. Deus will not save you. Deus will not stop us because we are his. You will not stop us because you cannot see us.”

Instinct says I should bolt, yet fear the density of a cinder block keeps me rooted in place. “Colette, please. This isn’t you. Bring back my best friend, the girl who is always, always happy.” Tears leap to my eyes as her condition sinks into my heart. Never did I imagine she would be so helpless to whatever has her confined. “Come back to me.”

Colette then starts spouting off frightening things that make stemming the burgeoning tears impossible: shadows that will come and kill us, beings we will not be able to see, death that will swallow us silently. She can’t be talking about the shadows I’ve seen, can she? She can’t be. That’s impossible. She can’t even see them. They can only affect those who can. I attempt to rationalize her nonsense, but she keeps gushing out strings of omens; I can no longer tolerate her presence. If I stay here any longer, I’ll wind up having a fit similar to epilepsy that will ensure that I should never come back to Cathedral Reims. Without even a good-bye, I hurry out of the infirmary and make my way to the cloister to pray for her.

The cloister yard is quiet, the perfect respite I need to clear my mind. There is no witch propaganda here. The twenty foot stone wall keeps out the outside world while allowing nature to take root in the frozen earth. Pine trees, their needles and flimsy branches crusted with snow, line the sides of the cloister and provide a fresh, earthy scent that clears the mind. In the center is a fountain of a cherub holding an urn that spills water during the spring and summer. Professed nuns walk the small path through the snow that the priests sweep daily to keep pristine. Their heads are bowed, and as I walk behind them, my head bowed, I hear snippets of their prayers, all about Colette.

“Deus, please grant this child another chance.”

“Deus, she is an innocent among us.”

“Deus, her purity is a beacon to us all, a shining example for what we should all aspire to be, and we should all aspire to remain.”

I can’t help but to wonder what they would say about me if I were in Colette’s position. Would they say these nice things? Would they even pray about me at all? I doubt they’d even be aware of my absence with how readily Mother Aurelia is willing to let me go for an entire year. Then again, I have always been the sister who is seen but never heard, always the quiet, obedient one. My presence is a feeble breeze to them. Colette, on the other hand, is a tornado. She was never afraid to engage the Professed in conversations like they were her equals. They found this charming about her, and one of the nuns, who is a schoolteacher, offered to let Colette do an apprenticeship. Now she can’t.

Tightening my overcoat, I break from the monotonous path and head to the corner of the cloister where a cluster of pine trees provides shelter for those who desire to be alone. They weren’t grown for that reason, but I’m using their solitary space as an excuse to get away from people in general. I squeeze through the tight space. If I were any heavier, I wouldn’t fit. I suppose I’ve had one honeyed bun too many. Gluttony is a sin I need to be mindful of.

I turn and step on something soft. A small yelp arises beneath my foot. I pull away, and gasp. “Nathaniel! What are you doing here? Were you taking a nap in this wretched cold? You could freeze to death.” I start fretting over him, pulling him to a sitting position, wrapping my coat around him, and he wipes tired eyes with a small hand. Snow dusts his wool coat that I swipe off as though I’m beating a rug. Despite our meeting being awkward, I am overjoyed to see him. Two weeks is an eternity for a brother and sister who have such a close bond. The sister in me scolds him. “You shouldn’t be out here, Nat. You should be in class. Isn’t Sister Allyn looking for you?”

Nathaniel yawns and blinks sleep from bright blue eyes that remind me of the ocean. He shakes snow from hair mixed with the colors of autumn. My brother was just born beautiful. It’s almost a shame he’s going into the priesthood because he is going to be desirable when he’s older. “I-I wasn’t trying to sleep. I was hiding.”

I pull him to me and rest my head on top of his. His hair smells like snow and mint leaves. “Hiding from what?”

Nathaniel goes rigid in my arms. A single shiver passes through him. “You’ll think I’m being silly or just playing games.”

“Well, according to Mother Aurelia, the Professed Order thinks the exact same thing of me, Nat. One can’t get any sillier than me, so whatever you have to say will probably seem perfectly reasonable.”

He shakes his head and looks up at me with eyes full of uncertainty. “I know what Mother Aurelia wants to do with us. Sister Allyn told me. She wants to send us home, doesn’t she? But you said it would have been bad if we stayed at home. Why would she want to send us back there?”

I know Nathaniel is just avoiding my question, and I suppose I shouldn’t badger him about it now. Perhaps this is what Mother Aurelia meant when she claimed Nathaniel is being as out of sorts as I am. I suppose a penchant for lunacy runs in the Gareth line indeed. I’ll have to figure him out later.

“I’m trying to get her to change her mind, Nat. I don’t want to go home any more than you do.”

Nathaniel pulls away from me and looks me full in the face. “Why did you take us away from Mother and Father three years ago?”

The question sends an uncomfortable jolt through me. I don’t want to have to remind him of what he is, of what I may be too. The thought is already ghastly enough, but to have to speak it out loud in a cloister where only peace is supposed to preside is damning, something I’m certain is a Seven Deadly Sin somewhere. I pull him back to me and keep him tight in my arms. Even if everything else is going wrong in my life right now, at least I have him to cling on to, the last shred of hope that gives my life meaning.

“Mother and Father…they would have eventually hurt us, Nat, do you understand that? I didn’t want them to hurt us. You know I came here for you.”

Nathaniel dips his head low. “But I hate it here.”

A pang of guilt twists my heart. Mother Aurelia said he wasn’t fitting in, but I had no idea he hated being here. “Why?”

“Because the nuns can be mean. If I talk out of turn, or if I even fidget in my desk, they beat my hand with a ruler, sometimes a leather strap. And none of my classmates are friendly. They think I don’t belong. A girl named Ann cornered me and asked me what I wanted to do here. I said I wanted to join the priesthood, and she just laughed. Her friends laughed with her.”

No wonder why he doesn’t want friends. It’s hard to trust people if one’s first true interaction is unpleasant. Back home, Nathaniel and I didn’t interact with outsiders much. The only outsiders we interacted with were our tutor and maids, but they grew to be like family to us.

Nathaniel starts picking at his nails. I notice they are ragged, the cuticles caked with bits of blood. My eyes widen, and I have to cup his hands with my own to keep Nathaniel from maiming himself more. “People tease me so much that I’ve wondered if I’m even capable of joining the priesthood. Amelia, why do you want me to join the priesthood? What if I don’t want that for myself?”

Anymore pangs of guilt and I think my heart will implode. I’ve never told Nathaniel in concrete detail why I do the things I do for him. I just assumed at the time when he was five that his mind wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Now that he’s eight, I still feel that way. I still want to give him vague, childish answers full of the innocence I see dying in his eyes. Girls and boys sent to the convent at a young age are already ruthless because their parents bred them that way. Nathaniel was never prepared, and I should have known this. But I was just as naive then as I am now.

“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, Nat. These things ultimately work out for us in the long run, even if we hate it every step of the way. This world doesn’t give us much when we’re born. It doesn’t assign us a higher calling. I wanted to give that to you, Nat, and I know you hate it now, but I hope one day you’ll thank me for it. I know it’s hard. It’s hard for me too, but it’s something we have to pull through.”

Nathaniel sighs and hugs his knees to his chest, retreating more inside himself. “I want to go home. You’re just being mean to me now and keeping things from me. I’m not a baby.”

His comment stings me. I release my hold on his hands, growing small against him. “They would have hurt us eventually.”

Nathaniel stands, fists balled at his sides. A flare of anger erupts in his eyes, anger I have never seen in him. “How would they have hurt us? You keep telling me that because of who I am they would have hurt me eventually. I bet they’ve spent all this time looking for us!”

I never knew such wrath could come from such a small boy. “Nat, please…”

He shakes his head and stomps his foot in a childish tantrum. “I’m going to my room now. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

I reach out a hand as Nathaniel whips away from me. “Nat, please…just listen to me.”

He doesn’t even look at me. He slips with ease through the space of the pine trees and dashes away across the cloister yard. I sit there, wetness from melted snow creeping through my overcoat, too stunned to move. Nathaniel has never once been angry with me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to tell the truth, and even now that I think about it, the truth sounds ridiculous. Mother and Father never once displayed any sign that they were going to come undone, and I was with them ten years longer than Nathaniel.

Maybe it’s I who is coming undone.

Just as I’m about to make my way through the trees, the crunching of multiple pairs of boots freezes me in place. Through the space of trees, I make out black cloaks: the shadows. They block my path, and if I were to try and escape, I’d touch one of them, and that Sash boy’s curiosity of me would be satiated and I’d wind up dead. I scramble to the back of the trees, hide myself in the shadows, and wait.

“We need more,” one of them says, one that is neither Sash nor Asch.

Another one speaks up, this time female. “We’ve already gotten one. Isn’t there another one here, Asch?” More snow crunches, and what sounds like an affectionate kiss meets my ears. “Isn’t there?”

Asch answers with, “There is, Gisbelle.”

“Then where is she?” I hear several shadows bristle at her tone. Several mumble to each other. “We need more!”

Asch sighs. “Patience. I’m not certain, but we’ll find her. We were able to find one. This is our place of mission, after all. Purgatory wouldn’t want us to give up without finding every one in this area. Sash is currently taking care of one thing right now.”

“Sasha is a reckless child.”

“But Sash is a strategic boy.”

They stop speaking and start walking toward the trail. No doubt they are talking about me, but who is the other one? As I stand and wipe snow off me, a horrible revelation occurs that the other one must be Colette because she was with me when they were around. Then again, if they are looking for witches, Colette can’t be who they’re talking about. She is not a witch. She can’t be one.

In any case, I harmed Colette beyond repair, so they would have no use for her. She also can’t see them.

I’m not going to get anywhere with this confusion, so I leave through the trees and head for the infirmary, determined to get answers out of Colette, even if I have to force them from her.

Chapter Eight

Without hesitation, I reach out and touch Colette’s face. I run the pads of my fingers over the rough-hewn flesh, and make circles over the scant patches of raw skin. I want to curl inside myself and cry and scream over the fresh truth peeling out in burnt flakes just beneath my fingertips. I did burn Colette. I am a witch. The truth puts my mind in a box that presses in on my scattered thoughts from all sides, until they are crushed to one tiny point and pitched into the chasm of suppressed memories. All that can break through my muddled thoughts is the heartrending present before me.

I pull my hand away, digging my nails in my palm as painful tears try to push themselves out of my eyes. “I-I’m so sorry, Colette.” I wipe my eyes. “Please forgive me. I never meant to hurt you, I hope you know.”

I swallow more burgeoning tears. For whatever reasons I can see the burns no longer matter. My best friend is suffering because of me. She may never be the same, if she ever wakes up. Maybe going home is in my best interest. After all, a witch doesn’t belong at Cathedral Reims. Then I hear Colette’s voice in my head: ‘If you don’t feel like quitting, then you haven’t failed. We will get through this, and we will be the best professed nuns the convent has ever seen.’ And I don’t feel like quitting. Colette wouldn’t want that for me. We cannot be the best professed nuns Cathedral Reims has ever seen, but I still can. Like Nathaniel with his dark secret, I will have to bury mine so deep in my heart, one could cut my heart open and still wouldn’t find it.

I look at the burns, trying to unravel that point in my mind to sort out my thoughts, and one sickening memory climbs out of the chasm. The shadows want me, I’m certain, because Sash was trying to touch me. My being able to see the burns on Colette may have something to do with this. That is the only connection I can draw between them and this. Perhaps it’s a baseless connection, but it is the only way I can make sense of the situation.

I step away from Colette, straighten myself, and with a firm voice, ask, “Colette, can you see the shadows?”

Her eyes move rapidly beneath her lids. She remains silent. I wish there were some way for me to get inside her head and pry the answers from her. I wish—

“Amelia!”

I whirl around, finding Oliver breathless by the door frame, his bangs drooping even more than usual over panicked, gray eyes.

I hasten over to Oliver and grab his wrist. “Olly, you have to feel Colette’s face. You have to!”

He yanks his wrist away from me. “Amelia, I haven’t any time for this! Your brother—” He looks toward the window and swallows hard. “Your brother is in trouble.”

“What do you mean he’s in trouble? I was just talking to him not long ago, or rather getting in a little spat, but he’ll forgive—”

Oliver sighs. “Dear Deus, come on!” He grabs my wrist, dragging me into the hall of the north transept. “We don’t have any time to stand around. I don’t know what’s going on, but I was just coming back from the greenhouse with some tomatoes for tonight’s dinner when I saw Nathaniel on the roof of the east transept.”

I pry his fingers off my wrist as we cross the nave and make a sharp turn into the east transept. “Are you telling me Nat is up there, and you didn’t bother doing anything while you could?” The reasons for why he could be on the roof turn broken waltzes in my mind, and my stomach knots. It’s bad enough he hates being at Cathedral Reims. What if he had a mental breakdown? The nuns found Marie on the roof of the horse barn when she was coming undone. She threw herself off and broke her leg, smiling as she looked up with crazed defiance in her eyes. “Oh, Olly, you don’t think he’s going to jump, do you?”

Oliver entwines his cool fingers in mine. His hand is so soft. “It’ll be all right, Amelia. It’ll be all right.” We stop at the entrance to the stairwell that leads all the way to the roof. The door is ajar, indicating Nathaniel did come this way, likely after our fight in the cloister. Oliver squeezes my hand and pulls me up into the darkness, our only guidance being his hand that feels our way to the top. “Everything will be all right, Amelia. We’ll talk to him. We’ll find out what’s going on. Don’t blame yourself, all right?”

I give a tight nod, biting my bottom lip and praying Nathaniel hasn’t done anything stupid. Oliver yanks the door open, subdued light from snow clouds pouring into the dark stairwell. Across from us, Nathaniel sits behind the speared finial gate bordering the top of the south transept that overlooks an endless field of white. To the left are the barns, dormitories, green house, bloodletting room, and other buildings all coated in snow. Above us loom two towers that soar hundreds of feet above the nave whose pointed roof I can make out between the space of the towers. I should be grateful Nathaniel didn’t decide to climb on one of those, but he could still break his neck, even though this transept is half the height of the nave.

Oliver and I step out on to the concrete landing, a shudder racking my body as the late winter chill caresses my skin with sharp, icy fingers. Oliver seems to notice my shivering, for he peels off the outer coat of his white robes and wraps the wool material around me. I smile at him and cross over to Nathaniel. My heels dig into the concrete in an abrupt stop when I see smoke curling in front of Nathaniel. Eyes widening, I stomp over to him and yank the cigarette out of his small hand, my little brother coughing in the process.

He looks up at me, his eyes widening. “A-Amelia…”

“Nathaniel Gareth!” I stamp out the cigarette, then throw the nasty beast into the field of endless white. Any sympathy I had mustered to confront him disappears. There is a tin of cigarettes sitting beside him. Who would give a child a tin of cigarettes? “What do you think you’re doing up here? I was worried to death about you when Oliver told me, and here you are smoking, of all the things you could be doing! Why?”

Oliver comes up behind me and rubs my shoulders, his voice a cool whisper in my ear. “Calm down, Amelia. Think about why he’s up here in the first place.”

I pull in a deep breath, letting the wintry air settle in my lungs. Oliver is right. He’s always right. He’s the only person in the world who can bring me back to rationality. “All right.” My eyes turn gentle as they settle on Nathaniel’s eyes. His are rimmed with red. I bend down to his level and put my hands on his shoulders. “Nat, what’s wrong? Why are you up here?”

His eyes water. He covers the cigarette tin, his cheeks burning.

“Give that to me,” I say gently.

He nods, handing the tin to me. I take it from him and put it in Oliver’s coat. “I-I’m sorry,” he says, rubbing his eyes.

“Is this about our fight earlier?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Then what is it?”

I’m about to take his hand like an affectionate sister, when I spy a single diamond dangling from a silver bracelet clutched in his fist. I blink a few times to make certain I’m not imaging this piece of expensive jewelry that clearly does not belong to him. Smoking and stealing—not two things I would have expected from my brother. “Nathaniel…” I grab his hand and pry his fingers off the bracelet. “Where did you get this? Be honest with me.”

He shrinks away from me. “No…”

“You know you can tell me anything, Nat, no matter how silly it sounds.”

Oliver bends down beside me, ruffling Nathaniel’s hair. “Go on, Natty. She’s not going to bite your head off, I promise.” He winks, bringing a small smile from Nathaniel.

“You promise you won’t laugh?” Nathaniel asks.

Oliver smiles. “Now why would we?”

Nathaniel starts picking at his cuticles, and to my horror, there is fresh blood in the corners. I want to scold him to break him of this bad habit, but he seems calmer, so I will deal with this later.

“Her name is Isis…” Nathaniel looks away, a soft blush creeping back into his cheeks. He closes his eyes.

Oliver and I raise eyebrows at each other, then smiles overtake our faces, one I try to suppress knowing I could be condoning his stealing this bracelet. “That’s adorable, Nat. You have a little lady!”

“Now if only you could talk your sister into the same thing,” Oliver says.

My eyes widen, and I elbow him, tempted to kick him too.

Nathaniel’s blush deepens. “She isn’t mine.”

I pull Nathaniel’s hands into mine, then run my hands up his sleeves to steal some of the warmth from his arms. “If she isn’t yours, then why did you steal this bracelet?”

He looks down at the concrete with half-lidded eyes. “I know I shouldn’t have taken it from Ann. I just—Isis is really nice, and her parents are rich, and I didn’t want to give her some stupid ark I made out of sticks for arts and crafts. I wanted to give her something I knew she would like.”

I keep rubbing his arm, exposing his forearm to the cold. “This is Ann’s bracelet? Nat—” A dark bruise on his forearm snips off the rest of my sentence. “What happened here?” I prod the injury, bringing a wince from Nathaniel. “You didn’t do this yourself, did you?”

Oliver scoots in closer and inspects the bruise. Nathaniel shakes his head.

“Then what happened?” I ask.

“This is a nasty bruise,” Oliver says. “It looks like the shape of someone’s fingers.”

I grip Nathaniel’s shoulders, steeling my eyes on his bright blue ones. “Nat, tell me what happened. Who did this to you?” Nathaniel just stands there and chews his bottom lip, his posture indicating he does not plan to give me an answer any time soon. I take a safe guess. “It was Ann, wasn’t it?”

Nathaniel says nothing.

“Oliver, we’re going to find Ann,” I say, clutching her bracelet in my angry fist. If diamond were weak, I’d shatter the rock on her skull for hurting my little brother. Now I can’t blame him for taking the bracelet from her. A little bit of sweet revenge if Ann were to walk around the cathedral seeing this little Isis with it.

I grab Oliver’s wrist and turn toward the stairwell. Nathaniel digs his fingers in the back of the coat, his voice coming out panicked. “No, Amelia, please! She’ll hurt me!” Tears choke his voice. “Just let it be. I’ll give the bracelet back to her, I promise.”

Oliver looks over his shoulder and presents Nathaniel with a devious smile. “Oh, she won’t be bothering you, Nathaniel. I’ll make certain of that.”

I have no idea what Oliver has planned, but I do trust him when he says he’ll make certain Ann never harms my little brother again. Oliver has always been like an older brother for Nathaniel, being just as protective toward him as I am. If something were to ever happen to me, I would trust Nathaniel’s life with Oliver. With Nathaniel in tow, we make our way back down the darkened stairwell chilled with the breath of winter.

We find Ann and her cohorts outside the dormitories bearing the appearance of refurbished barns. These dormitories, situated outside the north transept, are reserved for those training to be in the priesthood and those who are new arrivals into the sisterhood training to be professed nuns. After one year, sisters get their own rooms, while the boys will always be stuck in the dormitories until they are accepted as priests into the Professed Order.

Ann is sitting on a stone bench, surrounded by three boys, ranging in various heights, who look around her age—older than Nathaniel. I dig the diamond further in my palm to staunch the rage over knowing this much older girl is bullying someone younger, smaller, and weaker than her.

Standing akimbo, I hold out her bracelet. “Ann?”

She turns her round face toward us, dropping a dirty blonde curl she was twirling around a pudgy finger. The only thing pretty on this child is her bright green eyes. Otherwise she looks like a piglet, with her flabby cheeks, wild mane of curly hair, and chubby body.  I can see why she’s at a convent.

She leaps from the bench, her eyes trailing the sparkle from the diamond in the scant sunlight. “My bracelet!” She storms over to me and rips the trinket from my hand. She looks behind me at my crouched brother. “I knew you took my bracelet, you little demon! You’ve been eyeing this thing ever since my father sent it to me!”

Nathaniel shrinks further behind me.

“Not so fast, Ann,” I say. “You gave Nathaniel a little present of his own, a rather nasty present I should say.” I straighten myself to appear taller, even though I think I have six inches over her already. “Would you mind telling me what you did to Nathaniel to grace his forearm with such a nasty bruise?”

Nathaniel groans. “Amelia…”

The three boys move in, closing in behind her. Perhaps it’s just my mood, but they look like little piglets as well, though they do not bear the pudgy figure of Ann.

“You’re quite the sight,” one says, scanning my body with dark eyes while licking his lips. “Although the face could use some work.”

Oliver moves in front of me, making me scoot back. Disgust slithers in my stomach. The boys gasp at Oliver’s presence. I assume they couldn’t see him before. Those white priest robes do blend in well with the snow, as well as his equally pale face. They might not have even recognized him.

“M-Mr. Cromwell,” the shortest of the boys says.

He crosses his arms. “Shouldn’t you boys be in your studies right now? If I recall, I’m giving you a test tomorrow, and if you fail that, you’ll have to clean the latrines for the next three weeks. I have the Professed Order’s backing on this one, if you so choose to challenge me.”

“He’s right, Ralphie,” the tallest speaks up.

Ralphie bows at Oliver and backs away. “A-all right, Mr. Cromwell. Ann, we’ll be in the dormitories studying.” The three boys back away, keeping their eyes on Oliver for a few paces, then turn and bolt toward the dormitories.

Ann looks ready to make chase after him. “I-imbeciles.”

“Not you, Miss Corsairs,” Oliver says. “Bullying is a punishable offense, one I feel should be reported to the Professed Order.”

She narrows her eyes. “That brat stole my bracelet! He wouldn’t have that bruise if I didn’t suspect him of theft!”

I put a protective arm around Nathaniel. My brother will not win this fight if it is indeed true that he took the bracelet before Ann even did anything to him. The bruise isn’t justified, but that can be deemed an accident, even excused as a young girl not knowing her own strength, while Nathaniel’s sin of theft could get him expelled from Cathedral Reims. The smirk on Oliver’s face, however, tells me he has more blackmail planned.

“Whether or not this is true, Miss Corsairs, you knew that upon entering the convent that you couldn’t bring in such luxurious items as jewelry. You’ve been here for a year as well, so you must certainly know by now that those desiring to be nuns can’t dabble in the luxuries of the outside world.”

I loosen my hold on Nathaniel, his small body beginning to relax against mine.

Oliver continues. “If you tell the Professed Order what Nathaniel did, I will make certain your bracelet is confiscated—and revoke your mail privileges. You won’t be allowed to receive any mail in a year, in any case, not even letters, so I don’t think it would do you too much damage to start implementing that right now. I know how much you dearly love your father. We do read all mail to make certain there is no slander against Cathedral Reims before sending it out. As I recall, we didn’t send out one of your letters because you insulted Sister Allyn, calling her ‘a fat hippo with the brains of a worm.’”

Ann’s small mouth drops open as mine opens in a laugh. “But-I—” She clenches her fists, then points an accusing finger at Nathaniel. “He’s a witch! That’s what he is! I’ll tell the Professed Order, I will!” Nathaniel shrinks so much against her accusing words to the point where it seems he disappears.

My eyes widen in rage. An accusation is all it takes to bring out an investigation, and they would find Nathaniel to be a witch because they do torture the accused to expose their fire. And those who aren’t witches often die, for the methods chosen become deadlier in a desperate attempt to prove the accusers right. “You can’t—”

“Miss Corsairs!” Oliver narrows his eyes, and he crosses his arms. “Would you like to repeat this lie at the altar, in front of Deus?” Ann’s accusatory demeanor does not waver. Guilt won’t work for this brat. “I see, then. Would you like me to write your father home then, detailing every punishable offense you have been involved in? I can do that. He can also feel free to pull you from Cathedral Reims and send you to a finishing school to train as a governess. Originally, that’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? But you didn’t want that.”

Ann grinds her teeth. “You won’t do it if I tell the Professed Order Nathaniel is a witch. You won’t be able to do anything.”

Ann is right, but Oliver doesn’t concede.

“Your word against mine? That’s laughable.” Oliver wags a finger at her. “No, no, Miss Corsairs. We can keep this little incident under wraps if you never bother Nathaniel again, and if you leave for the library right now. You shouldn’t be out here anyway. I can also let the Professed Order know where you were, and further privileges will be revoked, as well as a decided-upon punishment for this little infraction. If I were you, I’d get to the library and study The Vulgate, like you were supposed to have been doing.”

Her face burns red. She opens her mouth to say more, only to be cut off by a simple chin raise from Oliver that implies ‘my word is final, and if you say anything more, I will simply let the Professed Order know of what you did, regardless of whether or not you let them know that Nathaniel stole your bracelet, and regardless of whether or not you accuse him of being a witch.’

“I have enough power to get you expelled, Ann,” Oliver says, his word final. “I know you don’t want to be a governess. Getting petty revenge against Nathaniel isn’t worth it for you, and I know this.”

With a final huff from Ann, she composes herself and storms away from us. When she disappears into the building, I let out a single laugh and look at Oliver with bright eyes and a huge smile.

“Olly, you’re grand!” Ann will not be accusing my little brother of witchcraft any time soon, not if she wants to stay here.

He gives me an embarrassed smile. “No one bullies your little brother, Amelia. And no one certainly bullies you, especially not a hormonal driven boy who should be shackled to the wall until he calms down.” He shrugs. “You’re privileged to have a priest for a friend.”

I think to hug Oliver, but then restrain that thought over knowing what that hug could to do me. I’m already feeling giddy and warm over Oliver’s actions against Ann. With the smile still plastered on my face, I turn this cheeriness toward Nathaniel. The smile drops.

“Nat, what’s wrong?”

Nathaniel is rigid against me, his pupils shrunk to the size of a pin tip. He trembles, releasing breaths that come out in icy wisps. Oliver kneels to his height and cups his face with both hands. He turns Nathaniel’s head from side to side.

“We need to get him to the infirmary, Amelia. I think he’s in shock.”

My hands tighten on Nathaniel’s shoulders. “Shock? Over what?”

Nathaniel’s breathing turns heavy. He starts gasping. Oliver runs behind Nathaniel and pats his back. “Deep breaths,” he tells him. “Deep breaths.”

His breaths don’t deepen. They come out ragged. He opens his mouth to speak; however, any words he wanted to say are cut short when the ragged breaths turn to loud gasps that make me think he’s choking.

I bend down in front of Nathaniel and look into his eyes. “Nat? Nat!” His eyes are not focused on me. They are focused on some point above my head. I want to follow his eyes to see where he is looking, but Nathaniel twitches, and then just collapses in Oliver’s arms, his head lolling to the side. “Nathaniel!”

Chapter Nine

In the infirmary, Sister Lila removes the thermometer from Nathaniel’s mouth and confirms he doesn’t have a fever. “It’s likely shock,” she says, dipping the implement in a cup of boiling water and then gathering her various other doctor tools. “From what, I don’t know, but I’ll keep him in here for the rest of the day and overnight for observation. If his condition improves by tomorrow, he’ll be released with strict orders to not overdo anything.”

Sister Lila bundles her instruments in her apron, and with a warm smile, exits the infirmary, leaving Oliver and I alone.

I touch Nathaniel’s soft cheek. It’s warm, but not fever warm.

“Shock, is that right?” Oliver says with narrowed eyes. “I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising. Maybe it was Ann’s accusation.”

I shake my head. “I don’t think it could be enough to do this though.”

“Maybe it’s those cigarettes. You said it’s obvious he’s smoked more than one. What did you do with the tin?”

“I still have it,” I say. “I’ll discard it later. Perhaps it was the smoking. He’s too young to be doing that. His body can’t handle it. He was coughing when I pulled that thing out of his hand. He was gasping before he fainted.”

Oliver shrugs. “Then maybe not shock, but an inability to breathe at the time?”

I run the back of my hand along Nathaniel’s cheek, hoping the touch will pull him from this temporary sleep. I don’t want to assume what happened without being able to ask Nathaniel what he thinks happened to him. “He was looking at something before he fainted.”

“I wouldn’t say he was looking at anything,” Oliver says. “He was spacing out.”

“That look didn’t appear spacey to me.”

There is an answer for Nathaniel’s condition, rubbing at the folds of my brain, but to speak the possibility out loud is too harrowing. Sister Marie began to have such fits before her final undoing, where the nuns discovered her one morning, coated in her own blood after she took a pair of scissors and dug into her flesh. No one understood what pushed Sister Marie to the brink of insanity, to the most frightening pits that spoke the terrifying words she etched into her skin: abuse, hurt, pain, fear, blood, suicide. The letters were jagged, almost incomprehensible, but they were there. I think I’m beginning to understand though. There are things that go on at Cathedral Reims that no one wants to talk about because others who have been here before us just accepted things as they were.

The nuns are allowed to beat us. Most don’t, but some do. I have been lucky enough in my time here to avoid the ones who do. Sister Marie wasn’t. Nathaniel doesn’t seem like he is lucky either. I should have listened when he told me about the nun who hit his hand. That is just the start. The older one gets, the worse the beatings.

Sometimes Sister Marie would have bruises on her arms that she covered with worn habits she’d steal from the laundry room. Sometimes she would have chafe marks marred into her skin, from the backboards used during deportment lessons—not because this is a common occurrence when one is strapped to a backboard, but because a certain nun may pull it too taut if she is not happy with the way a sister is carrying herself. And then sometimes sisters would blame Sister Marie, that she brought all these beatings upon herself because she did not come into Cathedral Reims with the natural attitude of a nun. She was not born with perfect posture, a soft voice, a pleasant smile, and a mind meant to be molded for convent life. She had to be broken because she never wanted to be here. Unfortunately, she had nowhere else to go—or so she thought, before an asylum wrapped her in its sterile clutches.

“What are you thinking about, Amelia?” Oliver tilts my face up at him, making me realize I’ve been staring at some point on Nathaniel for minutes. “This isn’t your fault, so you better not be blaming yourself.”

I shake my head. “I’m so selfish, Olly,” I say, trying to push back the tears that pound against my eyes. “Nathaniel told me he didn’t want to be here. If I make him stay, I’d hate to think what will happen to him.”

Oliver touches my hair, a pleasant shiver spreading along my skull. “Amelia…” He toys with the braid draped over my shoulder. “He doesn’t have to stay.” He undoes the braid and drags his fingers through my hair, heat pulsing up my neck. “You don’t have to stay.”

I look at Nathaniel, then dart my eyes over to Colette’s curtain-shrouded bed. The tears can’t stay dammed forever. They come, and I throw myself at Oliver, shirking all decorum and all that other nonsense Cathedral Reims expects from sisters. I am human, as is my brother. We crave affection, we crave affirmation that what we’re doing is right, and we crave all that Cathedral Reims forbids.

“Maybe this isn’t meant to be,” I say, burying my face in Oliver’s soft shoulder, surrounding myself in his wintry scent that pushes out the medicinal smells of the infirmary. “You’re right, Oliver.”

He strokes my hair with his soft fingertips, threading one strand of hair at a time as he does. “I never said Cathedral Reims wasn’t meant to be for you, Amelia. It’s what you want. All I said is that perhaps you need a break. But that light in your eyes, that beautiful determination, it tells me you want this for yourself, and how can I deny you that? In spite of how much I may disagree with what goes on around here, I can’t tell you that what you want is wrong or stupid. That would be foolish of me.”

I look up, latching on to his gray eyes that reflect the wintry sky outside. “It’s what I want. But it’s me who wants this, not Nathaniel. I can’t send him home…alone.”

“And why can’t you?”

I look at Nathaniel, my cheeks burning with shame. “I have to protect him.”

“Amelia—”

Nathaniel moans, clipping off whatever Oliver wanted to tell me. His eyebrows tremble, his eyelids steadily lifting to reveal tired blue eyes. He looks from me to Oliver, then back to me again, confusion beginning to settle in his eyes. He sits up, keeping the blanket wrapped around him. “Amelia, what happened?” he asks, his voice soft.

I pull away from Oliver, my face heating up. The opposite sex isn’t allowed to hug at Cathedral Reims. Our interactions can only ever be formal, and Oliver has convinced the Professed Order that that is all our relationship is. It’s lucky he is a trusted member. Any other boy would not be able to get away with convincing the Professed Order of anything without some level of established trust. It is only younger children allowed to mingle—with supervision—as they are not of age yet.

“You don’t remember?” I ask, brushing bangs out of his weary eyes.

He shakes his head, his hand entwining with mine.

“You were looking at something before you fainted,” I say.

Nathaniel’s eyes widen. He lets go of my hand and pulls the blanket up to his neck.

I touch his back with the tips of my fingers. “What were you looking at?”

“I wasn’t looking at anything!”

“Nat, I’m not accusing you of anything. I just want to know.”

He shakes his head.

Oliver puts a firm hand on Nathaniel’s back, our fingertips touching. “Natty, you don’t have to be ashamed. Tell us what happened. What do you think made you faint? Were you feeling sick earlier today?”

Nathaniel keeps shaking his head, his eyes squeezed shut. An eight year old shouldn’t have to go through this. I am the most terrible older sister that has ever existed. What kind of sister am I to put my little brother in a situation like this?

I pull my hand away from Nathaniel. “It’s all right, Nat. You don’t have to tell us anything. But know that I love you and I am here for you, if you want to talk.”

Nathaniel looks down at the bed with half-lidded eyes. A spark of resentment appears, then dissipates as a small voice chirps from the entrance of the infirmary.

“Nathaniel!”

All three of us turn our heads to find Nurse Lila clasping the small hand of a girl with bright blonde hair and blue-gray eyes that stand out amongst her porcelain skin. She prances over to him.

Nathaniel blushes, pulling the sheet up to hide his burning cheeks. “Isis…”

Oliver smiles at me. “I think we should give these two some alone time. Sister Lila will supervise.”

I grin, knowing that Nathaniel is disguising an embarrassed smile beneath that sheet. “I suppose you’re right. I’m quite tired, in any case. It’s getting late.”

“I’ll escort you to your room,” Oliver says.

I kiss Nathaniel on the top of his head. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Nathaniel nods. Isis crawls on to the bed with him while Oliver and I exit the infirmary.

On our way to the rooms on the second floor, I admit to Oliver a watered-down version of why I think Nathaniel fainted. “I am selfish, Olly, for wanting Nat to stay when he doesn’t need to. I think the stress got to him, not the smoking, or anything else. Perhaps that’s why he fell into shock. Being out there with Ann and all, and those demon boys. Poor thing. It must have gotten to him.”

Oliver puts his hand on my back, the slight touch making me want more. The walls of Cathedral Reims are so repressive that they push in on me and quash any desires I have for him.

“Probably,” he says, looking around. At this time of day, Cathedral Reims is mostly empty due to everyone attending the last Liturgy of the Hour before bedtime. So it is just Oliver and I as we climb the winding stairs to the second floor. “I told you not to blame yourself, Amelia. You were doing what you thought was best. You’re not perfect, and you shouldn’t try to be.” He stops us at the landing of the second floor, the wood groaning beneath our feet. It’s just the first floor with stone flooring. “Maybe we should go back downstairs, to the nave.”

Oliver makes a grab for my hand, but I pull it in the coat. “No, Oliver. We shouldn’t. They’ll be coming out soon, you know. They’ll cross the nave to get to the dormitories and their rooms.”

His face falls. “But that won’t be for a bit.”

My cheeks flush. “Oliver, we can’t.”

“I understand, but truly, why?”

“You know the rules, Olly. You know how things are supposed to be between us. It’s worse for nuns, especially. You’ll just be given a slap on the hand, but I’ll be exiled.” I close my eyes, soaking in the reality of the implications we toss between each other. “Nothing but this can ever exist between us, Oliver.”

His eyes fall to the scuffed floor. “Not even in secret?”

“Not even in secret. So whatever we feel about each other, we just have to ignore.”

He frowns. “Like we’ve been doing this whole time, Amelia? I just can’t do that, seeing you every day, with your hair, your eyes, your smile.” He turns away, his cheeks flushing a light purple, a peculiar color for a blush, but his blush, nonetheless.

“Would you rather be my friend, or not have me at all, because if you can’t control yourself, then it will have to be the latter.”

Oliver says nothing and starts down the tight corridor of shuttered classrooms and study areas. Not a soul breathes behind them—only the knowledge of Cathedral Reims exists behind those doors when no one occupies those rooms. From day one, those rooms contain everything anyone in the Professed Order ever needs to know and nothing else. We don’t need to know anything else, certainly not about feelings or being human.

We make it halfway down the corridor, when Oliver stops me again. “Since nothing can ever happen between us, can I at least kiss you?”

I raise my eyebrow, an intense heat blossoming in my stomach that threatens to seep under every edge of me. “What will kissing do? If you like it, you’re going to want more.”

“I just want to know what it’s like to kiss you, that’s all. And once I know, I don’t think I’ll want any more.”

I sigh, mulling over his request. I’m about to decide, when I hear a familiar pair of boots pound in the direction of the stairwell that leads to the first floor. None other than Theosodore Branch appears, bearing a jagged smile that makes me want to run to my room.

“There you are, Miss Amelia Gareth. I see Oliver Cromwell is in your company.” He raises an eyebrow in a suggestive manner. “I hope he is simply being a gentleman. After all, you know what will happen if there is anything more. But I digress. I merely came to fetch you. Mother Aurelia would like to have a word with you. Your little brother is already in her vestry, waiting patiently for you.” He then approaches me and brings his voice down to a barely audible whisper. “I would stay away from Oliver, if I were you. Period.”

Mother Aurelia throws a log in the fire, the flames blazing and crackling with sparks that land on marble tiles set into the parquet floor. She settles her enormous bulk in her chair, and turns to face Nathaniel and I who sit on small stools that make me feel feeble.

She clasps her hands in front of her. “With the recent events of the past few days, I have come to a reasonable conclusion of what needs to happen.”

I shrink away from the words, a metal coil wrapping itself around my heart.

“I will not be reconsidering sending the both of you home. You will leave tomorrow afternoon. Oliver will escort you to Norbury.”

No grand speeches. No warnings. Just the blunt truth. The metal coil pierces my heart. “How did you know I lived in Norbury?”

“Mr. Gareth,” she gestures at Nathaniel, “was kind enough to provide me with an address, and an explanation that the both of you have not seen your parents in three years, all the more reason to send you home. I’m certain they’re worried to high heaven about where you’ve been. I’m rather shocked they never knew you came here. Generally the decision to come here rests with the parents.” Then that should be all the more reason for me to stay, considering it was my decision alone. “Make no mistake, Miss Gareth. Mr. Cromwell will deliver you to Norbury, where I will then make certain he personally delivers you to your home. I will then expect a call from your parents to confirm that you have indeed arrived. Otherwise, Oliver will be demoted.”

My mouth hangs open knowing Oliver’s position in the Professed Order is being threatened. Part of me wants to scold Nathaniel for relaying information about our home, but I never told him to keep anything but what and who he is a secret. Another part of me wants to scream at Mother Aurelia for cementing this decision without giving me another chance to prove that she is wrong.

A clock above the door chimes. She looks up. “The Liturgy of the Hour has ended. I expect the both of you to start packing once you get to your respective rooms. I will write to you when I feel you are ready to come back to Cathedral Reims. Do not see this as a punishment, but a brief respite. The convent life is not easy.”

With nothing more to say, Mother Aurelia gestures us out of her vestry and heads toward the south transept, where her private bedchambers are snuggled in a deep recess. For a moment, I cannot move. She did not give us a time limit. She will only write to us when she feels she is ready for our return. That could be never, considering she knows my parents never approved of my coming here in the first place.

I ball my fists by my sides, tears glazing my eyes. I worked so hard to get to where I am, and all of that work could be thrown away because of my parents. My parents, who gave birth to two witches; my parents, who never considered that their hidden Seven Deadly Sin would affect their children; my parents, who probably never searched for us. Those are the parents Nathaniel and I will be going home to. It doesn’t matter what kind of life I lived before coming here. What matters is that the life I live now is going to come undone. What kind of hell will await Nathaniel and I? I’m certain that Seven Deadly Sin of theirs has reared its ugly head. Those sins always do.

Nathaniel grabs my hand and looks up at me with calm eyes. “I want to see Isis before we pack. She’s probably heading to her dormitory.”

The request is innocent enough, and I wish I could have some pleasant finality like that. But I never got a chance to tell Oliver I wouldn’t kiss him, no matter what. Unlike him, if he kissed me, I’d want more.

I let Nathaniel take me outside into the bitter cold where a black sky hangs above us, dotted with snowflake stars. I shove the tears in some hidden place inside me. I wish I could be a child, unfazed by what the world throws at her. People think children are so tender, but they’re resilient. It is we older ones who are tender, already beaten down by life.

Chapter Ten

It has been three years since I have seen the streets of Malva. I haven’t had anything to do with the west transept since entering the largest of the three portals on my first day. Cathedral Reims sits on the edge of the main road, at the end where it is a few miles from Parson Hill, whose snow-covered hill and naked tree are a blur through the light snowfall. The main road is crowded with horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, men and women in fine livery, and the scent of apples and cinnamon that wafts from the bakery across the street. The crowds hide the witch-hating propaganda etched into the buildings, on the stones of the road.

While the road is lively and filled with all manner of attraction, it only hides the poverty hidden in the backs of the city, crowded on tiny streets that sit on a grid. The alleys between buildings are so narrow people who come here think the back roads are residency areas for the wealthy who don’t want prying eyes. They think all the buildings are just like the ones on the main road, sculpted like little chapels in the Gothic style. They don’t know that the main road is all there is of Malva—the rest of the city is cheap clapboard and dirt roads. The rich live in places like Norbury or Belhame. Malva is just a port city with a pretty smile masking a festering heart.

Isis, Nathaniel, Oliver, and I all stand on the uppermost step of the west transept, the latter three of us waiting for a cab that will take us to the train station. Nathaniel and Isis are in their own world, one I wish to join. From the corner of my eye, I’ll occasionally find him glancing at her hand. We had to sneak her out during her study session. She won’t be gone long enough for anyone to notice. The nuns do not pay that much attention.

Nathaniel keeps glancing at her hand. Even in a dull dress of gray wool, she is a pretty little thing with her sunshine hair and skin as pale and lovely as Colette’s. If Nathaniel’s interest in her never wanes, he’ll have made a fine catch of her.

“Oh, Nathaniel, look at the snowflakes!” Isis says, pointing at a few falling from the sky. She grabs his hands and starts twirling him beneath a portal. “I wish you didn’t have to go home, then we could twirl forever.”

Nathaniel, being a typical eight-year-old, doesn’t try to satiate her worries. Instead he rids of them completely with a more palatable option. “Let’s build snowmen that look like each other, Isis.” He grabs her hand and gently leads her down the cathedral’s steps slick with ice and snow. An enormous smile plasters his face. “Then maybe I’ll give you a kiss.” I don’t know where he got that bit of cheek, but I could use some.

Isis grabs a bunch of snow in her small hands and tosses a ball at Nathaniel. “Not if I kiss you first!”

Their joviality, their ability to forget the world around them, sickens me. I cannot handle a fictional world, no matter how desperately I want to build one for myself. Reality is all there is for me. For the moment, I’m fine with that, so I face Oliver, who is the realest thing at this moment for me, someone who will not wrap reality in a pretty bow for me as he coaxes me to forget the world with a cup of hot tea.

Whether it’s the unbearable snow, or the gray sky, I don’t know, but Oliver looks different today, more sullen than usual. Or maybe he just doesn’t look right in a country suit. I’m more used to seeing him in white priest robes, lined with gold threads that curl together to form the words of an ancient tongue that no longer exists. I move closer to him, if only to block out some of the biting wind.

Maybe he’s upset that he won’t get a chance to know what it’s like to kiss me. Then again, I can’t imagine that could be it, for he doesn’t really know if I would have kissed him yesterday or not. It is too late to give him an answer. He’s better off not knowing.

Then again, perhaps he is upset that I’m going home. In spite of believing this is the best for me, maybe the reality of the situation has hit him too. “I haven’t forgotten our promise, Olly,” I say. “I’m still going to keep it, even if I’m gone from here for five years.”

Oliver looks at me and sighs. “Amelia…” He fidgets with the buttons on his cuffs, then pulls out a blue scarf from his pocket and wraps it snug around his neck. “I told you to forget about that promise.”

Now I feel reality slipping away from me, pushing me in the land of delusion over this comment. “Am I being that foolish to want to hold on to a promise that suggests my being professed is still possible? Why should I forget it? Even if it takes me ten, twenty, or fifty years, that promise can still stand.” My voice softens, the buried tears threatening to surface. “And it’s what Colette would want.”

His shoulders slump. Sympathy surfaces in his tone that makes me feel like a child being told that her daddy isn’t dead but in a deep sleep. “I know it’s hard, Amelia, and I don’t expect it to be any other way for you. I understand that. I truly do. But…” He looks out to a point beyond the city that only he can see. “Colette, I think her mind is gone…for good.”

Either outside has gotten colder, or there is an iciness to Oliver’s words that shouldn’t be there. “What do you mean her mind is gone?”

“She has been in this unresponsive state for far too long, Amelia. Well, long in the eyes of the Professed Order. The physicians have tested her every waking moment. They can’t get her to respond to anything.”

I grab Oliver’s hand with both of mine and squeeze it. “What are you trying to say? Don’t mince words with me. I don’t need that right now.”

“Mother Aurelia believes it would be best to move Colette to an asylum.” His eyes widen. “There isn’t anything else they can do for her. There is a slew of girls who are moving up a level, and one of them could use her room. She isn’t doing any good here, especially not in this chill. They’re thinking of moving her to an asylum by the ocean, somewhere she might respond to. Somewhere warmer, though Warbele is hardly a warm country in the first place.”

“An asylum…” The words are a hot poker to my tongue. Colette warned me to keep the shadows to myself for the very reason of being sent to an asylum. Now the Professed Order wants to send her to one because she has become a burden to them. One moment Colette is a charming girl who smiles and engages in intellectual banter with the Professed Order, and the next she is like an elderly lady who has been forgotten, her glory days so far behind her it’s as if they never existed. “You can’t let them do this to her, Olly.”

Oliver loosens his scarf, keeping his eyes on that point I can’t see. “This is what’s best for her, Amelia. She hasn’t eaten anything. She can’t feed herself, and we very well can’t feed her with the limited technology the physicians have used. But where they want to send her, they’ll be able to feed her so that she doesn’t starve. Be reasonable, Amelia. You don’t want your friend to die, do you?”

Everything I’ve been told about asylums, the harsh treatment of the patients, wrap around my windpipe, stealing the breath from me. I can’t get any words out. All I can do is gasp as something in my heart snaps.

Not my best friend. Not my best friend who smells like clover, whose hair blends in with the sunshine on a bright day, whose eyes reflect the very sky. Who would eat too many toffees with me until our stomachs hurt, who would study with me for hours until daylight broke, who would brush and braid my hair until her hand ached. That can’t be the one the Professed Order wants to send to an asylum. I slip down on to the step, wetness seeping through my overcoat, and wrap my arms around my legs, burying my face in my knees. A sob racks my voice. “This is all my fault. This is all my fault. Colette…she’ll never be my Colette again!”

A hand rests on my shoulder. “None of this is your fault,” Oliver says.

I look up at him, snowy tears running down my face. “I set her on fire, Olly. I felt her skin yesterday. It felt burnt. You can’t tell me that is just an illusion when I. Felt. It.”

Oliver’s hand tenses on my shoulder. Down the steps, wheels creak and horses clop, then stop at the crack of a whip. Oliver’s breath is cold on my ear. “The cab is here.”

Out of the corner of my eye, Nathaniel plants a kiss on Isis’s cheek. She giggles, embraces him, and helps him toward the cab. Oliver reaches out a hand to help me up, and for a moment I think to kiss him some place other than his cheek. But that moment passes, replaced by a thick bitterness. Saying good-bye to Cathedral Reims becomes all too real for me. I refuse Oliver’s hand and help myself into the cab.

An hour later, Oliver, Nathaniel, and I are on a train chugging along steel tracks that lead to Norbury, almost a full day’s journey from Malva. We three have our own compartment, courtesy of Cathedral Reims, I’m certain. Oliver naps on the velvet seat across from mine, his bowler hat tipped low over his eyes to block out what little light struggles through our leaded-glass window. Nathaniel seems to be lost in thoughts of Isis as his hand runs over her handkerchief, her initials I. O. sewn in the corner in silver thread. Assuming Mother Aurelia never calls us back to Cathedral Reims, that handkerchief will be all that remains of her. Nathaniel is a resilient boy though. He won’t forget her, but he’ll move on from her in a few days.

I wish I could be that way. Instead Colette’s burned appearance will be forever branded in my mind, and that angelic image I had whenever I thought of her will be no more. That will slip to the back of my mind as the new Colette crowds my thoughts. She will never be the same again, and it’s all because I set her on fire. And I will never know what became of her because I will be on the other side of the country.

I kick off my boots and run my stocking-covered feet over the beige, plush carpet, trying to comfort myself with the warmth that lingers on my soles when I pull away. Nathaniel sees what I’m doing and imitates me. He giggles, the fibers tickling his toes.

“Have you ever kissed anyone before?” he asks me, his eyes big and round.

“I thought you didn’t want to kiss Isis.”

“I didn’t…but I did, and I liked it.” He giggles, bringing a small smile to my face. “So have you ever kissed anyone?”

I look at Oliver whose soft snoring crescendos as if to block out this embarrassing conversation. The kisses on our cheeks to seal the promise weren’t anything but a contract between two friends. They didn’t mean anything, and so aren’t real. At the same time, Nathaniel’s question gives me this burning to desire to kiss Oliver, and I hate that I initially refused him. A mixture of heat and cold flush through me. I shouldn’t be having those thoughts—for only one good reason. If I accept these thoughts as something I want to happen, then I accept that I will never return to Cathedral Reims and be professed, for to kiss Oliver would be giving up any holds to my chastity. This is something I am not yet willing to accept, so I should stop thinking about Oliver and kissing him.

I look away from Nathaniel. “I can’t have emotional bonds with anyone, Nat. And you shouldn’t either because you’ll be in the priesthood, and even kissing a girl on the cheek will be forbidden.” I know Nathaniel doesn’t want to be in the priesthood, and I know he shouldn’t be, but I want to keep believing that he will be if only to believe that I will return to Cathedral Reims.

I shove my feet back in my boots, one of the hooks tearing through my stockings and scraping my shin. “I’m going to the observation deck, Nat. Let Oliver know when he wakes up.” If I stay in these cramped quarters any longer, I fear I will come undone, never to be put back together again.

I slide open the door and step out into the narrow corridor that divides the compartments. Dusty lights dangle overhead, casting orange halos on the long carpet. There are hardly any sounds, save for soft murmurs in compartments farther down the corridor. I step through the orange lights and make my way down the hall, fists balled at my sides. For some reason I am enraged at my answer to Nathaniel. I wish I had never formed emotional bonds with anyone, then saying good-bye wouldn’t be so hard.

I continue stepping through the orange circles of light and make my way past more rooms. I open the door to the next car that leads to the observation deck. There are no lights on, save for one overhead lamp at the end of the car that swings its light in an elliptical pattern, revealing polished wood paneling. It swings my way, and its light reaches far enough to reveal faint outlines of the dead lamps, which hang curiously still.

I push my way down the hall and notice a rectangle of light slanting across the floor at the end. The lamp makes another circle before flickering, and then going out completely. The lamp stops swinging, and the rectangle of light seems to grow brighter.

I stop to stare at this rectangle of light, this curious thing that feels like a beacon to me. I relax my hands and think back to the promise with Oliver, to what Colette told me about not quitting. If I don’t feel like quitting, then I haven’t failed. Even right now, as tumultuous emotions dance through my being in angry waves of black, I don’t want to give up in spite of “insurmountable odds.” And if I don’t feel like quitting, then why should I give up? Mother Aurelia may not want me back at the cathedral, but I will force my way back in if I have to. I will have to rely on determination alone to get me back into consideration for the Professed Order. And there is a bright side to this going home: I won’t be around those shadows. I can put them out of my mind and hope that when I return, they’ll be gone too.

I walk toward the light, fortitude compelling me to find a light of my own. As I step into the light, I look through the window to where the light comes from. A gasp chokes me. Sitting in the compartment is a shadow, not Sash or Asch, but a shadow nonetheless. It turns to me, revealing that it is a she. The face looks familiar, but I am too stunned by the meeting of my eyes with impenetrable black ones to process who the face reminds me of.

I stumble away from the door, bumping into someone. I look up to find Oliver, his bangs drooping over tired eyes. He opens his mouth to talk, but then goes silent when he looks up. Without saying anything, he grabs my upper arm and shoves me back into our car.

I stumble down the corridor, confusion sweeping my mind. I throw myself against the door to our compartment. I pull on the metal handle. It won’t open. Panic embraces me, every pulse throughout me thrumming, wanting to break through my skin. I slam my fists against the door. “Nat, open it!” The dim lights swing in the car, casting confusing mixtures of shadows and light in every direction. I keep banging against the door. “Nat!”

Why isn’t he responding?

I give up on our door and start banging on other rooms. No one comes. The rectangle of light that was in the other car creeps to ours, and it grows. It grows so big and bright, it engulfs the entire car, blinding me, forcing my eyes shut.

A mixture between a scream and a helpless sob tears its way out of my throat. The power of the scream is enough to push me to my knees and compel my body into the fetal position.

I lay like that until the insides of my eyelids sense total darkness.

When I open them, I find not darkness but an alley in Malva.

Chapter Eleven

The eaves of night veil the city. When I look up at the stars and moon, panic swirls through me and makes reality a kaleidoscope of indecipherable shapes. How did I get here? Was I just dreaming before, about going home? Or is this a dream? Since I don’t have answers for any of these questions, I gather my thoughts and decide to find out why I’m here. Or, if this is a dream, find a way to wake myself up.

I put my hand against a cobblestone for support. A slick, warm feeling greets the underside of my palm. I look at the source and discover a splash of blood. Eyes widening, I pull my hand away and look at it: No wound. Only the lines on my palm that look like meandering rivers.

Where did the blood come from?

I jump to my feet and look around for a potential source. There are other splashes of blood dotting the cobblestones sporadically etched with images of witches impaled on thorny vines. I follow these to the edge of the alley and stop. They lead across the main road into another alley.

I think to follow them but realize I need to figure out what happened before arriving here. For all I know, those blood splotches could lead me to my death.

I was on a train to Norbury, I left the compartment to go to the observation deck, there was an interesting rectangle of light, and then I saw a shadow, then Oliver, and something strange coursed through me. The shadow…the shadow must have done this to me, must have sent me here for whatever reason. This must be some vision then, so I can safely assume following the blood won’t lead me to any harm.

A scream pierces the night. It’s so loud it could crack the sky and bring the stars down. I assume it’s coming from across the street, where the blood spatters lead. Hitching my dress in hand, I follow the blood, and with each bloodstain I come across, the scream heightens.

Soon a dark figure emerges from the alley with the body of a struggling woman. I stop on a blood spatter in the middle of the road.

I stare.

The dark figure is one of the shadows. The figure must be Sash because it is a short shadow. He looks over his shoulder, freezing me in place. The shadow is Sash. However, he isn’t looking at me. Rather, he looks through me. This makes me think I’m still on the train viewing whatever this is.

So I just watch and see what he does.

He studies where I stand, his bottomless eyes filled with unknown calculations. After he surveys my area for a few minutes more, he turns away.

He drags the crying woman to the edge of the sidewalk and lays her down. She’s bleeding from a wound in her chest, right beneath the cusp of her heart. She bleeds profusely all over his white hand.

She looks into the eyes of the shadow, and in a raspy voice asks, “W-why are you doing this?”

He takes a dagger from his cloak, draws up a sleeve, and runs the point of the dagger down his forearm. A sickening shiver passes through me as a sliver opens up on his white skin, and black beads bubble to the surface. It looks like tar, and the sight of the tarry blood flips my stomach. Whatever kind of creature Sash is, he was certainly never human. No human being has blood that color.

The woman screams again, twisting my heart. I want to scream for him to stop. He dips his finger in her wound, pulls it out, and draws the blood along his wound. The black and red blood bubble and form a scar.

His voice wavers. “This is what I have to do to look like one of you.” A pained regret lingers in his eyes, as though he had no choice but to hurt this woman, as though he hates that he had to.

He raises the dagger above his head, winces, and slams the point into the woman’s heart, quieting her screams and my ensuing ones.  He lets her bleed rivers of blood that slide down the side of the sidewalk and crawl through the cracks of the cobblestones.

He gets up, raises his head to the sky. The pain in his face is gone. Sash is all stoicism. “Come get some before her blood is no longer fresh.”

A cluster of shadows appear from a darkened alley. Asch is among them.

“They’ll be able to see us now,” Asch says, a small smile gracing his scarred face.

Another replies, Gisbelle I believe, the one who asked about me when we were in the cloister. “All the better because now we’ll be able to tell for certain who is a witch and who isn’t through a mere glance. Now that we look like them, we’ll be able to sense one just by looking at it. Took Purgatory forever to come up with this.”

The world turns to ashes around me as I register this information. All this time they’ve been looking for witches to kill, and even though I had this hunch, this confirmed thought is no less astonishing. And all this time they have been looking for me. That’s what Asch meant by there being more.

Who are they though? What do they want with witches?

Gisbelle continues talking. “But what you did was reckless, Sasha. Did you really have to drag her out to such an open place?”

Sash narrows eyes with green radiating in spirals from black pupils. The green becomes his irises, and his skin begins to take on flesh tones. He scowls. “I did what Purgatory wanted me to do, Gisbelle. And I succeeded.” He looks around at the rest of the shadows. “Now cut yourselves and put her blood in you.”

He leaves the woman’s body, keeping bright green eyes on Gisbelle.

Gisbelle shakes her head. “When will you get over her, Sasha? Claire was useless to Purgatory. She had no place with us.”

Without warning, Sash tosses his dagger at Gisbelle, who catches it by the blade. He spits. “Don’t bring her up again.”

These shadows have feelings. This Claire must have meant something to Sash, just as Oliver means something to me. I can almost feel his pain.

Gisbelle brandishes the dagger. “You can’t keep up this bitterness, Sasha. Sooner or later, it will interfere with your standing in this alliance, and then you’ll be in the exact same place as Claire: nothingness.”

A sharp chill eats at my spine as the word ‘nothingness’ echoes in my mind. What does she mean by Claire being nothingness? That she died, or was killed, and that is all? There is nothing after for her?

Sash widens his eyes, and lunges at her. Asch grabs the back of his cloak, stopping his progress. Sash beats his fists in the air. “You bitch!”

“Stop this, Sash,” Asch says. “Gisbelle, don’t speak of Claire again. Once we’ve all taken the blood, we’ll swarm Malva in search of more witches. With Purgatory’s permission, I’ll ask about expanding our reach across Warbele.”

“Maybe even the world,” Gisbelle says.

“That’s a bit of a stretch,” Asch says. “We’ll keep our minds set on Warbele for now.”

Once the shadows have drained the woman of blood, they step back into the alleys, disappearing from view. All I can do is stand on the sidewalk and let the scene sink into my mind like a bullet to the heart. Legs going numb, I start stumbling on the ice-slicked cobblestones. I try gathering my footing, but give up and let my head slam on a stone, drawing blackness to my eyes that flickers once, then stays.

“Amelia!”

“Sister!”

“For Deus’ sake, Natty, give me that rag. She’s a bit flushed.”

My eyes flutter open. A wet coolness spreads across my forehead and cheeks. Two blurred faces greet me, then come into focus. I’m sprawled out on the plush carpet, so I sit up, blinking several times. Nathaniel and Oliver are on their knees, looking at me as if I’m some species yet to be identified. Once I’ve sat up all the way, Nathaniel smiles and throws himself at me in an embrace. Oliver pulls him off.

“Don’t think she’s quite ready for that yet, Natty. She’s barely got her bearings,” Oliver says, sitting Nathaniel back down beside him.

Once the fog clears from my mind, I snap my eyes on Oliver. He was in the car with me when I saw the shadow. “Olly, tell me something.”

Oliver flicks invisible dust off his cuffs and motions toward our window. “I will speak with you later, Amelia. We’re in Norbury now, and we’ll be off the train in five minutes, most likely. Not enough time to talk.”

Nathaniel looks between the two of us. “What happened to you?”

I keep my eyes on Oliver. “Nothing for you to worry about. I’m fine.” The train whistles, a hiss of steam flying by our window. “We might not even have time to talk.”

Oliver crosses his arms. “I think I feel the train stopping. We better gather our things.”

Chapter Twelve

The courtyard of our mansion looks exactly the same as when Nathaniel and I left three years ago: statues covered in ivy, a snow-drenched lawn, and plots of winter-chilled flowers. We live in the middle of an enormous forest that hides our mansion from view. One would only be able to view our house from the air. The one part of the mansion anyone might see from ground view are the turrets and spires, for our house looks like some mad castle, couched in ivy, stucco, and trimmed in black, with an arched entrance held together by our haphazard family seal the size of a lion’s head.

The forest seems to extend forever. Truthfully, I have missed nature. Malva tries to keep nature tamed, and we are taught the same at Cathedral Reims. When Colette and I were helping Sister Sylvia tend to the plants in the greenhouse, I would always try to keep them in order while Colette would insist on letting the plants grow as they pleased. Colette was always wild. She would love this forest.

Nathaniel lets go of my hand and runs up to an enormous statue of a lion with wings. Its mighty maw is open in a majestic roar, one paw curved against its breast while the other stands firm on the flagstone. Its tail stands upright behind massive wings splayed to beat back the world.

I’ve never liked living at this house. It has always been too large for a family of four, and the statues make this courtyard seem like a graveyard rather than a nice lawn a family could play croquet on.

Nathaniel crawls on top of the statue’s back and supports himself with one of the wings. “Look! I’m flying!” He giggles and makes a whooshing sound.

On any other occasion I’d indulge Nathaniel’s fantasies, but not today. I go up to the statue and wrap my hand around Nathaniel’s ankle. “We don’t have any time for this, Nat. We’re—we’re home.”

He frowns, but relents and lets me take him down. We meet Oliver at the front door. His scarf wraps loosely around his neck, showing the snowy whiteness of his throat. He looks at us in a way that suggests I shouldn’t be nervous because he is bearing all my nerves for me—though I think my nerves pulsate enough to carry all of Malva’s stress for the next year. I should be freezing since Norbury is far colder than Malva, and yet my palms are slick with sweat beneath my gloves, and my overcoat feels like a furnace. Nathaniel clings to me, his tiny body radiating with shivers that course through me, making me feel like I’m enduring an earthquake. I remove my overcoat, wrapping its warmth around my little brother. Even left in just a wool dress, stockings, and fur-lined boots, I’m still too warm.

“Are you ready?” Oliver asks, lifting his hand to grab the knocker the size of a baby’s head. “I can give you a few more minutes to gather yourselves.”

I snap my eyes on Oliver. “Could you and I have a few minutes?”

Oliver turns away and raps the knocker against the metal plate three times. I don’t know why he has been so cold to me since I woke up. He said he would talk to me about what happened on the train; however, he’s doing everything he can to avoid this conversation. It’s not like I can’t handle whatever it is he wants to say to me. I’ve been through far worse than fainting on a train and seeing uncanny things in that vision or whatever it was. Perhaps he is ashamed to be friends with someone like me, just as Cathedral Reims is ashamed to harbor Colette, an invalid.

Thinking about Colette brings hot tears to the backs of my eyes. I scrape snow off the stucco and dab my eyes with the coldness, pressing the tears back into me. I’ll cry them another day.

The sound of the knob creaking on the other side of the door sends daggers spearing through me. I didn’t realize I’d be this anxious about being home. I wrap an arm around Nathaniel and pull him so close to me that I fear I will suffocate him. He seems to welcome this suffocating hold though, and doesn’t hesitate to wrap his arms around my waist. The door groans as it opens into our foyer lit by only a few tapers. I see my parents have still refused electricity, when Malva updated five years ago.

Father’s voice speaks softly from the dimness, and an eye the color of mine peeks out from the other side of the door. “Amelia? Nathaniel?” His voice is feeble.

Nathaniel unwraps his arms from around me and is about to run up to Father, until Oliver stops his progress with a hand. “Mr. Gareth, a word? Do you perchance have a phone I may use, or rather a phone you could use? Mother Aurelia wants you to call her back. It’s urgent.”

Father nods. “Why, yes, yes, of course, Mr.—”

“You may call me Oliver.”

Father opens the door, gesturing all three of us inside. “Of course, of course. Amelia, Nathaniel, you know where to put your coats and things. Dust the snow on the rug, please. Warm yourselves by the fire in the parlor. I’ll be there in a moment.”

At first I am too speechless to move. Father talks as though we haven’t been gone for three years, but only three days. Not the kind of ‘welcome back’ I expected, but then what should I expect from parents whose Seven Deadly Sins gave birth to two witches? Parents like that never truly miss their children. Most of the time, children are just a convenience, whether for money, status, or something else, and Nathaniel and I are no different. We were tutored to be trained for a higher calling in life—Nathaniel for university, and I for marriage with an affluent husband. Another reason I ran away with Nathaniel, I suppose.

With a gentle push from Nathaniel I glide into the foyer and make an abrupt right turn into the parlor, where a roaring fire burns my eyes and makes my skin feel like it will melt off my bones. Even the parlor looks the same. Mother still has that hideous pink-and-white striped settee on the far wall Father has wanted her to get rid of for years. The lion statue that Nathaniel broke the paw off when he was little sits in the corner with dull eyes. Father’s couch, my high-backed chair, Nathaniel’s cushions, the scuffed glass table in the center, the peeling pink wallpaper, it’s all the same.

While it’s arranged the same, the parlor seems somehow stuffier, unkempt. When I sit down on my chair, a layer of dust rises, assaults my nostrils, and I sneeze. Nathaniel throws himself on his cushions, a layer of dust rising from them too.

“Everything’s so dirty,” Nathaniel says, rubbing a finger on the ceramic tiles by the fireplace, exposing a line of pristine white. “Isn’t Lily supposed to keep the parlor clean?”

Now that I think about it, Lily wasn’t there to greet us at the door, to take our coats, our boots, our hats and gloves. She isn’t shuffling in here to offer us a cup of tea, some water, or a hot bowl of soup. She was like an older sister to Nathaniel and I, whenever she could be. Where is she? Not having any sign of her presence here is disconcerting.

“Oh well,” Nathaniel says, stretching on his cushions. “I’m so happy to be home. I wonder what Mother and Father are going to do? I want to go back to our tutor, Mr. Lordes. He’s so much nicer than the nuns. And then, when it gets warm, I want to go to our grotto.”

Nathaniel starts prattling off a list of things he wants to do now that we’re home, but I can’t be excited for any of it. This is not the life I wanted to come back to, not the life I wanted to keep. I still crave a life at Cathedral Reims with strict rules, decorum, pain, and something to look forward to every day. Here, I never had anything to look forward to, other than a life belonging to someone else. I’ve always wished I could be born a boy because at least boys could do something beyond themselves, something beyond staying home and raising children.

I grab the knitted blanket off the back of the chair, just as Father comes into the parlor, and wrap myself in its dusty warmth. This is one item in the entire mansion I never wanted anyone but me to touch, not even Lily, who insisted on cleaning it every opportunity she could. I knitted this entire thing myself, and it is one part of my life from here I wish I could have taken to Cathedral Reims with me. The blanket is like a cocoon for me, wrapping all my nerves in a tight ball to keep my rumbling heart from bursting.

Father sits down on that garish settee, looking directly at me. The mansion hasn’t changed in three years, but Father has. When I left, he had an entire head of brown hair. Now it’s all gone, only a few wisps of gray in place. Lines mar his face, his eyes are dull, and instead of the laugh lines I used to see on him every day, there are frown lines so deep a tiny pang of guilt jumps through me over realizing I may be the cause of those lines.

I swallow deep. “F-Father, you look so tired. Why don’t I ring for Lily to fetch you a cup of hot tea?” It’s the nicest thing I can think of in a moment where not even a tiny bit of guilt makes me want to have a full conversation with Father.

Father sniffs. “I let Lily go.”

Nathaniel sits up on his cushions. “Where’s Mother?”

Father closes his eyes, bringing out deep crevices in the corners. He looks so much older than a man in his forties should.

I grab the edges of my blanket. “What do you mean you let Lily go? And where is Mother?” Mother and Father have always been inseparable. I’ve never seen one without the other, even when they were angry with each other. “Is she sick? And what of Lily? Please, tell me.”

Father keeps his eyes closed. His hands curl on his lap. I look at his fingers. The skin is so papery. They look like gnarled claws that remind me of Mother Aurelia’s hands. That woman is in her seventies. Father should not be having the hands of a seventy year old. “Your mother died.”

That tiny pang of guilt grows, and the buried tears involuntarily leak out of my eyes in tiny trickles. Nathaniel looks at me, his small jaw dropped. He then looks at Father like he wants to crawl in his lap and rest his head there as he did when he was five. He stays at the cushions.

“W-what do you mean Mother died?” I ask, feeling the chill of outside creep through my blanket.

He opens his eyes. “An opium overdose. It was the opium that killed her.” His hands start to shake. “She’s been hoarding opium. I don’t know if you knew that, but that’s what she’s been doing. Those weekend trips where we all thought she was visiting Malva with her lady friends, well she was off in the opium dens. I suppose her body couldn’t handle it anymore. She died a few months after you—after you left.”

Gluttony. That was the sin that gave birth to Nathaniel and I. Or could it be greed? Lust? Or all three? Even more damning. My Father’s hands shake more, and without thinking, I sweep over to him and wrap my arms around his shoulders like the good daughter I used to be. I used to lay my head on his shoulder in the evenings while he read from The Vulgate, smoking sweet-smelling tobacco from his pipe. Oh, how I remember that tobacco. This makes me want to find it and smoke some myself, if only to be lost in nostalgia for as long as the tobacco burns.

I hold my hand out for Nathaniel. He doesn’t hesitate, comes over, and buries his head just underneath my breast. He doesn’t make any crying sounds, but I can feel wetness seeping through the wool of my dress.

Father doesn’t seem moved by any of the affection. I don’t expect him to be, not after what a horrible daughter I’ve been. For three years I’ve blamed both Mother and Father for Nathaniel, when really it was Mother who was in danger of unraveling our family.

“Why did Mother do it—I mean, go to the opium dens?” I ask.

“She’s always been out of sorts, but has always done her best to hide it from you children. She saw things, heard voices that weren’t there. At night she used to wake up clawing her face. She’d hide those scars underneath layers of make-up.” I do remember the uncanny way mother used to rouge her cheeks and powder her face. As a girl, I often wondered if she were going to take off to the circus one day. “When your mother was a child, she was in an asylum for a few years. Most women never get out, but she found ways to suppress her ailment through opium. She only took small doses at first, just to bring on euphoria. It made her happy, and I suppose her caretakers saw this and released her.

“I married your mother a year after she got out, not knowing what I was getting myself into. One night she had hysterics, and then for the next few months, she was fine. She would have repeated bouts of the hysterics every so often, with moments in between that were calm. I suppose she just kept increasing the amount of opium each time. Then she started taking those blasted weekend trips, and I should have checked to see if her lady friends really had gone with her, but I was a foolish, foolish man.”

Father buries his head in his hands and breaks into tears. “I suppose I couldn’t hide your mother’s condition well though. I don’t blame you for taking Nathaniel and leaving. When your mother was dying, things became too much. With the opium withdrawal, she was violent. She almost harmed Lily. That’s why I let her go, to keep her safe. I was devastated when you and Nate left, but during that moment, I was grateful you weren’t there to see the damage. I suppose you’ve known your Mother’s condition for a while, Amelia.”

The real truth sits on the edge of my tongue. I wind it back into my throat, knowing the real reason I left would kill Father if he knew Mother’s opium addiction gave birth to two witches. A witch is never the pride of the family. It’s like Deus gave human beings this natural inclination to stop loving their children once they find out they’re witches. One thinks love is unconditional, but it can be snipped like a thread in an instant. I don’t think there are any exceptions where unconditional love is real.

“Father, I—” My throat goes dry. He is better of not knowing the truth.

“I was so happy to hear from your Mother Superior, Amelia. She told me she had no idea you were there without our knowing, but that you two have been a blessing to the establishment. She said churches can never use too many priests or nuns.”

This is the nicest compliment anyone average at Cathedral Reims will ever receive from Mother Aurelia. I don’t believe it though, not with the way she wanted us gone as though our progress meant nothing to the Order.

“She was upset she had to let you go, but knowing what she did, she felt it was best you come home for a little while, and I am happy to have you and Nate home. I want to fix our family, you know. Rekindle things with no burdens on our shoulders. We can make things different this time around. Better.”

I sit there, Nathaniel still curled against me. This is too much to take in. First Colette, then the train, Oliver, and now this. What am I supposed to say when there is still too much going on with me to be able to reestablish a relationship with no burdens? I can’t. I feel sad for my Father, I’m not completely heartless. And yet, I still hold on to Cathedral Reims and to everything there.

What is Father going to give me besides a marriage to some stranger? That was his dream for me. Is it still the same? My dreams have changed. I have changed. I know what is out there for me, and I know I can get that. This may be selfish of me, as a daughter should always be there to care for her father when he needs her. Nathaniel, on the other hand, is better suited for that. He wants to be here. He wants to mourn for Mother. I can feel it in the tears brushing against my ribs. I can feel it in the heavy pounding of his heart. I am a naturally selfish individual. I can’t be happy unless I am pursuing what I want.

I pull Nathaniel off me and lean into his ear. Silent tears still course down his cheeks. “Please stay here with Father.” He nods, wiping his eyes. “Father, if you don’t mind, I need to take a walk. This is all—this is all so overwhelming. I need to be alone.”

Father nods as I rise from the settee. Nathaniel reaches for Father, like he used to before we left for Cathedral Reims. Father takes Nathaniel and rocks him. I can’t help but smile as Father turns into a younger version of himself while he sits there, making soft shushing sounds. If I didn’t know any better, I could believe our life has always been this way—no witches, burdens, or dark secrets.

I push out of the parlor, thinking of seeking Oliver out for comfort. He never told me where he’d be. He just has to be around here. He wouldn’t leave without saying good-bye. Yet, as I search all over the mansion, the grounds, and even the drive and edge of the woods, he is nowhere. In the end, I fall into the snow, feeling stranded in a place that is supposed to be home but feels like that tiny cell did during my second trial.

Chapter Thirteen

Even after several days of being home, I still don’t know how to feel about Mother’s death. I’ve even circled the statue erected of her in the snowy lawn out back several times to unearth any emotions I might be hiding. As expected, I feel nothing, and I feel like an awful daughter for not feeling anything at all because I do have wonderful memories of times I’ve spent with Mother. The memory that sticks most to me is the time I was looking in her vanity at myself, and she put her arms around me and said I was beautiful. Her heavily done face would stare back at me, hiding what she looked like beneath, my never knowing if she had the complexion of a rock or the complexion of a lily. All I could see were those eyes that Nathaniel has, the blueness of the ocean I wish I were born with. Maybe then I’d feel beautiful.

Not even this can bring a tear to my eye, and I hate myself for it. Isn’t a daughter supposed to cry over her own Mother’s death, in spite of that small bitterness over knowing Mother is the reason for her children being witches?

I circle her statue again, locking my eyes on her stony face. It’s not an exact likeness of her at all, but it at least catches the shape of her face, her hair, and the dress she might have been buried in, her favorite evening gown. It’s a Gareth tradition to have statues erected of deceased relatives in our back lawns. A morbid one, I think. If Father dies soon, I’m not going to erect a statue of him. I’ll have him buried somewhere nice, and that’ll be all.

I turn away from the statue, my mind set on locking myself in the library where I’ve been these past few days avoiding everyone. I’ve been avoiding Father because I don’t know what to say to him about reestablishing our family. That seems impossible considering that Mother is gone and his two children disappeared three years ago. How can we come back from that? I’m a daughter who has her own desires. I’m a selfish daughter who has no desire to hold on to this dwindling family. Father has been able to manage these past three years, and while he hasn’t been managing well, he’ll survive. Nathaniel can provide for his emotional needs, even though he is only eight. I’ll visit every once in a while, but my life will be mine and no one else’s.

As for Nathaniel, I’ve been avoiding him to give him some room to mourn. I don’t know what it’s like to be an eight-year-old suffering through the loss of a parent. Mother and he were close. When she wasn’t away on trips, she’d take him out for ice cream, to the park, and to the toy store in the city—which was one day out of the week. He was devastated the day I told him we needed to get away. I think he even might have hated me for a moment, but I ignored his feelings in favor of preserving us as brother and sister. This is the only familial relationship I want to hold on to because in the end, Nathaniel and I will be all that is left when Father is gone.

As I walk toward the back entrance, I think of gathering Nathaniel and taking us to the grotto to talk things over. Even if Cathedral Reims won’t have me back, there are other convents on Norbury—though not as prestigious as the one in Malva. I’ll allow Nathaniel to stay here with Father, but I must do everything in my power to become professed because it is the only way to bring myself closer to Deus in a way that I hope will free Nathaniel and I. We can’t undo what we were born as, but I can only hope Deus will view us in a favorable light and allow us into Paradise when we die.

So I climb the stairwell to the second floor, sweep down the hall, and find Nathaniel in his room at the end, looking out at the snowy hills through his window. I knock on the door frame. “Nat, would you like to go to our grotto? I know you wanted go to when it was warmer, but spring is so far, and I really want to go there.”

He turns around, his eyes glowing with this suggestion. He gives me a toothy smile, and I notice a small gap on the bottom row of his teeth. He beams. “I lost a tooth yesterday! Father told me to put it with Mother’s things, so I did. I would show you the tooth, but Father put Mother’s things away, in her special drawer. He only wants it opened if we have more special things to put in there.”

I smile. That may have been a form of closure for Nathaniel to put a part of himself with a part of Mother, although I can’t imagine how healthy it is for Father to cling on to items that should have been buried with her. “Let’s go to our grotto then.”

When we arrive at our grotto, I’m grateful not much has changed, except the icicles hanging from the entrance and the snow littering the dirt floor. Using my hands like shovels, I push snow off a rock shelf and settle a fleece blanket on it. We settle ourselves on the blanket, and I look around the cavernous grotto, at the striations in the walls from where nature has chipped away. Oliver would love this place. Then I remember Oliver abandoned me and I haven’t seen him in several days and don’t know if I will ever see him again. A pain swells in my heart, one that should be for Mother. His eyes float in my mind. They’re bright pieces of silver and not the usual watery gray. His complexion, too, is more flushed in my mind’s eye. It’s silly how we romanticize things in our heads. Even Oliver’s lips are fuller, more supple, a peach I could—

I shake my head, internally chiding myself for thinking of Oliver in that way. We are friends, mere friends, with suppressed feelings. Oh, Deus, what is wrong with me? I’m craving him too strongly. Mother was right: absence can make the heart grow fonder. Foolish heart.

“Sister!”

Nathaniel’s voice pulls me from my reverie. I turn, and Nathaniel is clutching a stained, white string in both of his hands. “Cat’s cradle?” I say.

He nods and goes about forming the labyrinth of crisscrossed string, leaving just enough space to put my hand through. Every time we come to the grotto we play cat’s cradle. There is something to be said about tradition, the way it brings people together, and the way it brings on feelings of nostalgia. This is one moment for me as I put my hand through, Nathaniel tugs, and the string falls limp around my wrist. This little game of cat’s cradle brings on feelings so hard to describe that frustration tugs on my heart knowing that in spite of everything looking the same, not everything feels the same.

I sigh, letting the string fall from my wrist. “Not even the grotto feels the same,” I say, getting up and going over to the mouth of the grotto. The rolling, snowy hills stretch into the horizon, meeting at the focal point of our mansion.

We used to play tag, hide-and-go-seek, tell stories to one another, eat down here, and sometimes sleep here, and there is nothing about this grotto anymore that makes me want to do any of that. I know this isn’t because I’ve gotten older either, but because I have allowed myself to detach from this place in order to connect more with Cathedral Reims.

Nathaniel stands beside me, resting his head just beneath the crook of my arm. “What do you mean it doesn’t feel the same?”

“Nat, I never wanted to come home.”

“I know.”

At this moment, I feel like I could talk to Nathaniel as though he is my age and not some eight-year-old. “I just don’t know how to react to any of this, Nat. I haven’t cried at all about Mother. And then Oliver told me the Professed Order is going to put Sister Colette in an asylum, and I may never see her again. You know how close her and I were. And, and—”

I scan the horizon, trace the wispy clouds in the sky and scale to the tops of the pine trees. Colette and Oliver would love this place. I ball my fists by my sides, trying to suppress the shaking that wants to come out of me in waves.

“You want to go back to Cathedral Reims, don’t you?” Nathaniel asks, looking up at me. “This place doesn’t feel like home to you, does it?”

I shake my head, biting my bottom lip. “I’m sorry. I know how much you’ve wanted to come home for so long. For me to not feel that at all, you must hate me.” I feel lonely, a desolate wasteland in my heart.

He grabs my hand, squeezes it. “No. But what are you going to do?”

“I can’t stay here, that’s for certain.”

“Father won’t like that.”

“I know.” A choked sob crawls up my throat, and my voice comes out cracked. “I want my old life back!”

Thinking about Colette and Oliver and Cathedral Reims, even the pain I endured there, I can no longer hold the tears back. They don’t simply slide out involuntarily, but they gush out, water bursting through a thick sheet of ice. I slide into the snow, tighten my overcoat around me, and sob. My body racks with the effort, and I swear the tears feel like they’re freezing on me, but I don’t hold them back anymore. Nathaniel sits down beside me and embraces me with his small arms. He even makes shushing sounds like Father does. This makes me feel like a child, but Colette did once tell me that if I’m going to cry, then I should cry like a child because there is no better way to be.

I cry for a while, until my head feels like it will burst from the headache pulsing across my forehead. The tears soon slow, then die down altogether until there are only little sniffles left. I wipe myself of tears, my face burning in the cold from the salt rubbing away at my skin.

“I’m going to go back to Cathedral Reims in a week, Nat, and I’m going to request they allow me back in. If I show up there myself, and maybe if I plead, they’ll take pity on me. If not, I’ll find another convent.”

Nathaniel picks at his nails. There is less blood. Isis must have done something for him. Or maybe being home. Regardless, he hasn’t let Mother’s death affect him too much. “Why do you want to be a nun so badly? It seems so painful. I know you have welts on your back, and I know Mother Aurelia did that to you.”

“You’ll understand when you find something you’re so passionate about you’ll do anything to obtain it, even if that means bleeding for it.”

“I don’t want to be passionate about anything then.”

This comment brings a small laugh from me. “Passion is the reason we live, Nat. When you’re little, the world is so open to you that every day is something exciting, but as you grow older, you find you have to search for other things to be excited about, things that are more complicated than a rainbow in the sky, or a flower unfurling from its bud. Certainly you still appreciate those things, but it’s not the same.”

Nathaniel looks out at the horizon, seemingly lost in pondering. He then snaps his eyes back on me. “I think I understand what you’re saying. I think…” He sighs. “But I think I already feel that way.”

He rests his head on his knees, and this action alone tells me I’ve robbed three years of Nathaniel’s life by taking him to Cathedral Reims, three years he could have used to be a child, to explore the world more, to know himself better. Instead he’s spent that time in a stuffy Cathedral, learning about Deus, doing endless chores for the sake of doing chores, and being teased by that Ann girl. He doesn’t look at the snow with the same wonder I did when I was his age. Cathedral Reims sapped that from him.

I put a hand on his shoulder. “Nat, I’m sorry for doing this to you. I never should have taken you from here. And now Mother…”

Nathaniel looks back up at me with eyes full of too much knowing. He shouldn’t have to know at such a young age that people can be so weak they spiral into devastating addictions that kill them. “Mother wasn’t your fault. But is that why you had us run away, because Mother was who she was?”

I’ll let him believe this lie. “Yes, yes I did.”

“Then maybe it was best.”

I run my fingers through his hair. “Start acting your age, Nat. You’re scaring me.” He beams.

“Oh, what a sweet little moment between brother and sister. I didn’t have any siblings. I was an only child, later hated in life by my parents.”

Both Nathaniel and I whip our heads in the direction of a familiar voice. From behind a boulder resting against the side of the grotto emerges a familiar face, only this time he looks too human.

Chapter Fourteen

“Shame about your mother. I assume she died? I tried to kill myself once, through opium.” My mouth drops open. “Oh, opium overdose? Is that how your mother died? Opium was too slow for me. I ended my life a much quicker way. However, had I known I was going to come back as this, I probably would have let the opium kill me because then I might still be alive, if you can really deem addicts ‘alive.’”

Nathaniel wraps his arms around my waist, clinging to me tighter than a corset. I let him, too stunned to do anything else. Asch is…dead. Asch is dead. This means that all those other shadow beings must be dead too. I look Asch over, noting that his hair is a deep brown, his skin tan and his face scarred from whatever his previous life did to him. He looks at Nathaniel and I with piercing, green eyes. “What are you?” I ask.

Nathaniel quivers, digging his nails into me. “Y-you can see him too?”

Of course anyone can see Asch now. If that vision, or whatever I experienced on that train, is true, then these shadow beings have made themselves visible just by taking the blood of someone alive.

As my hand goes to the top of Nathaniel’s head, his question truly registers with my mind. My little brother has been seeing these things the entire time at Cathedral Reims. This is why the Professed Order insisted he was out of sorts. This is why he must have gone into shock a few days ago when we confronted Ann. He was trying to keep them a secret, just as I kept them a secret from everyone but Colette.

Asch smiles. “You can thank the witch who so happily sacrificed herself so that I could be visible to this world. She was difficult to find, but she had full control over her fire, so she wasn’t hard to spot.”

I squeeze Nathaniel. “Get out of here. Go home. Lock yourself in your room.”

Nathaniel lets go. “I-I’m too scared.”

Asch looks away from us with indifference. “I’m not interested in you, boy. Purgatory wants you left unharmed. Same with your sister, though I can’t for the life of me imagine why he would want a potential resource wasted. Our numbers are already small as it is, at least compared to the living.”

Who is this Purgatory the shadows keep speaking of? Perhaps their leader? If so, what does he want?

Nathaniel laces his fingers through mine. “I don’t want to leave you alone.”

I unentwine my fingers from his. “Go, Nat. You heard what he said. He won’t harm me. I’ll be all right, but I don’t want you here.” I doubt Asch doesn’t mean harm, but if I can use his lie to get Nathaniel away, I will.

My little brother pulls away, and hesitates. I nod, and he runs, looking back at me once before disappearing off into the hills.

I turn toward Asch, arms crossed. “What are you?” I ask again.

“A Shadowman. A dead witch. An abomination Deus created to reward witches for suffering in life, when really it’s not much of a reward because we suffer with Maladies that torture us in other ways. Apparently our Maladies are supposed to remind us how mortal we still are, but I think they ensure we obey Deus.” He pauses. His grin widens. “You’ll be one too when you die.”

The words materialize too fast for me to retract them. “That’s a lie. I won’t turn into one of you. How could I?”

Asch laughs. “No matter how pious you are, you will die into a Shadowman.” He then looks down at me. “Only witches can see Shadowmen. Do you believe me now? That’s how we remain undetected from the world.”

I quiver, digging my nails in my palms to keep from lashing out. “What reasons do I have to believe you?” My tone darkens. “You and your little cohorts have been following me around Cathedral Reims, wanting witches for Deus knows what reason.” I stop trembling, feeling bolder after having said that. “Now that you know I’m a witch, you can do what you want with me. I’m the one you’ve been looking for, aren’t I, the other witch you’ve been desperately seeking out? Well, here I am. What do you plan to do with me?”

Asch tilts his head. “I already said Purgatory wants you unharmed. But don’t change my mind. I’ll gladly accept an afterlife of nothingness if you choose to further agitate my nerves. We have been looking for more witches, and we would be more than willing to take you on, if he weren’t so infatuated with you. But we were following your little friend.”

One-by-one, my nails come out of my palms. My arms fall slack at my sides, and I just stare at Asch, unsure of how to react to this. They have been following Colette this entire time.

I close my eyes, digging around the chasm of pitched memories. That day Sash left our cell with a smile on his face. I wasn’t in there, but Colette was. He must have touched her to know that she could see him. She’s a good actor then, a right liar, keeping that from me, trying to convince me that I was just seeing things when she could see them all along. That’s just like her to want to protect me, even if that means endangering her own life. Then during our second trial, she kept talking about dying. She must have been worried the Shadowmen were going to kill her. But they didn’t kill her. I almost killed her. I have harmed her indefinitely to the point where the Professed Order sees her as enough of a burden to foist her on some asylum by the sea. To blame the Shadowmen about Colette would be preposterous.

At the same time, Colette’s condition makes her vulnerable. Why haven’t they killed her? Perhaps she’d carry her condition to the next life, and they don’t want that burden either. After all, Asch looks like he is carrying burdens from his previous life.

I cock my head. “If you aren’t here to hurt me, then why are you here?”

Asch approaches me and bends down to my level, almost closing the space between us. I flinch over how close he is to me. He smells like death, not the decomposition of death, but rather the frigidness of death. “I’m here to erase your memory so you can forget we ever existed. It’s my power as a Shadowman. In life, I wanted to forget my own existence.” He straightens, a scowl replacing his grin. “This is my own little undertaking, not an order from Purgatory. I would think he’d want me to do this to you, to protect you. He’s so keen on doing that himself though. If you don’t submit, I will kill you.”

My nails go back into my palms. I don’t know what he means by wanting to keep me away from Purgatory. He talks as if I know this Shadowman, but I don’t. Asch and Sash and Gisbelle are the only identifiable Shadowmen. No one else. I swallow. “What is the purpose of erasing my memories? Is my knowledge of your existence really so dangerous?”

Without warning, Asch pushes me against the wall of the grotto, trapping me with an arm on either side. He bares down on me with hardened eyes. “It is dangerous, in fact. Why should we trust you to keep our existence a secret? Witches like you can harm us. Fire is our undoing. Our own magic is our undoing. Those are the only things that can kill us. There is no guarantee you won’t start an uprising of your own.”

An uprising of my own? I straighten against the wall to make myself seem tall. “You’re not taking my memories.” I don’t want anyone dulling my experiences, putting holes in my life and leaving me to wonder what happened in those in-between.

Asch curls his fingers against the wall and puts his face against mine, a hairsbreadth of space between us. He grits his teeth. “Then I will kill you.”

The icy scent of his breath, laced with something like a rotting carcass, spears my heart. He is serious about killing me.

“You won’t respond?” Asch asks. “You rebel in silence, I see.”

Asch grabs my throat, my hands instinctively flying to his wrists. He presses his fingers so hard into my neck that I fear my windpipe will split along its seam. As a small, pathetic cry funnels through my throat, a familiar voice forces Asch to pull away.

“Leave her alone!”

Oliver appears from the other side of the grotto, dressed in the same clothes he wore the day he dropped Nathaniel and I off. He has dark bruises beneath his eyes.

Asch tenses his fists, but one look from Oliver sends him away from me. “I suppose you’ve just been saved, Amelia.” He runs around the grotto, probably into the hills that extend forever.

I look at Oliver, my heart fluttering in my chest to see him. “Olly!” A true smile replaces the fear that held my body in ropes.

Oliver doesn’t return my smile. His look is callous. “Go,” he says.

“Olly—”

“I said go!”

He turns away from me and heads in Asch’s direction, leaving me rooted to the spot. The happiness dissipates when I begin to realize that Oliver, too, must be a witch, since he was so assertive toward Asch without fear. I shouldn’t be surprised. His sister Ella is. I suppose any children whose parents suffered a Seven Deadly Sin will be witches, no matter if that sin was cured or not. Then again, I wonder why Asch listened to him. What’s so special about Oliver that Asch won’t even question him, or make a quick kill of me before running off? And why was Oliver so cruel?

Disappointment expands in my chest, settling too thickly in my heart. I will die into a Shadowman, regardless of how I live this life. Even worse, Oliver hates me.

At night, in my room with my door locked and my window open to the wintry sky, I sit at my desk by the light of a taper, staring at a blank piece of paper. The taper throws my hunched shadow against the wall paneling. Outside, snow falls in a gentle hush, a few flakes landing, then melting on my desk. I tap the nub of my quill against the aged wood, finding comfort in the regular tap-tap-tap rhythm. The inkwell set in the corner of my desk taunts me with fresh ink that knows I have no idea what or to whom to write. The words have been snipped from my heart, buried in the shadows of uncertainty that have stolen hope from me.

I was in the library earlier reading The Vulgate, and trying to find some reassurance that there was a fate for witches other than dying into a Shadowman at the mercy of this mortal world. There is nothing about the fate of witches though—only that we do not get a chance at Paradise.

I hoped I could change that. That was the sole reason for my desire to be professed. To know that can’t be changed, even if I were to bleed myself for Deus, unravels my heart. I could continue to convince myself otherwise and to hold on to the hope there is more out there for witches, but I can’t keep living in denial. Living in denial for these past three years is the reason I feel the way I do right now.

I look out into the night sky, unable to find comfort in the stars that litter the black canvas of the world. Mr. Lordes once taught Nathaniel and I that the stars we see may no longer look the way our eyes perceive them, and they may no longer even be there. Those stars existed centuries ago, and are billions of miles away from this earth. The light takes centuries to travel, so we see the light that took so long to get here, while the physical bodies of the stars are something different.

Yet, even when stars die, they leave a lasting impact through their light, their diamond brilliance as they scatter their material to form new stars. When people die, they leave the same impact with the footprints they leave on people’s hearts. Even the ones who feel insignificant go out, leaving behind dust that can nourish the world anew. But do witches go out in the same way? Or do we disappear, leaving no such brilliance behind because of what we become when we die?

It’s cruel that being a Shadowman is supposed to be a gift for enduring suffering in life. Being a Shadowman is not being in Paradise. One is still tied to this world, unable to move on to another life. The Vulgate has talked extensively about Paradise, even though Paradise is not described. That leaves room for one to imagine Paradise for him or herself. I once imagined Paradise as a world in constant spring. Now I no longer know what to think.

I no longer know what to do. I wanted to go back to Cathedral Reims or seek out another convent, but what is the purpose of being professed if that will not prevent me from dying into a Shadowman? There is no purpose. None whatsoever. All that is left for me now is accepting my Father’s dream. I could finish my tutoring with Mr. Lordes, maybe even go to a finishing school for a year and have my season in Norbury. Father can set me up with a rich suitor who will take care of me and will ensure my Father’s health in old age. I’ll have children. I won’t commit any of the Seven Deadly Sins. When I die, I’ll turn into a Shadowman, but at least my children will be the stars I leave behind for the world to see years after I am gone. They won’t bear my sins, my stigma, because they won’t be witches.

I dip my nub into the inkwell, deciding to write to Oliver, who I’m not even sure will get this letter since I have no idea where he is. He obviously didn’t go back to Cathedral Reims after leaving me stranded here. But I write, if only to comfort myself.

I tell him that I have no such plans of coming back to Cathedral Reims, that he should forget about me and anything we had between us, and that I am okay with his not saying good-bye to me. I pen those final words, and a sob racks my body. Suppressed tears trickle down my face in droplets and create dark splotches on my letter. I put so much pressure on the quill that the nub breaks and ink flies out in a black ribbon that drapes across the page, obscuring the contents of my letter. A final tear mixes in with the splotch.

I pull myself out of my desk, grab the letter, and rip it to shreds. I throw my hand out the window and let the icy wind and snow carry my shredded letter somewhere far, maybe even to another country with a girl exactly like me, in the exact same situation, pondering the exact same thoughts. She’ll have to put the letter together herself, but the message is there: I have given up; there is no bringing that faith back.

I go over to my four-poster bed, and throw myself down on the satin sheets, heaving the curtains around my bed so that velvet darkness embraces me. There will be no end to the tears. I cry for myself, for Mother, for Nathaniel, for Father, for Colette, and for Oliver. My tears are angry with Oliver though. He abandoned me, left me with only a callous stare, and now that I need him and crave him more than ever, he is nowhere to be seen. Not a call, not a letter. Nothing.

I turn on my back, gripping one of my pillows. My nails find a loose seam. They dig into the seam, pulling out bits of string, and cotton spills through. I beat the pillow against the bed, and once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see cloud-shaped cotton spilling everywhere. These intense emotions are no longer for the things I was too afraid to cry about. These intense emotions are for Oliver. Their presence only makes me angrier, so I beat the pillow harder and harder against my bedspread until there is no cotton left and only a velvety husk clutched in my hands. Since the velvet is all that remains of the pillow, I feel around the sack for another seam, dig my nails into that, and start tearing off strips of the velvet.

“I hate you, Oliver. I hate you, Olly. I hate you!” I scream these last three words so loud my throat goes raw from the sharpness edging each syllable. I then collapse back on to my bed and both cry and scream. “Why did you have to leave me? Why did you have to leave me here to deal with this loneliness?” I sniffle, turning on my back and staring up at my darkened ceiling. “Olly, what do I do? Why did you just leave me like that?”

I sit up in bed, gasping. If I should be asking anyone for advice, it should be Colette. I should be screaming for Colette, should be cursing myself for what I did to her. She’s supposed to be my best friend, the one I have the strongest bond with. Yet every day I feel more and more distanced from her while Oliver’s absence makes me feel closer to him. Why is this? I don’t understand. Does this mean being professed is truly not meant to be if I cannot hold on to memories of someone who is my best friend and Sister? When I first entered Cathedral Reims, I swore myself to my sisters that I would lay my life down for them if I had to. I promised this especially to Colette, the only sister who helped me with my tin soldiers because I was the only one struggling to make even one.

Some Sister I am, pining over a mere boy. Sister Allyn punished me with mopping the latrine my second month at Cathedral Reims because I hadn’t prepared my speech for elocution class. Oliver offered to help after discovering that I had a difficult time cleaning due to the noxious stench. Such an interaction was forbidden; even though I mentioned this to him, he still helped. And then I started developing feelings for him as the months passed, ones I have been able to suppress. I knew he had feelings for me too because of our subtle flirtations: kisses on the cheek, soft hugs, gentle touches. Yet, with Oliver’s desire to kiss me, and my thoughts latched on to him like an anchor, we can’t have feelings for each other and be friends without admitting we want more. Maybe Oliver sees this too.

Even worse, I have spent more time with Colette than anyone else, but who do I want by my side more than anyone?

I grab another pillow and toss it at my curtains. “Really, Olly, where do I go from here?”

Chapter Fifteen

It is early spring in the plum orchard at Cathedral Reims. Plum blossoms fall in gentle spirals around us, some landing in my hair, in the crook of my lap, in the grass, even on Oliver. The air is ripe with their intoxicating perfume. Come summer, we’ll be able to pick fresh plums for pies, jams, and other sinfully delicious desserts. In the bright sunlight, Oliver’s eyes gleam like silver, not the plain gray I’m so used to. His skin isn’t a sickly pale. He has color, a tinge of peach that flushes his cheeks. His black hair isn’t droopy but full and feather light. Oliver reaches over and plucks a plum petal out of my hair. He inhales the sweet aroma. “A plum with a little bit of you.”

Heat blooms in my body, starting small in some private place within me, then radiating out in concentric circles. The warmth is delicious. I want more. Getting on my knees, I reach out and plant my hands on Oliver’s chest. I ease him to the ground with gentle force, then straddle him. He closes his eyes, a smile on lips I hunger for. I press myself down on him, the heat bursting in sparks through me that strips my nerves raw. Oliver grabs my waist, pushing himself into me, making my nerves feel like they’re going to scream. I dig my fingers in Oliver’s collared shirt, pull him up, and plant my lips on his, my teeth grazing his bottom lip. He tastes like fresh snow.

Oliver cups my lower back, starts rocking, and pushes me onto my back, my legs now on his shoulders, our lips and tongues still intertwined with one another. His hardness starts pulsing against me. I wrap my legs around the middle of his back, locking my ankles together so that I’m pressed up against him. I feel like he’ll fall inside me any moment. Oliver pulls away, sighing in a way that sends shivers through me. He kisses the sensitive part beneath my ear as his hands wander to my breasts. They cup them, his thumbs running circles beneath them. My nerves vibrate more.

I let out a sigh, my head falling back. “Oh, Olly…” My legs squeeze him, expressing my want. “It’s all right. I’m ready.”

Oliver pulls away, reaches down, and thrusts himself inside me.

I awake with a start, my eyes wide. Contractions pulsate throughout my groin. I bury my face in one of my pillows to stifle the moan that wants to escape. Once the contractions stop, I pull the pillow away from me and run over to my vanity with the cracked, wooden frame. My face is flushed, a sheen of sweat dampening my skin. My nightgown sticks to me, and there is a lost look in my eyes. Sighing, I fall against the wall, putting my arms at my sides, too ashamed to touch any part of myself.

What was that feeling? It was so wonderful, but so…so shameful, unseemly. And with Oliver, no less. I go back to the mirror, and look at my face again. Nothing in my eyes suggests I didn’t want what Oliver gave to me in that dream. It plays in my head on an endless film reel: the kiss, his touch, the way he felt inside me in that split second before I woke up. A girl who desires to be professed should feel dirty and ashamed. But I don’t anymore. What’s frightening is that if Oliver were here and wanted to do that with me, I wouldn’t say no. I wouldn’t hesitate. What kind of girl does that make me?

A girl who doesn’t belong in any convent. A girl who has impure dreams she wants to come true. I close my eyes against my reflection, slowly move my hand downward and feel that spot. It’s wet, sensitive, as raw as it was in that dream. There is still a small ache there. I want that feeling back, but I don’t know how to get it back.

I open my eyes. They’re still glazed with want.  Oh, Deus, I am too far gone to accept a life of chastity.

“I don’t deserve to be a nun,” I say, if only to finally confirm what must have been true all along.

When afternoon comes, my small family takes a trip downtown by way of an omnibus drawn by a team of thoroughbreds. Norbury is unlike Malva, whose Gothic buildings are daunting. Downtown is charming with its brick townhouses and wooden shops that glow from within, their hearths lit with blazing fires. People in rich finery stroll the streets with looks of contentment, the light snowfall and gray sky not dampening their spirits. Whereas Malva lies on a grid to hide the intense poverty, Norbury is all out in the open, with wide, winding streets; alleys that contain perfume shops and boutiques; a park in the center, with paths that branch out like the points on a star; and a cozy chapel on every street. I like to think of Norbury with roads twisting like the legs of an octopus.

The omnibus draws up to an opera house with a tea shop beside it and toy shop across the road. Gathering coats, hats, scarves, and parasols, we make our way off the bus. We’re not here for the opera house though. We’re here for the tea and toy shops. I grab Nathaniel’s hand and direct his head in the direction of the toy shop.

“Why don’t you go over there and see what you can find?” I produce a few pieces of gold for him, enough to buy him at least one or two toys. “Take all the time you want!”

He takes the gold with a toothy smile that brings a gentle smile to my face. “I’ll get you a big teddy bear!” He spreads his arms wide.  Then he bolts across the street, nearly slipping on an ice patch that almost prompts me to go over there. But then he gets up, waves to me, and disappears into the store.

Father and I settle ourselves down on an iron wrought table with matching chairs. We’re underneath a yellow awning. Father looks less tired, less aged. Nathaniel must be doing wonders for him. I only hope I can do the same. I have concluded I am too selfish for even a convent, so I need to temper my spirits by giving in to what Father originally wanted. It might not be what I want, but it’s what I need.

We order tea, and once it arrives, I wrap my hands around the cup, relishing in the warmth that gently ebbs through my gloves. Father takes one sip, almost as if he is unsure whether or not he should be enjoying the tea without Mother here. He hasn’t been downtown since her death. This will do him some good, though, to get out of that stuffy mansion.

“You told me you wanted to talk to me when we arrived here,” Father says, looking into his cup. He swirls the liquid around. I wonder what his future looks like in the bits of tea leaves that float on the surface. “What is it that you want to say?”

I stir one lump of sugar into my tea. I haven’t had sweet tea since leaving three years ago. Cathedral Reims only allowed bitter tea. Sugar is a sinful delicacy.

“Father, do you remember what you wanted for me before I left? Well, I want to finish my tutoring or go to a boarding school. Going to school might be better for me. There is competition there. That will encourage me to do better. Then we can have my season here, then maybe hold a ball for me with eligible suitors, and you can marry me off, just like you wanted.” I stop stirring, surprised over how easily the words came. I rehearsed them over and over in my head last night, but never did I think I’d be able to say them.

Father’s eyes turn thoughtful. He puts the cup to his lips, but doesn’t sip. He puts the cup down, then pushes it away. “Tea isn’t the same without your Mother. Amelia, I don’t want to make any mistakes with you. You and Nate are all that I have left. I don’t want you to grow to hate me. I want you to do what makes you happy.”

Father is right. Marriage won’t make me happy, but I feel like I need it. I wanted so much to prove that I could be independent, that I didn’t need a man to tame my wild spirit. That is no longer the case. “Father, I’m older now. I was fifteen then. I’m eighteen now. It’s time I pull myself together and do what needs to be done. I don’t want it, but if I have learned anything at Cathedral Reims, it’s that you will do things you don’t want to do, but they ultimately benefit you in the end. This is what I need, and that is more important than what I want.”

Father slides his hands toward me and grabs my own. “Oh, Amelia.” I swear I see a tear in his eye. “You make me so proud, but are you absolutely certain?”

“I am, Father. You aren’t getting any younger. There will come a time when you can no longer care for yourself. Nathaniel will be off at university, I hope, doing whatever it is he wants to do. Someone will need to care for you.”

All I can think about is the unbearable dust in the parlor. Even my room was dusty, and I had to spend my first night cleaning it. I also suspect Father’s only means of money are his savings, his inheritance. He was an accountant before I left, but I haven’t seen him doing anything with money as of late, and I didn’t want to bring up any mention of his possible unemployment.

“There will come a time when you can no longer depend on yourself, Father.”

He squeezes my hands. “I think I can manage for another year just fine. But I think with you and Nate home, I might just have what it takes to go back to work. I might not be making the same money though.”

He straightens himself and loses the sentimental edge to his tone. He becomes business-like now, a demeanor I prefer over the soft-hearted man who I fear will have a stroke. “I can’t afford Mr. Lordes for you, but I am certain I will be able to pay a year’s tuition for a nice finishing school. I can take on your brother’s studies. Teaching him will be a distraction for me. I’ll look for work eventually. There is a lovely finishing school here in Norbury, in fact. We can take a gander at it in a few days, if you wish. I will even let the headmistress there know you were a sister at a convent for three years. That will certainly put you in a favorable light for admission starting this spring.”

Father starts prattling away about my future, and this fervent talk makes me smile. He talks about the ball he wants to throw me after my season, and even asks me about what type of men I prefer, as though that should matter to me. All I can think about is Oliver, that dream, and a heat starts between my legs that I staunch by clamping my knees together. There can be no more thoughts of Oliver. He is a priest, meant to be chaste. He also made it clear at the grotto that he desired no further contact. He, too, knows that to continue to associate with me will only lead to his downfall. There can be no friendship where unspoken feelings are concerned.

I grip my tea cup at this thought.

“Amelia?”

I look up at Father. “Y-yes?”

“Where would you like to hold your ball when your season is over? I would say we could use our ballroom, but it’s been unused these past few years. I’m certain there is too much dust and cobwebs for me to expect any maid to want to clean it without being paid a considerable amount I can’t afford.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just some place lovely is all.”

“I’ll think of something then.”

The crowds in the streets thicken, a blur of coats, jackets, hats, and parasols strolling by us in thick waves. More omnibuses pack the roads, people piling on, and even more coming out to view the latest showing at the opera house. A ballet is going on there, the beautiful Belle Marinsky, famous for doing an arabesque on point without toe shoes. I should like to see that, but I don’t have the money on me, and I don’t expect Father to spend any money on frivolities. The marquis claims she is doing shows all through winter. I can’t imagine how sore her feet are going to be by the time the season ends.

I order more tea as Father gets lost in a newspaper he picked up from a passing vendor. I watch the crowd speed by and add lumps of sugar to my tea. In the corner of my eye, I spy a familiar face. The face is brief, but the eyes on the face are eyes I have thought about all too much lately. I drop my spoon, the tea splashing over the sides of the cup. My lips part, and I grab my chest, my heart thumping against my palm. I can’t believe it. It is him.

I shouldn’t follow. I shouldn’t lead him into temptation. But he is here, and I am here, and I will not be at Cathedral Reims anymore and never will be, and if there is a chance for an us, even for a small, quiet moment, I will follow.

I have to talk to Oliver, in spite of what we have between us anymore—or don’t. I at least have to let him know what I plan to do in order for us to find some type of closure between us.

Oliver’s face disappears among the crowd, but I keep an eye on the blue scarf around his neck. I turn toward Father. “I’m going to check on Nat at the toy store. He’s been gone for a bit.”

Father nods, lost in the news of the day. I take off and hasten through the crowd, never losing sight of the scarf that floats like an autumn leaf on the breeze. I hope that is Oliver and not someone who looks like him. Otherwise, I’ll feel like a complete fool.

The crowd thins, but I am no closer to Oliver. Taking a deep breath, I elbow my way through the crowd until I come upon a clearing. Oliver turns around, looks at me, and takes off running. I suck in a sharp hiss of air this time, hitch my skirts, and chase him. Heat rises in me as I run, not the heat of being warm with running, not the heat I had in my dream, but the heat of anger. Why is Oliver avoiding me?

Oliver veers into an alley filled with the sickening scents of perfume. I don’t know where he is going, but it has now become obvious he wants me to chase him. He wants to take me somewhere away from the crowds. So I accept the challenge, even through splintered legs and iced lungs. We run the gamut of Norbury, its spiraling streets that feel like a vortex, until we come across the small, quiet park.

Oliver eventually stops beneath a pine tree sitting by a fountain whose flowing waters are frozen. Scarce light from the sun gleams on the ice.

I catch up with Oliver, and at first I have no idea what to do. Then I think about the dream, and instinct compels me into his arms. I’m panting while tightening my hold on Oliver, who is strangely less tired than I am. At first he seems speechless, but his arms soon enfold me, pushing heat throughout me that melts the ice that has coated my heart for the past few days. Never did I imagine a hug such as this could be so consuming, could feel so protective. Our soft hugs have never felt this way. I could squeeze him right into my rib cage so that he’d be forever trapped, and I’d never have to wonder what it’s like to be with him.

I inhale his wintry scent, soak in every part of him like I never have before, then push away from him. Looking deeply in eyes that look all too silver, I take my hand and slap him, a resounding smack echoing in the small park. A red print mars his cheek, standing out in stark contrast to his snowy skin. His mouth hangs open as he touches the welt. Without saying anything further, I pull his hand off his face, cup it with my hands, and plant my lips on his, that desperation of wanting to know what it’s like to kiss him, and that curiosity to know if those feelings I had in my dream will come out in real life.

They do, and they are the most delicious feelings I have ever felt.

Chapter Sixteen

I pull away from Oliver, his eyes wide and mouth agape. He brings up two fingers and lightly touches his bottom lip. I lick my bottom lip, his kiss lingering, cool and sweet. Oliver blushes at my action and mimics me, a smile pushing away his confused façade. The print on his cheek begins to fade to a small, purplish bruise.

Since he doesn’t seem as if he’ll be speaking any time soon, I start the conversation of my own accord. “Where have you been, Olly? Why did you just leave me at the grotto like that? Why did you leave me period? You have no idea—you have no idea what I’ve been going through, how much I’ve missed you, Colette, Cathedral Reims. But especially you.” My face heats up at the next thought, but I’ve already kissed him and made love to him in a dream, so I might as well say what is on my mind. “I have thought about you nonstop.”

Oliver’s eyes soften. “Amelia—”

I hush him with narrowed eyes. “No, you listen to me, Olly.” I start pacing in the snow, creating a rut that reveals the frozen earth beneath. “I’m not going back to Cathedral Reims. My feelings are too strong for you. I know nothing can ever happen between us because you’re a priest, but I can’t be a nun knowing I have these feelings, knowing I don’t want to remain chaste. And—” And there is so much more to why I won’t go back to Cathedral Reims, and they all have to do with Shadowmen. Turning into one of them when I die makes all my efforts to appeal to Deus pointless. I don’t want to tell him that though. He no doubt knows of this. I got over my shock long ago that he is a witch who knows about those Shadowmen. But it’s too embarrassing. I sigh, nothing else to say.

But I don’t have to say anything. Oliver pulls me back to him, resting his chin on my head. I press myself against him, trying to soak in his body heat to melt this ice clinging to me. I am snug in his embrace, as though his hugs, as though he himself, were meant for me all along. He might not be as warm as the average person, but his physical body is enough for me.

“There is so much I have to talk to you about,” he says, his voice sending shivers through me. “I wasn’t avoiding you for any of the reasons you’re thinking of. It was all for your safety.”

I pull away. “For my safety? What sort of danger am I in?”

Oliver looks around the empty park. The realization of how empty our surroundings are sends a shudder through me. “Let me take you somewhere else.” He laces a gloved hand through mine and pulls me into a thicket of trees with a path whose existence seems to have been birthed from the scores of people that have walked through here over time. “This has always been my favorite park. I came here all the time when I was little, especially through here.”

The path soon disappears into snow that goes up to my ankles. Oliver’s strides are deliberate though, so I trust him enough to not get us lost. The path then leads us down a hill that spills into a wide clearing coated in pristine snow and devoid of trees. I think Oliver is going to stop us here, but he pushes onward, our advances marring the snow with a deep rut that follows behind us and divides the clearing in half.

“Where are you taking me, Olly?” I ask.

“Soon, Amelia, soon.”

Oliver picks up into a run that sends a burst of cold energy through me. I pick up my pace while keeping a hold of his hand. Trees fly by us in blurs, and before I know it we come across a cliff with a gazebo perched on its edge, overlooking a glassy lake that seems to expand forever. The sight steals my breath and freezes it in front of me. “I never knew Norbury had a lake.”

The entire surface looks like it is made of diamonds from the light of the sun glittering on it. In the distance there are enormous mansions that mirror my own. They could be mountains as well, with roofs caked in snow and gray-bricked edifices. Snow-covered trees line the banks of the lake. If it’s this beautiful in the winter, I can only imagine what the lake will look like come spring.

Oliver leads me into the gazebo and perches me on a bench, taking a seat across from me. He looks out on to the lake, and when I look into his eyes I see the lake in them. “Sometimes you have to leave a well-worn path to find what you really need. I suppose you’re doing that, Amelia.”

I sigh. “Unfortunately.”

He looks at me, his black bangs obscuring his left eye. “You don’t have to do this, Amelia. You and I…we could start a life of our own.”

I squeeze my eyes shut to see if this is a dream, then open them, happy that this lake, this gazebo, those mansions, are all real. At the same time, this beauty is a temporary façade to distract the world from its pain. “Olly, that could never happen. In fact, our being together like this shouldn’t even exist.”

“Just because I’m a priest doesn’t mean I don’t have desires, Amelia. And you know as well as I do priests don’t have to stay confined in Malva as nuns must.” He purses his lips, his eyes full of pondering. “I’ve never viewed sex as anything impure. To me, the raw pleasure would be spiritual.”

I have to take deep breaths to combat the intense heat that threatens to dehydrate my body. “D-don’t talk like that, Olly.” I look away so he doesn’t see the blush blossoming in my cheeks.

Oliver laughs. “My apologies. What I’m trying to say is that a relationship between us is possible. I can have my own house, provided I receive funds from Cathedral Reims. As long as they believe that this is all for the benefit of Deus, they will support me until I die. They will never have to know about us. We could never be married, but marriage is a contract and doesn’t elevate one’s love to a higher form because of such a mere binding.”

I am lost in Oliver’s words, staring beyond the lake, imagining that we live in one of those mansions. I see ourselves on a boat in the springtime, holding hands as we kiss, maybe even conceiving our first child there. The thought makes me internally blush, but it’s a far more beautiful dream than the numbing reality of the promise I made with my father. “Olly, that sounds—”

His sudden serious demeanor dissolves the rest of what I wanted to say. Out of nowhere, he asks, “Was that the first time Asch visited you?”

I curl my fingers against my gloved palms. He didn’t bring me all the way out here to wax poetic. The question nonetheless irritates me because Oliver has set the mood so well that all I want to do is get lost in us and forget these Shadowmen ever existed. Asch himself said I should forget about them. That is what I want to do. Even so, my curiosities can only be buried for so long before they come back ever more powerful.

“In a way yes, and in a way no.” Oliver cocks his head. “He came into the cell I shared with Colette on the day of our first trial. Both he and Sash. Sash had his suspicions, tried to touch me to confirm them. They knew one of us could see them, but I suppose later Colette gave herself away more than I did, as Asch told me they’d been following Colette.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.” Oliver leans forward. “Colette has gone missing.”

Before my eyes, the lake seems to crack into large sheets of ice, as water bursts through their barrier and drowns the mansions with such force the waters reduce them to piles of rubble. “What do you mean she’s gone missing? She just up and left, like that?”

Oliver nods. “But for a reason you may find hard to believe. I think she has…I think she has completed her change, the process a witch goes through to become a Shadowman. Those who aren’t witches have souls that immediately pass on to the next life, leaving bodies behind. Witches take their bodies with them as they become Shadowmen, but the process is only able to happen when no one else is around.”

What Oliver told me shouldn’t come as a surprise. Everyone seems to be a witch, but she was my best friend. That is the terrible punishment I inflicted on Colette, and it is all my fault. “I really did—I-I-I killed her…” I dig my fingers in the wooden seat as though I can find some splinter to stab away these crushing feelings.

“Amelia, I don’t think you did.”

My hold loosens. “How is that possible? The smoke rose from my hand, the fire came from me. I felt it.”

“You may have thought you did, but you didn’t. The mind is a thing easily tricked. If you had truly set her on fire, then everyone would have been able to see the burns. As it were, only witches and Shadowmen can see them. So you didn’t do it. A Shadowman did.”

My first instinct is to cry out my disbelief, but when I piece everything together, it all makes sense. This is why everyone else thought she had an epileptic fit and only I was convinced that I burned her. “But then why did you lie to me? Why did you keep this from me? Why did you want to convince me I couldn’t see any of this, just like Colette wanted to convince me? Nat didn’t even want to tell me anything, at least not until Asch appeared.”

“To protect you because anything else could have put you in danger of turning into one of them.” He brushes the bangs away from his left eye. “Most of the time, the Shadowmen do know it when you can see them because you have no knowledge of them or because you’re so certain of their existence that you don’t even try to hide that you can see them. But by convincing you otherwise, Colette and I were able to protect you. In fact, I suspect Colette drew more attention to herself to keep them away from you. I don’t know how, but she did. I’m certain she knew Sash was interested in you.”

My fingers retreat back into the wood, and burning despair funnels through my body. Colette put herself out there as a martyr to protect me. What makes me so special that I should be allowed this life and not her? The rage threatens to burn through me, so I pick up some snow from the railing of the gazebo and dab my face with its coolness. The blame does not rest with Colette. The blame falls on those blasted Shadowmen.

“Why would Colette protect me? Why not protect herself? I don’t understand.” I shake my head, painful guilt slicing through my heart. “I should have protected her, Olly. That should have been me with the burns, suffering in bed, suffering under the scrutiny of the Professed Order as they decide what to do with me. Not her. I couldn’t even stay at Cathedral Reims. If it had been me and not her, she’d still be enduring the trials, on her way to being professed. Her life has far more potential than mine does.”

Oliver crosses over to me, sits down, and draws me toward him. His gloved hand rubs the back of my neck. His whisper caresses my ear. “That’s not true, Amelia.” He kisses the top of my head. “She’s your friend. She would have done anything to protect you, just as I’m certain you would have done anything to protect her if you had known. Colette has always known about the Shadowmen. Her youngest sister died from diphtheria, and she came and visited Colette as a Shadowman. Colette never told me what happened to her sister after that.”

“I never knew that about her, but I don’t blame her for never telling me. But why do you know?”

His hand pauses on the back of my neck. “I don’t know if I should tell you.”

Tears spill over my eyelashes, but I wipe them away, tired of crying. “Olly…”

“You might not want to be with me in the way that you do now if you knew. I wouldn’t blame you, but I’d like to hold on to you, even for a little bit.”

I lace my fingers through his, rubbing my thumb on top of his hand. “But then I wouldn’t be able to be with you knowing that you keep things from me. I don’t think there is anything you can tell me right now that will make me not want to be with you.”

“I’ve never done anything bad, I can promise you that much. But—”

“But what? Just tell me, Olly. You know what I’ve had to endure since Colette’s death. I feel like I’m strong enough to handle anything now.” I now realize this is true. In spite of all that has happened, I haven’t given up on this life. I cling to it, when anyone else might have wanted to let go in favor of exploring what is after. “Tell me.”

“Like Asch, Sash, and now Colette, I am a Shadowman. Colette had an inkling when she met me before you came here, since she knew her sister was one. She already knew the characteristics of a Shadowman. Granted, her sister didn’t look like me, but I had no problem telling Colette when she told me she was a witch.”

A twinge of jealousy rattles in my veins knowing that Colette and Oliver shared secrets I was never privy to. They have never stepped beyond the boundaries of acquaintances though. Their interactions were never friendly like my interactions with Oliver. They were often formal, always pertaining to something that had to do with Cathedral Reims. And this was before I came to Cathedral Reims. I didn’t know what Shadowmen were, that they even existed, that I was a witch, so Oliver had no reason to divulge anything, just as Colette never had a reason.

“Are you disgusted with me, Amelia?” Oliver asks. “You’re awfully silent.”

I shake my head and remove a glove. I reach out and touch his face with my bare fingers, feeling the coolness of his skin. I look more deeply into his eyes too, trying to find that trace of Shadowman. Oliver was likely so hesitant to tell me because he assumed I would think he was like Asch or Sash or the rest of those Shadowmen. If all witches turn into those creatures though, then they cannot all be bad—especially Colette. There is nothing in me that would judge all Shadowmen to be alike. There is nothing in me that would judge all humans to be alike, after all.

“You don’t look like one though. Why?”

I take my hand off his face and he kisses my fingertips, his cool lips sending beautiful shivers that I want to stay. Now his “blood disorder” makes more sense. I’ve never touched a Shadowman besides Olly, but I can only assume that because they are dead, they would be cold. “As soon as I turned, I immediately took the blood of a human who already died. I didn’t know human blood would make me look like one. I just wanted to cling to some essence of humanity. I hated the way I felt after I turned, which made me appreciate my own blood in life, my ability to bleed. That’s why I took it.”

His explanation brings me back to the train, to the vision, to the Shadowmen talking about Purgatory and taking the blood of a human. “Purgatory—”

Oliver encloses his hand around my own. “This is so painful to talk about, Amelia. Can we speak later? I know you have more questions, but I need to gather my thoughts. Tomorrow night perhaps?”

I groan. “But that’s so long.” I don’t mean the waiting for answers, but being able to be like this with him again.

He smiles, gives me one kiss on the lips. “But I’ll be there, I promise. Your Father and brother must be worrying about you. I just need time, Amelia. Talking about one’s own death isn’t exactly pleasant.”

I suppose remembering one’s death would be traumatizing, so I return the kiss in understanding. “Tomorrow night it is then, but you cannot skirt anything that I ask you. I want to know everything about you, Olly, even the darkest parts of your past.”

Oliver smiles, proffers his arm, and leads me back through the winding streets of Norbury to my Father and brother. When I look behind me to bid good-bye to Oliver, he has disappeared amongst the crowd. When I turn back around, Nathaniel proffers a doll in my arms with sunshine hair, bright blue eyes, and an alabaster complexion. She is a delicate thing, a perfect likeness of Colette, although the dress is too gaudy, with its lace trimming and blue silk material. Colette has always preferred hiding her body from the world. But she would look beautiful in this doll’s dress.

Either out of nostalgia or depraved wanting, I decide to call the doll Colette.

Chapter Seventeen

In the morning, I spend the day cleaning my room again for Oliver’s arrival at night. Father retires at nine, so Oliver should be outside my window by then. Then I will let him in through the back since the door there is quiet. Getting him to my room shouldn’t be hard since we no longer have maids or servants. Before, getting him through would have been impossible, particularly with Lily’s careful eye.

I have the window wide open to push out the musty air, and I spend my time dusting the furniture, both sweeping and scrubbing the floor, and scenting my room with bowls of rose water I set on my vanity. Later, if I can, I might root around the house for scented candles. I don’t want to just spend tonight having Oliver explain more things to me about these Shadowmen and Purgatory; I want to have a meaningful moment with him, a deep connection that will strengthen our relationship. I’m not certain if I necessarily want to do what we did in my dream. I’m willing, of course, but I suppose I will let Oliver be the one to decide.

As I go toward my window to beat my bed sheets in the snowy air, I spy a stopped carriage far down our drive. A figure emerges. I throw the sheet down and go downstairs to Father’s study at the back of the house near the back door. His door stands ajar, so I step in, finding him deep in what I assume to be paperwork that involves accounting. Visible dust stands out on books and his desk.

“I think we have a visitor,” I tell him.

He turns around, a sheen of sweat on his brow. Just from the glossy look in his eyes, I can tell he was lost in numbers. He smiles. “I was just thinking of launching my own business, balancing out my budget with some start-up money that I’ll be able to scrounge together from savings.”

Father’s happy tone sends a shred of hope through me. If he can find happiness by having Nathaniel and I back, then maybe I can find happiness living a life that doesn’t involve being in a convent.

He rises and leads me out of the door, heading toward the entrance. “A visitor at this hour though. How peculiar. I haven’t had a visitor in years, especially in the afternoon. Rather rude, if you ask me. Decorum demands a calling card.”

An insistent, metallic knock greets our ears as we enter the darkened foyer. Father undoes the chain and swings the doors wide open. The visitor is Theosodore Branch. At first my nerves fly into a frenzy over his presence because I still associate him too much with trials and punishments. Rationality then tames my nerves, which now surge with excitement over the thought that he may be here to ask me back to Cathedral Reims. Mother Aurelia said she’d write, but she never said how the letter would arrive here. It isn’t in her nature to deliver anything informal. Cold letters, in her opinion, have no meaning unless they are delivered with care. Although Theosodore isn’t exactly the person I would choose to deliver anything with care.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Father says. He looks behind Theosodore and spies the carriage, his mouth falling into a hard line. “And what are you here for today? You aren’t here to evict me, are you?”

Theosodore presents Father with his signature jagged smile, throwing a sharp look of fear through Father. I don’t think that man knows how to smile any other way. “Not in the least, Mr. Gareth. I am here to extend an official invite to the city of Malva to attend a witch burning a week from today at Parson Hill. Well, this isn’t necessarily an invitation, but an official order from Pope Gilford.”

My stomach twists at the mention of ‘witch burning,’ at the frankness of Theosodore’s words, and how he can speak them so easily without considering that behind every witch is a human being.

Theosodore continues. “He wants all well-to-do families there. There will be check-ins at the city to make certain you are there; otherwise, you will be arrested.”

Father puts a hand on my shoulder, seeming to sense the knotting of every single muscle within me. Coincidences do not exist in my world. Something spurred this event, something that made Pope Gilford want to arrange all of this. Witches have never been burned, to my knowledge. I have no doubt witches have been killed, but there was never an official law that claimed they had to be. There also wasn’t one that claimed they couldn’t be, but this event makes me think Pope Gilford wants to make this law, for whatever reason. This puts Nathaniel and I in an even more precarious position. Though I haven’t officially proven I’m a witch because my fire hasn’t come, I can see the Shadowmen, and that is proof enough that I am one. It is only a matter of time, however, before that fire does come out of me. There must be a way I can control it.

Father steps up to Theosodore. “Must my children attend? My youngest is only eight.”

Theosodore’s smile widens. “All must attend, Mr. Gareth.” His eyes dart over to me, his grin turning lascivious. I then realize he has never seen me outside of my gray dress. I’ve worn a corset since coming home, one that reveals every curve of my body and hides nothing as my shapeless dress did. “Do you mind if I come in for tea? The journey here has been terribly long.” He looks me up and down. My hands fly to cover my chest and waist. “And I would like to know how Miss Gareth here has been doing since leaving Cathedral Reims. I’m certain Mother Aurelia would be delighted to know.”

Father seems like he wants to say no, but he has always been a man who could never say no. “You may come in.” He leads Theosodore to our parlor.

I’m certain Theosodore expects me to stay, but I want nothing to do with him and his roaming gaze. “Father, if you don’t mind, I’ll be retreating to the library for some studying. I want to make certain I’ll be prepared for when I start school.”

Father smiles. “She’ll be attending a finishing school at the start of spring. It was her decision. I’m very proud of her.”

A brief glimmer of dissatisfaction appears in Theosodore’s eyes. I hurry off to the library, grabbing my doll along the way, before his look becomes something more.

In the library, I sit among a pile of books, my Colette doll sitting in front of me. Our library is small, the size of my room; yet, the shelves are brimming with books coated in a layer of dust.

“Can you believe that man is here, Colette?” I ask the doll.

I try to imagine what Colette would say in response to this question but can come up with nothing. Perhaps she’d give him a cheeky response. Sadly, I know nothing about her. Colette, for me, exists only in a convent, never doing anything that isn’t for Deus in some manner. She will never be a Shadowman in my mind.

I stroke the doll’s straw-textured hair, sadness swelling my heart. I never knew Colette enough. “I’m sorry,” I say to the doll. And that is all I can say.

Talking to an inanimate object is silly, but I feel less silly than if I were speaking to the air. It is comforting to speak to something that looks like Colette. Even though the doll will not answer, I desperately miss saying Colette’s name. She is out there though. Will I ever see her? I’m not certain, and I don’t know if I’d want to.

“It’s unnerving that he’s here. I wonder how many so-called invitations he’s extended. And I wonder if he’s asked to have tea with any of those other families.”

I only know Theosodore as Mother Aurelia’s companion. I’ve heard rumors about his flirting with the sisters of Cathedral Reims though. Beyond that, he is an enigmatic man. I pull the Colette doll to me and start fixing her hair. “He is here for something more, Colette. Maybe he wants to con Father into donating a good fortune to him to fund this burning. Maybe this is why Pope Gilford only wants well-off families because they’re the only ones who could afford to foist off large amounts of money.” I pull the Colette doll away, staring deeply into her glassy blue eyes. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? Maybe I should head down to the parlor to make certain Father won’t fall for anything. He wants to start his own accounting business, and I don’t want him giving away any of his start-up money.”

Tucking the Colette doll against me, I get up to leave, only to be stopped by the presence of Theosodore himself. “I appear to have gotten myself quite lost trying to find the wash closet. Would you like to re-direct me?” His foolish grin overtakes his whiskery face.

He walks calmly toward me. Even though he is calm, my muscles become petrified wood. Something hostile in his stride pushes me back until I’m against the wall paneling, clutching the doll to me like she is my shield. Now hovering over me, he is no longer a man who merely came here to deliver a forced invitation. He is a man who sends poison shooting through me. I shrink against the wall, willing for the wood to give way behind me so I can fall through and get away from him. The thick scent of cigar pushes through my nostrils, making my knees buckle. What does he want with me?

His jagged smile widens. He snakes out a finger and tilts my chin up at him. My throat goes dry, my eyes widen, and my nerves scream to run, though something keeps my body pinned against the wall. “I take it you’re not going to show me to the wash closet, then. That’s all right. I’d much rather be here…with you.”

I push myself off the wall and stare him in the eye. “What on earth do you want with me?” My own brazenness surprises me. This is almost too coincidental for me to remain silent. “Isn’t my father expecting you back shortly? He might go looking for you, and if he sees us like this, there is no telling what he’ll do.”

Theosodore lets out a slight laugh that sends me back against the wall. “Even if he does come, he won’t be able to do anything. I can make certain of that.”

His stare hardens, making me tremble. “Please tell me what you want with me. Please.”

“I didn’t have this planned today, believe me, but seeing you out of that drab dress and clothed the way you are…I can’t help it. But I don’t want to do this, I can promise you that much. I just might as well with someone I find physically appealing, and you are.” He pushes his face close to mine. “Very much.”

I stand up straight and mentally match my height with his. “You mean to hurt me then.”

“Trying to make yourself seem bigger than you feel, aren’t you? That doesn’t work.”

“I’m not afraid.” I’m frightened beyond belief, but if I don’t show him that I’m threatened, then maybe he’ll leave me alone. Those who want to hurt people only want to hurt to see others suffer. “But if you truly don’t want to hurt me, then why are you in here, cornering me like this, flirting with me in such a threatening manner?”

He laughs again. “If I told you, you’d never believe me, and why should you? No one else would. No one believes people like me. People fear others like me.”

“People like you?” Right when I ask the question, I realize what he means. There is only one type of person all people are afraid of, and I’m not even afraid to ask the truth aloud. “You’re a witch, aren’t you?” He never showed any signs of being a witch, but this world is rife with people who fear witches. “But what does that have to do with your intentions of keeping me in here like this?”

Theosodore doesn’t seem fazed by my knowing the truth. He simply looks at me with indifference, like it’s something people would have eventually found out. It’s no surprise, I suppose. Anyone at Cathedral Reims could be a witch now. I think I’ve grown cynical. The Seven Deadly Sins are a plague among humanity. I can safely say I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Aurelia were one. His indifference makes me suspicious though. How does he know I’m not going to kick him where it hurts, run, and tell the priest of Norbury that he’s a witch? Knowing this makes me stand taller, straighter, and solidifies me to the ground so that if a hurricane swept through Norbury, I’d still be standing in the same place.

I don’t even let him answer my previous question. “I could tell, you know. They’ll burn you, right along with your hypocrisy. You’re a witch going about Warbele telling people they have no choice but to attend a witch burning.”

Without warning, he plants his meaty hands on either side of me, trapping me against him. The space around me tightens, leaving only a few inches between him and I. His cigar scent gags me, and I no longer feel brave. I’m a newborn bird trying to hatch from a steel egg.

“You won’t tell though, and I’ll tell you why. I can manipulate you to believe anything that comes out of my mouth.” He digs his fingers in the wall paneling. “And I can do that, but I won’t. I have to get what I need to continue surviving. You’re partly right about what I am, but that was in another life.”

The last six words he spoke bounce around in my mind. The room seems to shrink in around me, pressing in on my lungs, until the only air I’m breathing is the breath from Theosodore’s lungs, all cigar-laden and filled with cruelty. He is a Shadowman, like Asch, Sash, Gisbelle, all of them. And he must have taken the blood of a human, for he does not bear the black eyes and white skin of one. That means he knows I’m a witch. Will he tell if I don’t give him what he wants? There seems to be that unspoken threat between us. Even though I can accuse him of being a witch, his accusation would hold far more weight simply because he is in a position of authority within the Professed Order.

I needn’t concentrate on what could be. I need to concentrate on what will be. Whether or not Theosodore chooses to divulge my being a witch doesn’t matter, as I need to escape this present situation before worrying about that.

Swallowing, I speak up. “W-what do you want with me? What do you want to do to me?”

He takes a hand and bunches my dress, slowly lifting it up over my shins, my knees, then my thighs. “I need your purity. Since I have to do this, I promise this will be quick. Or, if you want, I can make this enjoyable for you. This doesn’t have to hurt, Amelia. I don’t have to make this cruel.”

Tears build in my eyes. I know what he wants to do to me. I then blink the tears away. I need to fight and not cry or scream. He wouldn’t kill me, I don’t think he would. If I fight back, the worst he could do is break my bones, but I’ll still have my life, I hope. He may even get what he wants in the end, but at least I can live knowing I tried to fight, that I’m not completely weak and helpless.

I grab his wrist, stopping his progress. I press my nails into his hand and strain my neck to really look up at him. “You will not do this to me. I’ll scream that you’re a witch. Someone will hear. Crying witch will be enough to send someone running to the priest.”

And I know what’s going to happen next before he even does it, but I’m prepared and a little proud of myself for at least being courageous. I let the Colette doll fall softly on a stack of books. Theosodore digs his thick fingers into my waist, pulls me up, and throws me on the ground. I yelp as my elbow hits the floor, pain radiating through my arm that could make the bone shatter if I were any weaker. I try to roll away from him; he throws his weight on me.

I flail beneath him, kicking out my legs, beating my fists on his muscular back. I even bite into his shoulder, drawing a scream from him.

He pulls away, keeping my shoulders pinned to the ground. “I don’t want to have to harm you, Amelia, but I will if you don’t cooperate. I promise I won’t make this painful for you. I will listen to you.”

“Then listen to me when I say I don’t want you to do this to me.”

Something like worry passes through his eyes, but vanishes instantly. “You don’t understand. There is a life after this, a beautiful one, and we all must meet certain demands to find ourselves in that new world.”

I raise my shoulders and scream in his face, “Why do you have to do this to me?”

“I have to. Do you think I wanted to be saddled with this fate? I would have preferred something milder, but such is the way of Deus.”

I want to scream at him to not blame Deus for his own choices, but he slams a knee into my stomach, squeezing every precious bit of air out of me, and lifts up my dress. His fingers claw at my bloomers, fumbling around with them, until he finds the top and drags them down. Air assaults me down there, shivers snaking over my body that have nothing to do with being cold and everything to do with the discomfort of this feeling that should only belong to Oliver.

Theosodore fumbles with his belt, his knee still pressed into me. No matter how much I beat my fists on him, or kick him, or even scream, I cannot push him off me. I can’t weaken those powerful muscles rippling beneath his waistcoat with each tug on his belt he makes. I am causing such a riot that I’m surprised Father has not come. Then again, the library is tucked deep into the recesses of this mansion. Exhaustion weakens my muscles, and all I can do is heavily breathe beneath him, squeeze my eyes shut, and prepare.

Then I think about fire, the fire I need, the fire that could hurt him and allow me to get away. I think Nathaniel has cast fire only once, but that was an accident. I need this to be deliberate.

I don’t know how to do that though!

The clink of metal opens my eyes. Theosodore pulls the belt out of his loops and throws it aside. Then he reaches into his pressed slacks and draws out his erection, and the size brings a primal scream that must have been building somewhere in me.

Adrenaline fills every cavity in my body, and I can’t think of fire anymore. I knee Theosodore in the thigh, pushing his weight forward. His eyes bulge as he falls. I move my head to the left to avoid his. As he struggles to get up, I struggle to get out from beneath him. I manage to pull out everything from underneath, save for my left leg, before Theosodore pulls himself up and lunges at me.

His lunge frees my leg, and adrenaline compels me to my feet. I rush to the door and grab the handle, but I turn too hard, and it breaks. In the process of breaking, the lock must have gotten jammed; I cannot open the door. So I beat against the wood and scream for someone to free me.

Heat flushes through me. Each beat of my fists against the door heightens the temperature, and either I’m getting a fever or more is pumping through me, but I know this is not natural.

Theosodore digs his thick nails into my shoulder and whirls me around. Red veins swell out of the whites of his eyes. “You have left me no choice. I gave you a chance. I gave you a chance!”

He pulls his fist back, and I turn my head away, locking my eyes on a stack of books, ready for the impact, the ensuing blackness. At least I won’t feel what he’s going to do to me. At least I may forget how I even ended up here. I squeeze my eyes shut.

The heat increases and shoots down to my fingers. A searing pain explodes through the pads of my fingertips, and I scream as the heat ebbs from me. Theosodore screams as well.

My eyes fly open, and the stack of books is on fire. He looks at me with wide eyes and backs away, falling on the floor. His shock gives me enough time to turn around, fumble with the door jamb, and free myself.

The fire, carried by dust, spreads from the stack of books, to another stack, to the curtains on the window, to more books, and eats up everything flammable. I turn away from the scene and bolt without looking back.

Chapter Eighteen

My doll barely survived the fire. Her hands are melted nubs, and her head is almost bald, patches of golden hair sticking out that make her head look like it’s been through a grinder. The irony of her appearance is almost too sickening. Just when I thought I’d be able to re-claim Colette’s pure image, Theosodore comes along and ruins her. But I can’t throw her away. I can only hold on to her because at least this version of Colette is in no danger of spouting off scary things or convulsing or turning into a Shadowman and running off. I will store her in my armorer…for good.

Father suspects the fire in the library was an accident: a fallen taper, static electricity mixed with old, dry books. The reasons don’t matter. He will never suspect it was me. As for Theosodore, he left to Deus knows where. I have no worries about his wanting to accuse me of being a witch. The only satisfaction he’ll get is my potential execution, but he isn’t that vindictive, I don’t believe. Even if he is, the energy to care has been lost on me. He didn’t hurt me, after all. I am still alive and pure. I’ve suffered worse than almost being ravished

Right now, all that matters is Oliver. He consumes my thoughts: his wintry smell, those gray eyes that make me think of a sky flushed with lightning, his droopy bangs that make me think of a raven’s feathers. I think to tell him about Theosodore and what he tried to do to me and ask Oliver what his motives are, but I think better of it. He seems to have his own troubles. I shouldn’t confound them by giving him another Shadowman to worry about.

In my room, I brush my hair and put it in a tight braid. I scrub my face free of sweat and soot, and I dab my skin with rose water. I dress in my best nightgown and twirl in the mirror of my vanity. The girl looking back at me is no porcelain doll, but she will have to do. Oliver must see something in me, so I don’t feel like I’ll need to try too hard to look appealing to his eyes.

I go over to my window, and find Oliver looking up with a tired smile on his face. I gesture him to the back, then rush downstairs to fetch him. When I throw open the door, I leap into his arms for a much-needed embrace. Then before he can even react, I shove him against the wall and press my lips to his, inhaling the sweet winter of his being. I pull away, delicious heat flooding my body that pushes out any bit of stress that might have been coiling in me.

Oliver lets out a slight laugh. “Aren’t you going to take me to your room first? Do you really want to kiss me in a foyer, and a dark one at that?” He stifles a sneeze. “And dusty. Not terribly romantic, Amelia.”

I close my eyes, sighing. “It’s been a long day, Olly. Come, come.” I lace my fingers through his and take him upstairs.

As I bring him upstairs, my insecurities start assaulting my mind. Is my room clean enough for him? Will my bed be comfortable? Why did I not decide to speak with him in the parlor instead? What was I thinking when I chose my bedroom? A lady being alone with a man, especially in her bedroom, is beyond scandalous. Suggesting my bedroom so flippantly is not who I’m supposed to be. Then again, I have changed. I kiss Oliver without shame. I think about that dream without shame. I can share my bedroom with him without shame. I can even let him sleep in my bed with me without shame, and I want him to. I desperately want him to.

“Welcome to my cozy little cocoon,” I say, opening my door.

Oliver steps in and runs a finger down the champagne-colored wallpaper with white fleur-de-lis. “I quite like the antique charm of this room. In fact, I like this room period. Far better than the tiny cells the Professed Order provides its members with. You never mentioned, but will I be staying the night?” He goes over to my bed and lays his lean body across it. He presses himself against the mattress, sighs, and closes his eyes with a smile. His body looks so inviting that I want to go over and drape myself across him. “It would be quite welcoming, if you don’t mind. I’m tired of hotel rooms.”

I approach my bed and lay down on my side, facing him. “If it’s not too brazen of me, I’d love for you to stay the night.”

Oliver pushes his face close to mine. “You can never be too brazen with me.” He touches the bottom of my chin with two fingers, tilts it, and gives me a light kiss.

He goes to pull away, but I bring his lips back to mine, spreading my fingers against his shoulder blades. I then drape my leg over him and entwine my body with his. Oliver feels fragile and cold in my arms. Most girls would find this unattractive; however, his fragility makes me want to cradle him since I feel like I can use my body heat to protect him. For once I feel strong, and I want to be strong with him. I don’t want to be something made of glass that needs constant coddling.

He sighs, his lips against my forehead. “You’re so warm.” He runs his hand down the side of my face, grabs my braid, and slowly undoes it with his fingers. “I miss being this warm. You have no idea how much I miss being human. Even after so long being a Shadowman, I cannot get used to this cold feeling.”

My voice comes out breathy. “How long have you been one?”

His voice comes out as a light whisper that sends an electrical shiver down my spine. “Too long.”

A slight gasp escapes my lips. I can feel his hardness pressing against me. Part of me wants to explore that side of him, while another part of me chides myself for wanting to take his little visit so far already. I sit up, pulling in deep breaths to cool myself down.

He circles my thigh and looks at me with eyes full of want. “Did I do something wrong?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong at all, Olly, but you know I have questions for you about the Shadowmen. I hate having to ruin this moment, but if we don’t talk about this, we never will.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Disappointment shades his voice, making me feel guilty. “Well, what do you want to know?”

The questions are already at the cusp of my mind. I have mulled over them since leaving the park. “I want to know about Purgatory, I want to know more about those Shadowmen, and I want to know what they want with witches.”

Oliver sits up, pulling his long legs to his chest. “There’s not much to say about Purgatory. I haven’t even seen the man myself. I suspect you already know he is the leader of the Shadowmen Alliance. But I frankly don’t know much beyond that, or why he would have an interest in you.” A suggestive smile overtakes his face. “Unless he finds you as beautiful as I do and wants you just as badly as I want you right now.”

Oliver puts his hands on my waist. “Olly, we can’t—”

He moans and presses cool lips against the side of my neck. “I wouldn’t blame him for wanting you.”

My jaw drops, and I shake my head at the thought, pulling myself away from Oliver. “No, Olly. Don’t even joke about that. Purgatory wants me unharmed. Asch even said he has a keen interest in me.” I pause, a revelation alighting my mind. “How would this Purgatory know about me in the first place?”

Oliver reaches over and starts playing with strands of my hair. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all those Shadowmen, mostly the men, would want something to do with you.”

I can tell Oliver doesn’t want to talk, and I suppose I can’t blame him. Talking about a part of himself he seems ashamed of must be difficult. I have to know this though, because I was spared and Colette wasn’t. There is something special Purgatory must see in me, and I must know what it is to protect myself.

I stay his hand and put it by his side. Disappointment passes through his eyes but is gone in an instant with a look from me. “I need to know, Olly. Asch mentioned Maladies. Start with those.”

“Maladies…” Bitterness creeps into his voice. “They’re these horrid, dreaded things Deus uses to remind us where we stand. Because each Shadowman has special abilities specific to his or her greatest strengths in life, Deus reminds us that being a Shadowman is not a luxury by also cursing us with Maladies. My ability is that I can control nature because it is something I adored in life. But my Malady is that I desire too much. This might not seem much because human beings desire something every day, but in life, I desired so hard I sacrificed who I was. Amelia, I would have murdered to get what I wanted. Now that desire has been compounded ten times as a Shadowman.”

“What do you desire now? Would you kill for it?”

Oliver sits up straighter and looks in the direction of my vanity. “Now that I have you, I feel like my desires are satiated, but Maladies are never-ending. I have no doubt I will desire something new in the coming days, whatever that may be. I don’t wish to think about it.” He falls silent, and I decide not to push him further on Maladies.

Then I wonder what my Malady would be? My greatest weakness is self-doubt, I believe. My greatest strength would be the undying love I have for my little brother. I wonder how those will translate when I find myself transforming into a Shadowman. And I wonder what Colette’s abilities and her Malady are.

I sit closer to Oliver until our thighs touch. “I think it would be amazing to be able to control nature,” I say, trying to lighten his mood. “What can you do, Olly? Oh, please show me!”

A smile replaces his dour mood, and he is up and at the window in no time. He gestures me over. “This window ledge has all the ingredients I need,” Oliver says, pointing at the snow that crusts it.

“What could you possibly do with that?”

Oliver moves some of the snow aside, revealing a layer of soil beneath. He passes a hand over the soil, and before my eyes, a Winter Daphne, with a rich white-pink coloring, climbs four feet tall, leaning dangerously over the ledge. He tears the flower by the stem and presents it to me with a flourish. Its sweet perfume assaults my nose, bringing a light heat to my cheeks. I accept the flower.

“As long as all the ingredients are there, I can make things happen. I can make roses bloom in the freezing winter, so long as healthy seeds are there, and I can make trees dance, if I want to. But I don’t use it often.”

I keep staring at the flower, this little miracle Oliver created with magic I couldn’t even see. The beauty of his power makes me feel even more strongly for him. He must have been a beautiful person in life. I want to tell him I wished I could have known him before he died, but I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Whether or not Oliver is a Shadowman, he is here and fully alive to me. “Olly, this is wonderful. Is this how you care for the plants in the greenhouse?”

He nods. “But I don’t use it often. I don’t want anyone suspecting anything. There were so many times when I felt tempted to make the plum trees blossom in the dead of winter. They’re so ugly otherwise.”

I brush my fingers over the delicate petals, still in disbelief that Oliver can do this. I carefully bring it over to one of my rosewater bowls and gently set the flower in. The scent in my room is now intoxicating, both roses and Winter Daphne mingling to form a perfume that I wish I could buy at a boutique.

The mood grows somber again, so I turn away from the flower. “Now what do those Shadowmen want with witches?”

Oliver stares out the window, an elbow resting on the sill. “I am not entirely certain, but I think they’re gathering witches to get revenge on those who harmed them in life, which would be all those who aren’t witches. By gathering witches, they can turn them into Shadowmen, thus swelling their ranks.”

I go over to Oliver and look out the window as well, my eyes locked on the silvery moon that sits high and is enormous in the wintry sky. “Then it makes sense why they took the blood of that girl, because now they can find witches without any effort just by taking on the appearance of a human. Olly, when we were on the train, did you see that vision?”

He shakes his head, giving me a curt “No.”

“When we were on the train, you pushed me away, like you didn’t want me to see something.”

Without warning, Oliver grabs my upper arms and pins me against the wall with his lips. My eyelids flutter close, lost in his kiss that tastes like fresh snow. He pulls away, his lips gently nibbling my ear lobe. His breath is cool against me. “Don’t you worry about anything, Amelia. Let me do all the worrying. I doubt these Shadowmen will want anything to do with you, but I will spy on them and find a way to stop them. Not all Shadowmen want what they want. They are, after all, a small group, easily dismantled.”

He kisses me again, turning me around and gently pushing me back until I’m on the bed. He hovers over me, his lips still pressed to mine. I don’t know how long we kiss, but I have forgotten anything else I wanted to ask him. When he pulls away, his face a faint red and both of us gasping, he turns on his side and traces circles on my stomach. This simple touch sends pleasant shivers through me that make me want to do more.

“Olly,” I say, “you haven’t told me everything.”

“What haven’t I told you?”

“You haven’t told me what made you a Shadowman. I know it’s really personal, Olly, but I want to know everything about you, even the uncomfortable parts, so that way you never have a reason to feel alone.”

Oliver pulls me to him, resting my head in the crook of his arm. “As long as I’m with you, I’ll never feel alone.”

I look him full in the face. “Are you going to tell me then?”

He shakes his head. “I-I can’t, Amelia.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too painful. Maybe one day, maybe never, but it’s something I’m trying to forget, day-by-day.”

I sigh. “Olly…why won’t you trust me?”

“I do trust you, Amelia. But I’m certain even you have things so painful that you don’t want to talk about them. Can you at least respect that this is something I want to forget? If I force myself to remember, if I even allow myself, then I fear I won’t be quite who I am right now. There is too much bitterness.”

I nod. Oliver is right. If I refuse to tell him about Theosodore, then I also have to accept that there are some things Oliver will never tell me. A secret for a secret. As long as I have my secrets, then it is hypocritical of me to expect Oliver to reveal everything about himself, especially the parts of him that are like open flesh wounds.

Instead of pondering over Oliver’s unknown past, I let myself relax against him and fall asleep—a restful sleep, for once.

Chapter Nineteen

The train ride to Malva is a quiet affair, Father, Nathaniel, and I all lost in our own worlds. I muse over what Oliver told me yesterday. I feel like I should be numb to the idea that I will die into a Shadowman, but I see my future etched in Oliver’s eyes, full of suffering in uncertainty, and no matter how much I want to accept that unavoidable future, I can’t. All of me rebels against the idea that Deus punishes witches further in the afterlife. If being a Shadowman is supposed to be an apology for suffering in life, then I argue we’re better off dying into nothingness.

Even more, the witch burning is not something that helps these feelings of mine at all. Just knowing what the fate of those witches will be after their bodies have burned to ash is enough to make me hate people. Perhaps if I keep my eyes shut the entire time, and keep Nathaniel’s shut too, we’ll make it through. We’ll be okay. We might even be so far back in the crowd, we won’t see anything but the boughs of Parson Hill’s oak tree.

After we check in with the city’s officials, we gather around the hill, the oak tree greeting us with its strong, graceful boughs and snow-crusted bark. Pity it won’t be strong and beautiful after today when its trunk is marred and its soil littered with ashes. Father tries to lead us to the back, but the priests of Cathedral Reims keep pushing us forward to the point where we’re almost on the outer ring, six men deep. Up at the top of the hill are Bishop Brandon, Pope Gilford’s preferati; Pope Gilford himself; and the cross bearers who are all men with burly arms, red faces, and straining necks.

I wonder where Oliver is, if he is somewhere in the crowd, looking out for me. He left before I woke up—gone, just like that. My heart aches and ached this morning when I woke up without his physical presence beside me.

Nathaniel latches on to me, pressing his face against my rib cage. “The sky shouldn’t be blue,” he says, his voice muffled. One moment Nathaniel is a child wanting to get me an enormous teddy bear and the next he is an entirely different creature speaking in poetry instead of throwing a temper tantrum as any child would.

I ruffle his hair. “Stay like that, Nat. All right?” There should be no beauty. But there is. The world doesn’t want to change its clothes to foreshadow the impending tragedy about to take place in Malva. The snow is not enough. It is too white. Too pure.

My eyes dart back to the hill. The men plant the crosses in the ground, gouging away precious soil. The faces of the witches reveal themselves to us, and what is most horrifying is they don’t scream or cry against the ropes biting into their bodies. Bruises taint their skin, as if they’d been whipped before this, and their eyes are mere husks, drained of whatever life was in them before all this.

They’re not children and yet they’re not old enough to be considered wise. But I’m certain their imprisonment has made them realize that fighting will breed more resentment. People will only remember them as stupid animals anyway. Then they will be forgotten. Witches are thought of but never spoken about. They are quietly tucked away, never heard from again. The only reminders that people should hate them are The Vulgate and propaganda.

Pope Gilford, a haggard old man dressed in white with a matching headdress, steps in the middle of the semi-circle of crosses and puts his arms in the air. “Citizens of Malva!” Energy radiates through his old muscles, making him seem younger than he really is. “Today Norbury shall witness its very first witch burning. Other parts of the world have burned witches in centuries past, but they no longer tolerate such practices as Warbele now does. In the coming months, I and Cardinal Bishop Brandon will be attending numerous witch burnings. It is my hope that within the decade we can eliminate all sin.”

Eliminate all sin?

It occurs to me that these witch burnings are actually beneficial to the Shadowmen Alliance. Though they care nothing of cleansing sin, they do care about swelling their ranks, and this is exactly what Pope Gilford is doing by burning today’s witches. There are ten of them, enough to take out an entire city. But I can’t do anything about this. I am a mere girl who has no idea how to even control her fire, if that’s possible. Perhaps this is my paranoia, but I feel like there is a connection to this and the alliance, as though the Shadowmen are somehow using him.

Then again, they can see witches through a mere glance. Doing all of this just to obtain a few seems impractical. There is something more to this, though I do not know what.

Pope Gilford continues. “Witches are born of the Seven Deadly Sins, and The Vulgate says we must treat them as such.” Every tremulous heart in Malva joins together as one, creating one giant heart that sends earthquakes through each of us. “These witches were caught pulling food from open windows and heating that food with their fire. They stole off with the food to feed their greedy bellies. Not only have they sinned with magic, but they have also sinned with thievery. Deus does not forgive.”

He spreads his arms, a signal for the cross bearers to make their way downhill. Only the witches and some of the Professed Order are left. Their faces are white as they grip their baskets of calla lilies. I wonder what must be going through Mother Aurelia’s mind knowing the Professed Order has probably been forced to participate in this act of cruelty. While hatred of witches is accepted, not everyone agrees that they should suffer in this manner.

The cross bearers make their way down the hill, and as one passes us, my heart almost escapes from my rib cage. There is a scar above his lip, and it’s on a smooth face with a sloped jaw.

That can’t be Sash.

He doesn’t look at me, but I can’t look away. That can’t be Sash. That can’t be. He would be with the Shadowmen Alliance—not among people in Malva.

I shake my head. He would be among people now that he and all the others have the appearance of human beings. Sash’s being among the cross bearers somewhat confirms my suspicion that they are using Pope Gilford—and the man probably doesn’t know it. I wonder who had the idea? Asch, no doubt. For what reason, I don’t know. They can easily seek out witches now, so why go through all the trouble of having a ceremony? All it does is take a slice to the throat. Sash snuffed that woman’s life out with ease.

The Professed Order cluster around Bishop Brandon. He takes them beneath the oak tree and instructs them to pray. Pope Gilford comes to the front of the hill and holds up his arms. The white sleeves of his outfit flow down like the feathers of a bird’s wings.

He must think himself an angel.

“Remember these faces, for they are the faces of witches. And if you can recognize the face of a witch, then you can recognize the face of any witch and bring Warbele into a new era, where getting rid of sin means killing all witches.”

Pope Gilford falls silent, implying he wants us to mull over his words. I refuse to digest such ghastly talk. They are human beings, people who happen to be witches through no faults of their own. No one is a witch by fault. If anyone should be burned, it should be the parents who gave birth to them. Parents are the sinners, the ones who disobeyed The Vulgate and Deus. But The Vulgate says we must burn witches, and it says we must hate them.

It just doesn’t tell us why.

While we are silent, several people push to the front of the crowd bearing white candles with lit wicks, little flames tamed by brutal hands. They pass us, and as they do, my heart has that feeling of wanting to escape from my chest. When I saw that vision on the train, I was only able to memorize Sash’s face. But all of these candle bearers look familiar.

My legs become more brittle than burnt wood.

Pope Gilford rises from his silence. “Burn the sinners!”

The candle bearers walk up to the witches, and one of them bears a can of oil—a man, I think. He pulls the cap off and douses each cross in the flammable substance. The victims moan, but don’t fight beyond that.

The candle bearers separate, two to each cross. They touch their wicks to the oil, and the crosses ignite, the flames crawling along the crosses like a swarm of wasps.

Now they scream and cry, and I want to collapse from their pain. Nathaniel lets out a choked cry. I bury his head in my ribs, wrapping my arms tight around him.

Bishop Brandon pushes the Professed Order forward, and they each dance around the crosses, looping around one cross and then looping around the next. They throw the lilies at their feet, forced smiles on their faces.

“Deus!” Pope Gilford says, throwing his arms in the air again. “Take these sinful beings and bury them in the Gates of Hell. Do not let them linger any longer on this earth. They were bred through sin and to sin they must return!”

And just like that, the world around me freezes, including the air I expel from my lungs. Pope Gilford’s arms remain frozen in the air, and his mouth freezes in what I can only describe as someone having a seizure. The Professed Order stop on the tips of their toes, their hands flying out behind them with lily petals floating behind. The tips of the flames lick the sky and remain that way.

Only I am able to move—or so it seems.

There is movement among the frozen bodies, and it isn’t just mine. Should I follow? There is no reason not to, I suppose. I have experienced enough bizarre things in the past year to know that coincidences are nonexistent.

I slip out of Nathaniel’s grasp, leaving him a frozen statue with a face twisted and ruined by tears. I squeeze myself through the bodies that remain solid as boulders. Someone else moves behind me, though I am unable to see who it is—I can only hear. I keep my attention on the figure moving ahead. I make out a white sleeve, and I assume it’s one of the cross bearers: Sash. And whoever moves behind me could be one of the candle bearers.

I don’t know what is going on, but this is the same feeling I had on that train. Oliver can’t be doing this. His powers concern themselves with nature. And the Shadowmen Alliance can’t possibly be doing this for me either. Asch made it clear he’d kill me if he discovered my meddling in their affairs.

I come out of the crowd to find that it is indeed one of the cross bearers blazing down the main street. I keep after him, though I find myself weaving around carriages and lampposts to disguise myself. I throw a glance over my shoulder, but don’t see the other figure that was in the crowd. Perhaps I was imagining things.

The cross bearer runs into an alley, and I throw myself behind a stack of crates by the alley and peer around the corner.

There is a group of people, all human, but yet not human. They are all familiar.

The first one to speak is Sash. The rasp to his voice is unmistakable. “Ten more into our ranks.”

“Good, Sash.” That’s Asch all right.

“But this is painful to do,” Sash says. “We should just slit their throats.”

“But their change is far slower than if they’re burned. It can take a year instead of days, weeks, or even a couple of months,” another says, one that sounds female, who is without a doubt Gisbelle.

I think back to Colette, how I wasn’t the one who murdered her, but a Shadowman. One of these Shadowmen has the power of fire.

“In any case,” Asch says, “Purgatory wanted a ceremony to make people realize what they’re doing to witches. He no longer wants witches to be an afterthought to someone’s day. He wants them to be there, burned in their minds.”

I slam a hand over my mouth to keep myself from gasping. Pope Gilford is their pawn. Does Oliver realize this? I doubt this. He might be a Shadowman, but he is certainly not one of them. I’ll have to tell him when I can, but Father booked a hotel for a week, claiming he’d never been to Malva and wanted to explore the city more. There isn’t much to look at after a day though.

“There are plenty of them in Malva,” Sash says. “This city is a perfect place for us.”

Asch smiles, his grin similar to Theosodore’s jagged one “With so many witches around, this means more Shadowmen for us.”

Oliver was right. This information is dizzying, nauseating. That poor woman, a mere object in their ultimate goal, a simple way for them to obtain human blood so they could look like us, acts like us, and scheme among us without anyone realizing how different they are from us. How many Shadowmen could there be then? Could there even be Shadowmen, besides Oliver, at Cathedral Reims?

“Purgatory certainly took long enough to propose the idea of witch burnings to Pope Gilford,” Sash says.

“Be grateful he proposed at all, Sasha,” Gisbelle says. “Plans like this take time, my darling tactician. Perhaps if you were better at planning, you could have come up with something. Or perhaps if you were thinking about Claire less.”

Sash opens his mouth to say something, but Asch silences him, leaving the boy with a bright flush in his face. “Gisbelle, remember that Sash got the information from Purgatory in the first place. How could we go about easily obtaining witches without effort? What have you done?”

Gisbelle shrinks, her face hidden in shadows. “I—”

Sash smirks. “Besides whoring yourself out to the rest of the alliance?”

Gisbelle turns on him. “You know what kind of magic I can do, Sasha. Don’t test me.” She turns to Asch and presses herself against him, trying to show everyone that her affections seem to lie with him. “How is that Amelia girl doing?”

My muscles tense, pinning me to the ground.

“I haven’t seen her. As far as I know, Purgatory has been keeping an exceptionally good eye on her,” Asch says. “I still don’t understand Purgatory’s fascination with her. I’d say kill her because she’d be an asset to us, but he wants her to live. Maybe she’ll set him free, or something.”

Gisbelle looks over her shoulder. She’s striking. Her eyes are a golden brown, her hair the color of the sun, and her face is soft and warm looking. She turns back around and seductively moves against Asch. “Now I know we didn’t leave the witch burning to come over here and make trifle talk.” Her voice is flirtatious, like she expects something more from Asch neither Sash nor I want to bear witness to.

Asch closes his eyes and stops her advances. “There is a rogue Shadowman among us. She means to help those who are not us. Her name is Colette, and she must be stopped. She has to be killed because she knows vital information no one else should know.”

Gisbelle crosses her arms. “And how have you found this out?”

“She has been taking nightly jaunts when she should have been carrying out her mission to find more witches for our ranks. And no one has been able to find her. Purgatory claims he saw her briefly, but she was gone before he could take action.”

“And so you assume she’s with the other side?” Sash asks.

Asch nods and says nothing more.

I fall back on my heels, and have to dig my teeth into my knuckles to keep from making a sound. I am not surprised Colette is a Shadowman. I am not surprised she wouldn’t help him. But I am horrified that she is in danger and that they could potentially kill her. Here I am spying in on their conversation when I really should find Colette and warn her, though I don’t even know where to start or who to go to.

Oliver doesn’t want me involved in any of this, but when my best friend is involved, I have to find a way to save her, even if that means getting myself killed. She sacrificed herself for me. That sacrifice will not be in vain.

Colette may be a Shadowman, and dear Deus only knows how much this could have changed her, but now that I, for once, have a chance to protect her, I cannot waste this opportunity to do so.

Chapter Twenty

I hasten down the main road, uncertain of where I’m going, even more uncertain of why the world remains still. Then I begin to think that maybe this is Colette’s doing, her power as a Shadowman. Maybe she was the one who sent me that vision on the train, and maybe that was her on the train. Her greatest strength in life was her intelligence, so perhaps she is in Malva, giving me the chance to help her.

Even though Malva is stationery, I still feel so vulnerable being out in the open, surrounded by Gothic houses and shops that crowd in around me, houses and shops that could be hiding Shadowmen just waiting to spring out and kill me. At any time they could disobey Purgatory and drag me away, into darkness.

I wonder what Purgatory’s fascination is with me, and what Asch means by my being able to free him. They keep talking as if I know the man, though I have never seen him, not in visions, dreams, or anything supernatural of that sort.

As I near Parson Hill, I hear the sound of footsteps coming in an indiscernible direction. I scan the main road, look in between allies filled with shadows, but find nothing. Then I spy a Shadowman darting across the road, taking deliberate steps toward me.

I turn on my heel and run in the other direction, toward the ocean.

Hitching my dress, I muster all my leg strength and push my feet against the rough cobblestones, which have already worn down my fur-lined boots. I stay to the left side of the road and breathe through my nose to keep from attracting the attention of the other Shadowmen, who are still in the alley. The farther I get from Parson Hill, however, the louder the footsteps behind me grow.

I turn into an alley, round a house shuttered with splintered wood, and sprint down one of the narrower streets that contains smaller apartments crammed against one another, no alleys in between. Trash and spoiled food litter the gutters in the street, and a fetid odor lingers in the unchanging air. There are clotheslines above my head, garments stationary in the still breeze. There’s a cat on top of a trashcan, its smashed-in face frozen in a hiss.

I turn down another street, this one even narrower and more poverty laden. The houses are mere shacks, their frameworks worn from neglect. Broken windows festoon many of the shacks, with moth-eaten curtains having to shield the inhabitants from Malva’s cold weather. Through some of the windows, I can make out heaps of trash lying in the corners of salons and parlors. There is no room in the street for waste.

I dash down the street and come across an open door. I throw myself inside the crammed quarters that open up into a small space. There’s a small bed, a wood stove, and a tiny armorer. Someone lives here because there’s a recent gossip column on the bed. I wiggle underneath, pull the sheets to cover the space, and let the shadows take me.

I hold my breath.

The sounds of footsteps have disappeared, and the only sound present is the sound of nothingness. Not even my slow, steady breathing makes a noise.

Then I see, through a slant of light that peeks into the room, a shadowy pair of legs that stops at the doorway. I pull myself more under the bed, purse my lips, suck in as much air as possible through my nose, and hold my breath in waiting.

The legs draw nearer to my bed, and fingers the color of calla lilies curl around the bed sheet. My eyes widen as the fingers pull up the sheet.

“Amelia?”

I expel my breath as though I’m getting rid of poison. “Colette?”

I pull myself out from under the bed and fall on to it, gripping the sheets as I do. Colette indeed stands before me. She looks so different. Her hair is black, as are her eyes, and her skin is white, just like the rest of the Shadowmen. I want to embrace her and dance around and cry because I feel like it has been forever since I’ve seen her. I have spent so long worrying about her, thinking I killed her, doing more worrying, that I should be overjoyed. I hold my arms out to embrace her, but pull back. Considering the dire circumstances, I cannot give in to sentimentality.

“What are—what are you doing here?” I ask. “Don’t you realize you’re in danger? The Shadowmen are after you.”

Colette looks around. “I don’t have much time.”

“Why?”

“I froze everything.” She keeps looking around, her shoulders hitched to her ears. She locks her eyes on me when she seems to register my confusion. “It’s my power as a Shadowman. I can show things that people need to know, through visions.” The tension ebbs from her body as her shoulders lower. “You’ve been talking to Oliver about all this, haven’t you? He claimed he’ll help you too, I’m certain.”

“He wasn’t claiming anything, Colette. He said he would.”

Colette shakes her head. “He doesn’t intend to help you, Amelia.”

I loosen my grip on the sheets, the tension moving to my back and bringing forth painful knots that feel like little rocks beneath my skin. “What do you mean he doesn’t intend to help?”

She shakes her head again. “I didn’t bring you here to talk about him. Well, I want to, but this is more important. I can’t hold my magic for much longer. There is only so long I can hold on before I exhaust my energy.”

“Why?”

“You have to listen to me. The Shadowmen are going to strike in mass numbers in a few days. Assume within the week. I overheard them detailing all their plans. There are more witches here than you can imagine.”

The world around me becomes gritty and dark, and all light washes out, almost ceasing to exist. “What?”

“You’re not the only one who has run from home with the idea that she can repent for being born a sin by becoming a nun, or being a pastor for one of the small chapels, or giving out alms, or being in Malva period.” She pauses, her breathing jagged. “People come to Malva all the time hoping to repent because it is the most religious city on Warbele. This is why the Shadowmen are starting with Warbele.”

All this time I have been bearing the guilt of being a witch alone. All this time I have been surrounded by others who are just as fearful as I am, who are tired of bearing the burden of secrecy, who have wanted to reach out and cling to something just like them for so long. Could Mother Aurelia be a witch? How many of the Professed in general could be witches?

“Do you know who all the witches are?”

Colette leans against the door frame, her weight sagging against the splintered wood. She looks so exhausted. “Unfortunately no, but I have no doubt within the coming days that Asch and his team will invade Malva soon. I wouldn’t worry about who else could be a witch.” She takes in a deep breath and continues. “They can coerce Shadowmen into doing things they never would have done as humans. That is why I ran as soon as I turned. They found me and tried to break me, but they couldn’t because I gave them visions of terrible things.”

I feel like slumping to the floor. I can barely support myself in a sitting position. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Colette’s brow twitches, and she presses a hand to her temple. “Because you’re close to Oliver, Amelia. If anything, I think you can get to him and make him stop this. He loves you, that much I’m certain of. You have a power over him that you don’t even realize.”

Colette’s words serve to further muddle my thoughts. “I-I don’t understand. What are you trying to say about Olly?”

She lets out a yelp.

I grab her wrists. “What’s wrong?”

She looks me full in the face. “We’ll need to speak of this later, Amelia.” She looks around. “Oh, no.”

“What’s wrong?” I look around with her, but don’t see anything.

“My magic—” Colette lets out another yelp.

I feel it: a breeze tickles the back of my neck.

“You have to get back to them!” she says. “Get back to them because I can’t hold this any longer.”

“But what about Oliver?”

She closes her eyes, inhaling sharply. “I can’t explain much right now Amelia, and I am telling this for your own good, but Oliver means to kill you. Not now, but he will. He has to. I don’t think he wants to, but you need to be wary of him.” She opens her eyes wide. “Tomorrow night, meet me in the horse barn on the grounds of Cathedral Reims. Now go!”

I leave Colette, bolt down the road, through the alleys, and back onto the main road. The breeze picks up, and I see flames wavering in the distance. Above, the clouds slowly start to float across the sky.

Just as the crowd starts to move, I throw myself among them, and scrabble back into place, just as the Professed Order empty baskets of calla lilies into the flames. As their white perfection burns, something inside of me burns along with them.

Chapter Twenty-One

I decide to leave early for the barn with the assumption that there must be a way for me to control my fire. I will not let myself be some helpless girl when the Shadowmen strike. I will fight to protect Malva because Cathedral Reims is my home. And I will fight to protect those who have suffered because of sin.

I make my way along the backstreets so that I can enter Cathedral Reims through the graveyard without having to climb over speared finials or sneak through the front entrance. There is no gate around the back because the Professed Order assume people would find it too inconvenient to break into the cathedral that way. They would have to pick their way among headstones to even breach the grounds. The Professed Order is convinced the general populace of Warbele believes in nonsensical superstitions about ghosts and curses being associated with anything dead. So if they stepped on consecrated ground without paying respects to the dead, they would forever find themselves haunted by spirits still chained to the earth. Of course, with the existence of the Shadowmen Alliance, one has to re-think those things too. If dead witches walk the earth, what else does?

I come across the graveyard and don’t hesitate to make my way through. Most of the stones are covered in at least a foot of snow, making many of the inscriptions unreadable. As I walk my way toward the plum orchard, I begin to think about those witches murdered at the burning yesterday. Oliver told me witches take their bodies with them when they turn to Shadowmen, but what happens if they don’t have bodies? Colette wasn’t burned to ashes, so obviously they’re going to come back as Shadowmen because of what Asch said, but how? Will they form new bodies, or will they come back virtually unrecognizable because they were burned? Or does fire purify them? Colette had no burns.  I don’t know, but I didn’t watch the burning. I looked at Nathaniel the entire time, who kept his head buried against my rib cage.

I have to stop the alliance, then maybe I can free all of those who never wanted to be part of Purgatory’s plan.

The gazebo comes into view—and with it Oliver. Colette’s statement from yesterday enters my mind. If Oliver really meant to kill me, wouldn’t he have done so already? And what did she mean when she told me that Oliver has to but doesn’t want to? It’s the same with Theosodore: he has to but doesn’t want to. Pulling in a deep breath, my feet crunch through the snow, one step at a time toward Oliver. He turns around and waves me to him. At this moment, I can turn around, run, never look back, pretend I never had anything with him. Yet, those eyes that shine like silver, that pale complexion that makes me think of the alabaster complexions of sculptures, compel me toward him. I can’t throw away what we’ve built for ourselves. I can’t resist him. Colette’s become distant to me.

“Amelia,” Oliver says, holding his arms open for me.

I glide into his embrace, inhaling his wintry sweetness. He breathes me in, rubbing the space between my shoulder blades. He pushes me away and looks deeply into my eyes. “How are you?”

“I—” Colette enters my mind again. I banish her from my mind by disclosing the burning. “Did you know about the burning yesterday? Did you have to attend?” My temper turns childish. “Where were you, Olly? You could have been there for me, even for my brother. You could have taken us from that.” I pause. “Actually, I feel like you could have done something.”

Oliver pulls me to him again and threads his fingers through my hair, which I decided to let hang freely about my shoulders. The weather is too cold to put my hair in a braid or chignon. I couldn’t care less about decorum, either. “I’m sorry, Amelia. What would you expect me to do though? I may have influence in the Professed Order, but that doesn’t mean I can sway Pope Gilford. I am very low on the hierarchy.” He breathes out as he bunches my hair in his hands and presses his cheek against the top of my head. “I stayed in Norbury.”

My voice cracks. “I was blessed that I didn’t see them. I didn’t want to, but the smell…that horrible smell…” Tears leap to my eyes, and I find myself openly sobbing against him. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to cry. I thought I’d be all right if I just kept telling myself that they’ll be back as Shadowmen, that they’ll be unchanged. But their lives were still stolen from them. They were stolen from family, from friends—”

Oliver shushes me. “All of that may be true, Amelia, but I can guarantee you their family and friends stopped loving them when they found out.”

More tears come. “How can you say that? How can people suddenly stop loving?”

He touches his forehead to mine. “I don’t know, Amelia. I really don’t know, but they do because all my friends, anyone who ever knew me, stopped caring when they found out.”

“No one can stop loving a person just like that.”

“It doesn’t matter. Love is supposed to be unconditional. Amelia—” He tips my chin up and puts his lips on mine, his kiss penetrating the frigid sadness deep within me. “—I love you unconditionally.”

Winter feels like summer. In my mind, the snow melts, flowers push through the slush, lush leaves perch on the boughs of the plum trees, and Warbele finds itself in eternal spring. “Y-you love me?”

His eyes are so genuine. These are the same eyes of the boy who helped me clean the latrine, the boy who would sneak treats for Colette and I, the boy who took in Nathaniel as his own brother. This is not the boy who would ever kill me. He would only ever protect me.

Oliver runs his thumb along my jawline and kisses me there. “Of course I do. I should have been there yesterday. It must have been awful. I can’t imagine what you and Natty must have gone through. How is he?”

I turn my back to him and cuddle against him, Oliver wrapping his arms around me and resting his chin on my head. “He couldn’t sleep last night. Father took him to a small chapel to pray, hoping that would help heal him. But he’s young. He’s resilient.”

Oliver pulls me down to the wood flooring of the gazebo, turning me around so that we are eye level with one another. He strokes the side of my face with the back of his hand, sending pleasant shivers that warm my body. “Stay with me, Amelia. Stay with me forever.”

With the way he talks to me, I can’t believe Colette’s words. Maybe the mere process of turning into a Shadowman changed her. I should tell Oliver about what Colette told me, but her words are hollow to me now that I am this close to him. So instead I will tell him about her warning.

“Olly, I met with Colette yesterday during the burning. I’m certain she was the one on the train who gave me that vision, but she told me the Shadowmen Alliance is going to strike Malva any day now. What are we supposed to do about this?”

Oliver pulls me in for another kiss and runs his fingers down my spine. He pulls away, goes to my ear, and whispers, “Amelia, stop worrying about this. I promise you, I will have everything figured out by then. I have allies on my side, a few from Cathedral Reims in fact.”

“We’ll terminate them before they get a chance to strike.”

I open my mouth to reply, but his is already back on mine, deepening our kiss. His tongue pushes against my lips. I open my mouth, joining my tongue with his. The kiss links us in a way I wasn’t certain I’d ever be ready for. Oliver briefly pulls away from me, his voice airy. “I love you, Amelia.”

The natural response should be to reply with the same, but all I can do is kiss him back while trying to bury Colette’s words in an untapped part of my mind. Seeming unperturbed by my lack of response, Oliver has no problem keeping our lips together, our tongues and breath and touch dancing and mingling in ways that should veil me in shame. I push Oliver to the ground and straddle his waist. I look at him, observing the way the sunlight from the snowy sky frames his cheekbones, making him appear manlier. I could just take him right now. No one would know. We’re hidden amongst the naked trees of the plum orchard, the gazebo buried so far back that only those who care to wade through the snow would come.

He’d be mine. No one else’s. He’d be my sin, and for this one moment, I could forget all my feelings and pretend that I’m not doubting Oliver, Colette, or anyone else in this world.

My breathing comes on hot and heavy. I tighten the space between our faces so that the tips of our noses touch. Oliver puts his hands on my back and rubs me, inching his hands down until they cup my bottom. He lets out a sigh, then a small moan. He squeezes me, thrusting his hips forward. He brings his hands to my sides and entwines his fingers in the fabric of my wool gown, and lifts it enough so that his hands snake along my back until they find the laces of my corset. Undoing those, Oliver slips the thing down my ribs, and yanks it off me. I feel like I am now free to breathe, when I’ve held my breath for what feels like eighteen years.

“What do you want?” he asks, running his cold hands along my warm skin and cupping my bare breasts.

I don’t know what I want. My body knows what it wants; yet, I do not. “I don’t know,” I whisper against his neck, letting my lips graze the salty skin. I should be freezing, screaming for the warmth of a fire, especially since Oliver’s skin feels like ice, but the warmth rippling through me will not allow me to feel anything but this moment.

“But do you want this?” he asks, his voice so lost I feel he is only asking me to reassure himself that he isn’t being a depraved fool lusting after a former sister.

“We’ll find out now, won’t we?” It’s true. I won’t know what it’s like until I experience it for myself.

Oliver pulls away from me and grabs my hands, urging me to undo the belt buckle on his black slacks.

My hands develop a mind of their own.

Pants down. Bloomers off. And I don’t say no, even as he pushes me to the ground and takes control.

It hurt. A lot. Drops of blood stain the white wood. It wasn’t anything like it was in my dream.

Oliver couldn’t bring that feeling out of me that I woke up with, and I wasn’t even sure how to do it. I don’t even think we knew what we were doing. But here we lay, side-by-side, breathing contended sighs as we bask in the rawness of our beings, the warmth flooding our veins—or mine, at least. Our fingers are entwined, and in a way I feel like I’ve been joined with him because Deus witnessed what we did. Though what we did is supposed to be sinful, I feel relieved of the pressures of life. I don’t have to worry about them as long as Oliver is with me.

How long were we wrapped in each other’s bodies? It’s dark outside, the wintry clouds tucked away for another day. “How many stars do you think are out there?” I ask Oliver, gazing beyond the gazebo.

Oliver pulls me close to him, and I nuzzle against the slickness of his skin, smelling sweat and cold and earth.

“Too many to count,” he says.

“Should we count them?” Counting stars was something I always did with Nathaniel. Back at the grotto in Norbury, we’d lie awake at night counting stars until both of us fell asleep. We never got as far as we wanted, but if we just kept counting, then we could keep living. “I’ve counted a thousand stars already.”

Oliver pulls back, smirking. “Oh, really? How do you know you haven’t counted the same star twice?”

“I don’t know. What does it matter? They go on forever, so counting the same star twice is like counting a star that’s probably out there but you can’t see. Or, rather, a star that no longer exists. Maybe it’s a new star?”

Oliver kisses my forehead and laughs, buttoning his collared shirt. He is lanky, to say the least, but he is beautiful because there is muscle pushed under that pale skin. He is just right though: not too muscular, but not too frail.

“I should probably get going,” I tell him, remembering that I must meet with Colette.

I go to stand, but Oliver grabs my wrist. “There’s something bothering you, Amelia. You’re really good at hiding your feelings, even from yourself, but you can’t fool me.”

I pull my wrist away. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Oliver sits up. The moonlight accentuates the sharp angles of his face. “No. Something is wrong with you, and I want to know what it is.”

“Olly, I’d rather not think about anything right now.” For the moment, I want to forget what Colette told me and let myself enjoy this euphoria, however short it may last. I’ll deal with those tumultuous feelings later.

“But it’s bothering you, Amelia. You know that I’m not fond of people shirking their problems for a later time.”

I pull my bloomers up, hissing as a sharp pain races through my groin. Oliver will not let up until I give him something to go by. My mind grasps for something else it could be upset at, something that isn’t as stressful as Colette, and I do find something to say. “It bothers me how lax you are about the Shadowmen, Olly. I desperately want to help you, but you keep pushing me away. I understand you want to protect me, but if you die Olly, that’s it for you. If I die, at least I’ll come back as a Shadowman.”

Even through the burgeoning darkness of the night, I can make out the sharp intensity that makes his silver eyes seem piercing. “It’s too dangerous, Amelia. Far too dangerous.”

“You keep saying that, Olly, but that just makes me feel helpless, and I hate that. Why don’t you teach me how to control my fire then? Why don’t you give me a means to protect myself? If I have that, then you’ll have a reason to worry about me less.”

He purses his lips, folding his arms across his broad chest. “Amelia, no. I’ve kept the Shadowmen away from you this long, I can continue doing so. Asch hasn’t bothered you since that day, has he?” I shake my head. “Good. Then there is no reason for me to teach you how to control something that could get you caught. Everything is going to be all right in the end, Amelia. You have to trust me.”

I want to trust him, I do. “Olly, no matter how much I trust you, that doesn’t keep me from feeling vulnerable. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to teach me to protect myself. The Shadowmen are leaving me alone for now, but you can’t possibly protect me from every single one. That’s impossible, no matter how beautiful or brilliant your magic is.”

Oliver sighs, smearing his hands down his face. “I just can’t, Amelia. You have to trust me.”

I turn away from him and leave, the pleasant heat within me rising to a searing boil. “You know, Olly, you’re not giving me a reason to trust you. If anything, you’re giving me a reason to doubt you.”

Colette’s warning takes its effect on me, and I hasten down the steps, Oliver’s calling my name a mere echo in the wintry air.

Chapter Twenty-Two

The sky is an inky black, the only light from a sliver of moon and the scatter of stars. The cold should cut through me, but my blood has turned to ice. Part of my heart is still warm, though, and feeling raw doubt that lingers on the cusp. If Oliver won’t teach me, then I’m certain Colette will. She has no reason not to, unless she is wrapped in conspiracy with Oliver to keep me from ever exploring my true potential. It’s nonsense, keeping me vulnerable and helpless. I can’t imagine why Oliver would want me that way, and I don’t even want to think about it.

The bleating of goats meets my ears, assuring me I haven’t lost my way. The barns come into full view, and their straw and mold smell, taking me back to the days when Colette and I would clean them together. There’s a barn at the corner of the north transept, a single, solitary one for horses. Colette loves horses, which is probably why she suggested this particular one. She tried to teach me to ride horses my first month here, but I was either bucked off or kicked.

I cross over and press myself against the barn, listening for any unusual sounds. All I hear are soft nickers, restless walking, and the lapping of water with thick horse tongues.

I put my hand against the wooden bolt that keeps the barn closed. Pushing it to the side, I open the door just a crack. Shadows pour through, replacing the pale moonlight that paints the ground in a soft gray. I hold my breath, listening for further sounds. Just nickers and restless pacing. I slip through and close the door.

Now I grope for a lantern to throw some light on the spot where Colette may be. She didn’t say how she wanted to be found, but I assume she knows I’ll figure it out if only to make certain it’s me who finds her and no one else. I feel around, keeping my hands against the door of the barn and sliding them down the wooden wall for safe support. My shin bangs into a crate, nearly eliciting a string of inappropriate words from me. But something that sounds metallic falls off it and lands on the concrete flooring.

I reach down, scoop up the object, and realize it’s a lantern. I feel on the crate and find a book of matches. I strike one of the red-tipped beasts and light the lantern.

The lantern throws an orange glow on my surroundings, revealing horses with perked ears, curious eyes, and muzzles poking through stall slats. The light also reveals dust and cobwebs and spilled grain. An enormous spider makes its home on one of the crossbeams far above my head. I walk down the center aisle of the barn and say, “Colette? Are you there? It’s me, Amelia.”

A creaking sound echoes at the end of the barn. I hold my breath.

“Amelia?”

At the end, I make out the outline of Colette. I release my breath. “Oh, good.” I make my way toward her. She is standing by the open door of an unused stall. “I’m sorry I’m late. Olly and I got in a bit of spat, and well…”

Colette gestures me inside, bolting the stall door when I enter. She also closes the top half, leaving only a slit that doesn’t show much but darkness. I set my lantern down on a flimsy crate.

Colette sits down on a bale of hay. “You saw Oliver tonight, didn’t you?”

I nod, almost tempted to tell her about the moment I had with him. In fact, there is so much I want to tell her, so many burdens I feel like I need to release from my heart. Not only this, but I want to talk with Colette as my best friend and not as a Shadowman. Peering into her face, however, tells she is all business and isn’t here to rekindle a friendship that began dying the day the Shadowmen took her life. This thought strangles my heart in a noose. Things between her and I may never be the same again. I don’t know if I can, or if I will ever be able to accept this.

“Amelia,” Colette says, rousing me from my thoughts, “I told you to be careful around him. Being alone with him is not wise.”

Then she would shun me if she knew I made love to him.

I sit down on a pile of hay, moving the lantern so that its light shows Colette’s Shadowman face. “I don’t want much to do with him. I know you want me here to talk about more things, but I first want you to teach me how to properly use my fire.” This is the only way to calm me down, because if she teaches me, I can throw this in Oliver’s face and make him feel guilty for not teaching me. “And I’ll keep pressing you until you do so. Olly refused to teach me, so you have to. I’m not going to be made a victim.”

Colette moves her head a little, obscuring her face in the shadows. I pick up pieces of hay, stripping a single straw, piece-by-piece, as she seems to mull over my request. She moves her head, bringing her face back into the light. “All right, but you have to get Oliver—”

“I will, Colette! All right? But can we please not bring him up for one night?”

Colette reaches into the hay and grabs a fistful of straw she sets on a small patch of concrete. She sweeps excess straw aside, likely to ensure that when I am able to manage fire that the fire doesn’t spread anywhere else. Cathedral Reims doesn’t tidy the barns too often, so there is plenty of flammable material for fire to feast on. Once she finishes sweeping the area of excess debris, she locks serious black eyes on mine. They match the shadows from the lantern, sending a slight chill through me.

“This isn’t going to be easy, Amelia. I’m not even sure if you’ll be able to grasp it in one night. Deus didn’t curse witches with this power so that they’d be able to naturally control it, but it is doable.

“You have to clear your mind of everything, every bad feeling, every good feeling, every doubt. If your mind finds itself straying for even a split second, the fire will not work. Or worse—it will work, but will not do what you want it to do, and this is about controlling that which Deus cursed us with. Are you absolutely certain you want to go through with this?”

I look into the flickering flame of the lantern. It casts an eerie glow in the stall and tosses shadows in odd places, shadows in the shapes of strange creatures that look like they could haunt one’s nightmares. They dance along the wall, mingling with the light of the glow and the shadows the lantern does not create. But it isn’t these dancing shadows that hold my full attention. No. It is the dancing flame in the lantern. The way it dances on the wick captivates me, and I need to make fire. Real, raw, hot, scalding fire. The fire witches are forced to endure when they’re strapped to stakes and burned alive. The fire witches can’t fight against. The fire Pope Gilford finds so appealing to use on innocent souls.

If I can conjure fire, I can make those Shadowmen suffer for what they’ve done—rather, what they want done to witches, all in a foolish attempt to start an uprising against their oppressors.

“I have to, Colette,” I say at last.

“Put your hand over the straw pile then, and close your eyes.”

I close my eyes and put my hand above the pile. “What is your role in this?”

“To guide you, Amelia, to keep your thinking on track. Now think about fire.”

“All right.”

Fire. Fire. Think fire. With my mind focused on nothing but a single dancing flame, all else is nonexistent. Only I and the pile of hay exist in some dark space conjured from my mind.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” I hear Colette say in the background of my mind.

I heed her words, breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth, in through my nose and out through my mouth. The single flame from the lantern dances in my mind’s eye, and within the center of that flame—is Oliver? No, no, no. I can’t think about him. This won’t work if I do, so I imagine an inky blackness blotting out his face, my thoughts still centered on the flickering flame. Then I imagine reaching out to the fire, my hand teasing the flame as it goes close but doesn’t touch. Instead I move my hand in languorous motions that tempt the fire to follow the movements. Wherever my hand moves, bits of flames follow the path. I will have to tempt the entire blaze to follow me if I am to make this work.

While I move my hand in the dark space, a soft voice invades my concentration.

Amelia, I wish I could tell you why I can’t teach you, but you’d hate me.

Oliver? Why is his voice in my mind? Nothing of him belongs in my mind, not even his voice, so I wrest for control of the fire again and draw out more flames to follow the path of my hand. They send flaming sparks coursing through my veins, capturing my heart in a fiery inferno that threatens to burst through my being and set this entire barn on fire.

I should never have allowed myself to get so close to you, Amelia, but I suppose this was inevitable. I can’t say I wish it were another girl; I’d still feel the same way. No matter what, I am trapped in this cycle, and you’re the only one who can get me out.

Another girl. Trapped in this cycle. I’m the only one who can get him out. Free him from what? No. I cannot continue to allow this distraction to slow my progress. Fire! Fire! Beautiful fire!

Amelia, if I had a choice, I would have chosen to never come into existence. Or I would have chosen parents not steeped in the Seven Deadly Sins, so that way you and I could love without this obstacle between us. But would we have still met if I were not what I am?

I think. Fire. Fire. Beautiful. Fire.

Amelia, I love you. Do you feel the same? And would you still love me, even after what I must do?

I snap my eyes open, snuffing out both flame and Oliver. “Colette, what on Deus’ great green earth are you doing? I know it’s you doing that! I know you’re invading Oliver’s thoughts, trying to show me something. Why?”

“Because you won’t listen to me otherwise, Amelia,” she says, her face downcast.

I grip a fistful of hay and start tearing the pieces apart. “But why now? You said you’d let me do this with the implication that I could perform this in peace until I got it, and then we could talk afterwards.”

“Amelia…” She sighs, going silent. She plays with the straw pile, picking up a few pieces, letting them flutter from her fingers, and then propping herself against the slats of the stall. “Even if you could manage to control your fire, you wouldn’t stand a chance against the Shadowmen.”

“Not you too.” I breathe in, suppressing a sharp sigh. “Oliver said he was gathering forces to help. Even if I don’t stand a chance, at least I will be able to make a contribution, however small.”

Colette narrows her eyes. “You don’t understand, do you, Amelia? Oliver isn’t gathering any forces. Oliver isn’t going to stop this. Oliver wants this to happen, Amelia, don’t you understand that?”

My hand flies for the lantern with the desire to set this barn aflame and pretend Colette didn’t say what she just spoke. “Why would Oliver want this to happen, Colette? Is that what you wanted to tell me, that Oliver approves of the Shadowmen Alliance killing those who aren’t witches? That’s nonsense. You don’t know him at all.” I cross my arms and look away from her.

“Amelia, do you truly find it so hard to believe that Oliver would want this? If I died the way most of the Shadowmen died, I’d probably share the same goal, but I died by their hands, so I can’t.”

My grip tightens on the lantern, my face still turned away from her. “O-Olly’s not like that.” My voice sounds pathetic, my words even more so. “He’s not petty. He understands the way this world works. It’s not the fault of people. The Vulgate dictates our lives, Colette. People are afraid that if they don’t follow it, they won’t die into Paradise, and following it includes hating witches. They understand that much.”

“But they don’t, Amelia, and that’s what I’m trying to tell you. That’s why you have to do everything in your power to talk Oliver out of his choice. He may want what the Shadowmen Alliance wants, but I can sense part of him may relent to you.” Her voice softens. “I can feel his feelings for you, Amelia. He genuinely loves you. It’s this love that will allow you to change his mind and gather the forces we need to stop the Shadowmen Alliance. There are Shadowmen out there like me, Shadowmen who do not feel the same way. Those will be the ones eager to help our cause.”

Oliver does love me. I know he does. But there is something small and dark in me that says that if Oliver doesn’t help our cause, then he doesn’t love me. “Colette—” My breath catches in my chest. She sounded so certain Oliver would help if I were to beg him.

“No, Amelia. You have to listen to me. Even once you get Oliver’s help, he won’t be able to fight what is in his nature. It’s called an Exaltation, and we Shadowmen must Exalt ourselves to Deus if we want to find ourselves in Paradise when Deus decides to end all this Seven Deadly Sin nonsense.” She stops and pulls in a few shaky breaths. “You are Oliver’s Exaltation. He has to kill a person he genuinely loves that is not in his immediate family. That is the task Deus has set out for him, and he won’t be able to stop himself now that he has fallen in love with you. It’s in any intelligent creature’s nature to want to free itself from suffering—from its Malady. I’m telling you this so that way you will be more careful around him.”

My hand starts to shake on the lantern, my grip tightening even more, the metal handle piercing my flesh. Angry tears thump against the backs of my eyes, and my breath comes out short and ragged. “N-n-no. That’s a lie. A-a lie.” The lantern trembles as the quivering in my body deepens. “You’ve changed, Colette. You never would have said that stuff before. Is that your Exaltation? To lie to me?”

“Amelia, calm down. Just think for a moment.”

I pick up the lantern. “I don’t want to think!” I throw it against the wall adjacent to Colette, the fire immediately catching on the dry wood.

Before I let my emotions go any more awry than they already have, I burst out of the stall in a fit of livid tears, my breath so trapped in my lungs I feel like I will collapse upon leaving the barn. But I don’t, so I run, and I run hard.

I’ll run forever if it means escaping this pain.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Morning light crawls up dawn’s pallor, coaxing me to my feet. I stumble out of an abandoned shack in the poverty-laden backstreets of Malva, and make my way toward Comely’s Inn. My head pounds, my eyes are full of night’s sand, and my mouth tastes like whiskey and vomit. Now I understand my mother’s opium addiction. If opium is anything like whiskey, I’m certain it was a barrier against the painful beating of this world’s terrible heart.

A belch escapes me as I drag myself through the backstreets. The belch makes its way up my nose, and I lean against a shack to wretch out the contents of my stomach, which are nothing more than the whiskey some beggar left to rot. I’m trying to remember what happened, but last night is clouded in whiskey’s haze, at least for now. Each step is agonizing though. Every time I turn my head, a wave of nausea washes over me. Instead of dragging myself through the back streets, I’m now stumbling. Oh, Deus, just strike me now for allowing the divine taint of whiskey to infect my mind’s unwanted memories. They’ll soon come back in waves; although I can’t recall them at this moment, they’ll make me bitterer than absinthe.

After what seems like an hour, I manage to emerge on the busy main street, regain my balance, and struggle my way toward the inn at the end of the street, just past Cathedral Reims. I stay on the sidewalk to avoid being trampled by horse-drawn carriages and the pointed boot heels of the fine aristocratic ladies. I’ll be like them one day soon after I have my season and Father manages to find me some rich barrister who will dote on me with the finest furs and jewelries. Oh, how lovely, how joyous that will be! We’ll have beautiful children we can spoil silly. And why stop there? We’ll buy out of all Malva and get rid of the stinking streets that make this place the cesspit that it truly is.

“Miss…Miss!”

I snap my attention to a gentleman who hovers over me with a worried look on his clean-shaven face.

“Are you all right, miss? Do you need me to escort you somewhere? You seem out of sorts.” He sniffs the air. “You don’t look like the type who has been in those dens on the back roads. You’re a bit messy, but I can still see your finery beneath that grime. Got yourself in a bit of trouble, have you? Oh, we’ve all been there. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

He proffers his arm to me. In my deluded mind, I forget what this simple gesture means, and stare at him as though he is some mythical creature with three heads. “Pardon?” I ask.

He proffers his arm again. Because nothing wants to make sense to me, I refuse his gesture and push down the sidewalk, taking in deep breaths of the frigid winter air to clear this haze from my mind. Comely’s Inn soon comes into view, and with it Father and his pipe. I remember so many warm evenings of nights spent by the fire, Father puffing on the pipe while Mother knits and Nathaniel and I study our day’s lessons. The nostalgia clears some of the clouds in my head, making me realize I need to apologize for never having come home last night.

Feeling a bit more sober, I hasten toward Father with a hug at the ready. But as I come upon him, I see he is not in his usual mood. His eyes are red, and his pipe is not filled with tobacco. Perhaps I worried him too much with my absence. I tend to forget what a fuss this world makes over privileged women such as I.

“Father,” I say, looking up at his face as I did when I was a child, “it’s all right. I’m here. I’m so sorry for not coming home last night. I guess I just became so consumed in my own thoughts I walked around forever.”

Father pulls the pipe out of his mouth and throws his arms around me. “Oh, thank Deus, Amelia, you’re all right!” He squeezes me much tighter than my corset ever has. Sobs overtake him. “Amelia, Amelia, my sweet girl, Amelia. I was so afraid….I paced our room all night and said to myself ‘Not both my children, not both my children. If you can’t give me both, Deus, at least give me one.’”

I pull away from Father, the winter air pushing away more clouds. “What are you talking about, Father? Where is Nat?”

“Nat has been gone since last night. But he never left, or so I thought. Maybe—”

The clouds part entirely, leaving not a sunny day but a day drowning in rain and thunder and lightning and hail. “Nathaniel is missing? Where did he go? Where was he last?”

“He went to bed after you left. I went outside to clear my mind. When I came back, he was gone, nothing left behind. I searched the main road of Malva, but there was no trace of him.”

“And I haven’t seen him!” I try to think of the myriad of places in Malva where Nathaniel could have gone, but he had no reason to run off last night. After the burning, all he wanted to do was curl up in darkness and sleep. “Father, you stay here. I’m going to search for him.”

“Amelia, no. I’ll alert the authorities.”

“It might be too late!” I doubt Nathaniel would go off anywhere dangerous, or do anything awful to himself or anyone else, for that matter, but I refuse to wait around for him to come back, and I refuse to let Father to do the search himself. If Nathaniel truly is missing, then I know the blame is to lie with me. “I’m going to look for him, Father. You stay here.”

Without another word, I hitch my skirts and hasten down the sidewalk, my mind torn to pieces over where I should even start looking. Then an obvious thought comes to my mind: Isis. Of course! He might have gone off to see her, which means he might be in her dormitory. He hasn’t seen her in a while, and we’re in Malva, so why wouldn’t he chance to get even a glimpse of her? After all, she might prove to be more comforting to him than I have lately. I’m a wretched big sister. To the back streets again, I suppose.

I pick up into a full sprint on the dirt roads. The only inconvenience is the slush that splashes on the hem of my dress, shooting icicles through me that make my bones feel like they’ll splinter from the chill. The more I run though, the warmer I become, so the chill no longer courses through me but becomes a lingering nuisance on my skin.

The plum orchard comes into view. I breeze through the cemetery and run to the north transept, which feels like a mile, eventually coming upon Isis’ dormitory, with its single rose window set into a Gothic facade. As I come upon the building, Oliver is exiting the dormitory in his white priest’s robes. His simple presence brings back the sickening words Colette told me about him: How he means to kill me because of some ridiculous Exaltation. And of course she wants me to seek help to cease the rebellion the Shadowmen Alliance has planned. But then Colette has never lied to me. But then she is also a Shadowman. But then—

I groan inwardly and take heavy strides toward Oliver. I block his path. “Olly, my brother is missing. Was he in that dormitory?”

His eyes widen. “Amelia!” He scoops me up in his lanky arms, and though I want to pull away, I can’t. I can’t even refuse the deep kiss he captures me in. He pulls away. “I was worried you were angry with me, that you hated me for last night. I—”

“Not now, Olly. My brother is missing!”

“Oh, yes, right. No. He wasn’t in the dormitory.”

His calm response maddens me. Nathaniel is as much a younger sibling as he is to me—at least he is supposed to be. “Have you seen him at all? What about Isis?”

“Isis is in class now. I saw her just this morning, so he can’t be with her.”

His negative answer makes the nerves in my body stretch to the point of tearing. I’m so panicked I can’t even think to cry over a situation that seems so futile. Where else could Nathaniel be? He will turn up. He has to.

“Olly, you have to help me find him, please.”

“Amelia, I will. You know I would do anything for you.”

His lack of hesitation, his eagerness to help me, brings back those warm feelings I had for him last night before our fight. In fact, his warmth brings tears to my eyes, and I throw my arms around his neck, shouting apologies. “I’m sorry, Olly! I’m so sorry for fighting with you last night. It was silly and selfish of me, and I know you’re only trying to protect me. Thank you so much. Thank you.”

“Amelia…” Oliver gently pushes me away and stares deeply into my eyes with his silver ones. “As I’ve said, I will do anything for you. Now where do you think we should start?”

“I can only think to travel back to the main road. I thought Nat would want to see Isis, so this is why I stopped here first. But there is a toy store on the road, isn’t there? I’m just trying to think of all the places he would go to comfort himself.” I start ticking off my little brother’s hobbies on my fingers. “Toy stores, sweets, book stores, probably the florist because he loves flowers…We’ll check all those places.”

Oliver nods and laces his fingers through mine. The gesture is scandalous, especially because he is dressed in his priestly robes, we’ll be doing this in public, and he could be suspended from the church for such a gentle gesture. I should pull away and tell him I don’t want to risk his position, but after last night, after what Colette told me, I want to do everything in my power to prove her wrong. Oliver doesn’t want to kill me. His Exaltation is not me.

I nod in return, and we take off running toward the main road, which I soon discover is more crowded than it was this morning. More carriages pack the road, more people dressed in winter garb are crammed against one another, and the confusion of people moving to and fro has me stumped on where to check first. A gentle touch on my shoulder, though, reassures me that I am not alone.

“We’ll find him,” Oliver tells me. “We’ll spend all day, all week, all month…we’ll spend forever looking for him if we have to.”

His words stay with me until after we’ve searched all the places I mentioned. Nathaniel is nowhere to be found in any store. I slump down on an icy bench outside the florist’s, and bury my head in my hands, holding the tears back with the pads of my fingers. Oliver sits next to me and pulls me toward him. Though he is a cold-blooded Shadowman, he brings some life into my glacial body.

“Olly, where on earth could he be?”

“What if he’s back at the inn?”

I pull my hands away. “I suppose he could be, but I don’t want to get my hopes up that he is.”

“Then we’ll go there together, Amelia. You’re not alone in your feelings. I’m just as worried about Natty as you are. He is our little brother, after all, and perhaps my future brother-in-law.”

This comment brings a small smile to my face. “But you can’t marry, Olly, and in any case, Father will foist me on someone else. That doesn’t mean I can’t cuckold my husband though.” My smile turns into a smirk. “He’ll probably be doing the same to me anyway. That inevitably happens in arranged marriages.”

“Except you’ll be considered an adulteress for it, and he’ll just be considered a man.”

“As if I care.”

He kisses me on the cheek. “Well, marriage is a social construct, an institution. What matters are the feelings we have toward each other. Who knows? Maybe your Father will marry you off to some man near death. It’s socially unacceptable to re-marry once one is widowed. You’ll be free.”

I laugh. “I suppose I will be.” Talking of our future sends a bit of hope through me. I pull myself off the bench, and hold out my hand to him. “Let’s check the inn, Olly. Then we’ll go to Parson Hill, and if we can’t find him there, I’ll have to re-trace my memory, and possibly some steps.”

We do check the inn; I leave Oliver outside and check our room. Nathaniel isn’t there, and neither is my father. I do, however, find Father at the back of the inn in the smoke room all by himself. Instead of smoking his pipe, he has a tin of cigarettes clutched in hand. Ten come with those tins, and Father appears to have smoked about half of them. He usually smokes his pipe because he enjoys tobacco—now he appears to be using it as a form of escape.

“To Parson Hill it is,” I tell Oliver upon exiting the inn, doing my best to find cheer in this simple sentence.

Parson Hill has not been cleaned since the burning yesterday. The oak tree bears deep gashes and scars from the flames, and ashes still litter the ground, almost warding off any snow that wants to make home there. Nathaniel isn’t here, but as I search around the base of the hill and around the tree, I do discover footprints almost half the size of mine that could be his. They’re even boot imprints. Many boys wear boots—of course, I doubt many children would want to play around this tree after what it bore witness to.

“He may have been here,” I say, bending down and putting my hand on a print.

Oliver looks down at the boot prints. “There are a lot of boys who wear boots, Amelia.”

“But then where could he have gone?”

“Why don’t you ask Oliver where he has gone?”

Footsteps sound behind me, then stop, and the familiar voice causes me to look over my shoulder. Oliver looks as well.

“Colette?” I ask. “What are you doing here?”

She ignores my question and darts her eyes toward Oliver. “This is all your fault, Oliver, that Nathaniel’s gone. And you’re trying to act innocent with Amelia. You were going to kill her here, with her back turned.” She looks at me. “Maybe it was too much of me to ask you to earn his help. I never thought he’d stoop this low.”

Colette walks toward Oliver and starts towering over him as she shouts a string of insults his way. “Kidnapper! Murderer! Liar! You know Nathaniel is with the Shadowmen Alliance. It’s your fault for telling the Shadowmen Alliance about him at all. Why did you have to mention he was Amelia’s brother? Why did you have to mention the close relationship they have? Now the alliance figures his greatest strength is his love for his sister, and this alone could turn into some phenomenal power they could use against us all!”

I cringe over her words, but they do more than that to me—they make me livid. I stand, approach Colette, and deliver a hard slap to her cheek. She stands there and stares at me, bringing two fingers up to the bright purple hand print that stands out on her cheek like a testament to how far my trust for her has fallen. As in life, though, she composes herself, closing her eyes against what she believes to be a false reality.

“It’s true, Amelia. The Shadowmen Alliance kidnapped your brother because of what Oliver told them. And Oliver wanted that, don’t you understand? He knows what kind of weapon Nathaniel can become. The Shadowmen Alliance has individuals with remarkable powers, but none quite so remarkable that this little rebellion of theirs will be made any easier. With Nathaniel though, they’re certain their work will be finished.”

I stomp my foot on the ground, my heel catching in the earth. “Quiet, Colette! You don’t even sound like yourself. Do you realize how irrational and silly you sound? Out of all the witches out there, why my brother? Why not me? Why not some other witch? You’re being ridiculous.”

“It’s because you’re his sister, Amelia.” She looks toward Oliver. “And Oliver’s Exaltation. You were slated to die today.”

Oliver narrows his eyes at her, and before I can register all of what happens, roots shoot out of the earth and trap Colette in an earthy catch. A slender root slithers through the cage and wraps around Colette’s neck, slowly squeezing her windpipe.

I release a breathless cry. “Olly, stop!” The root tightens. “Stop it, Olly!” Colette claws at the root, her black eyes dilating as precious air—do Shadowmen even need to breathe?—and her jugular are pushed upon. I throw myself at Oliver, my face pressing into his chest and a fist beating his shoulder. My next plea comes out as a scratched scream. “I said stop it!”

He stops, but he doesn’t release her from her root cage. He keeps her there, the slender root teasing the tender skin of her neck.

I look at Oliver in disbelief. “W-why would you do that to her, Olly? You know she is my friend!”

Oliver purses his lips. “A friend who lies to you!”

I shove Oliver away from me. I look up into his face, my eyes wide. “Or maybe—or maybe you’ve been lying to me.”

What is the truth anymore? I turn away from Oliver and run.

Chapter Twenty-Four

I sit beneath the leftmost portal of Cathedral Reims, my face slick with tears as betrayal severs my heart in slivers. Hail falls from the sky, small chunks of ice occasionally scraping my cheeks when a hard wind picks up and blows the hail in my direction. But I am too numb—I have been too numb—to notice the icy stings of the storm. A sermon booms from within Cathedral Reims, words like sin and damnation being thrown around. No one knows what those words mean to the people who are actually steeped in sin and damnation. I think I hear something about witches, which is surprising considering no one in all of Warbele ever wanted to admit they existed.

Sitting here at the very cathedral that shunned me is my way of giving up. Nathaniel is with the Shadowmen Alliance at Deus knows where. For all I know, he could already be dead. If he has the potential to turn into a Shadowman with an incredible power, then why would they want to delay his transformation? Even if I did find them with Nathaniel still alive, I am one person. I would not be able to go against them alone.

As Oliver’s painful betrayal pulls at my sutured being, I say the most obvious thing that hasn’t crossed my mind until now: “Oliver is Purgatory.”

Of course Oliver is Purgatory. How else would Purgatory know me? I should have suspected something when Asch actually listened to Oliver, and when Oliver kept dodging questions about his past. I should have suspected even more when he was able to admit that he was a Shadowman after that incident with Asch at the grotto. I was too wrapped up in my own feelings to know the obvious. My own selfish feelings. I’m not even disgusted that I am his Exaltation. I am disgusted that he would put my brother in harm’s way.

I lean my head against the door, allowing a sob to break through. This is all my fault and has been since the beginning. It’s like fate determined from birth that all my actions would have deadly consequences for those that I loved. Had I prepared a speech, I never would have been stuck with latrine duty. Had I never been stuck with latrine duty, I would never have met Oliver. Had I never met Oliver, everything would be safe, Nathaniel would be safe, Colette might even be safe, and dear Deus knows what else could have been prevented. I never should have come to Cathedral Reims in the first place. I should be in a safe marriage by now, making even safer choices for a quiet, uneventful future I could have had versus this uncertain future where shadows want to kill all in a pathetic attempt to rid themselves of their own pain.

Then it occurs to me to wonder if Oliver has known since the first time he met me that I would become his Exaltation. Colette’s revelation of his thoughts back in the barn at least tells me he is pained by having me be his Exaltation, but that doesn’t excuse the verity that every second he spent after meeting me was one second closer to making me his target to end his brutal suffering.

He loves me. What a ridiculous notion now. His Exaltation has lied to him. He doesn’t love me. If he truly loved me, he would have severed ties with me knowing what it would eventually lead to. From the first time we met, I believe he always knew where the two of us would lead, considering it was only a few months after that he began to develop feelings for me—and I in return foolishly returned those feelings, even though every craving we had for one another had to be suppressed.

With trembling legs, I press my shoulder against the portal doors to help me stand. Once I’m up, I stumble a bit, then find my balance by tucking myself away in the corner where stone meets the door. Hysterical laughter bubbles through the bitter tears over how foolish I have been this entire time. I never thought my selfishness would come to plague me like this. I always thought that as long as I kept to myself, I would never be able to hurt anyone else. I was wrong. It’s so funny to know how interconnected everyone is to one another, even if one feels like the most insignificant thing in the world.

I look out on to the main road, noting how packed the road is with people under umbrellas, wrapped in black frocks. Carriages crowd the road, pulled by horses crusted in snow. No one would notice if I were to walk out into the road, stand in front of a carriage, and allow the horses to trample me. My life would be snuffed out, just like that, until some poor person finds my mangled body on the road. That person would be scarred for life.

“Damn it, Deus!” I scream to the hail-filled sky. I can’t even kill myself without hurting someone.

The portal doors open. For a brief moment I think to let everyone crush me under the weight of boots and heels, then decide the thought is pointless. I can’t forget that no matter how much I wish for death in this life, I will just come back as something worse. I step out of the way, watching with indifference as the churchgoers pour down the steps, hail hansom cabs, and leave back to their quiet lives with this sermon a lingering afterthought.

Once the nave clears of everyone, I decide to slip into its emptiness. My boots drag bits of ice and snow along the marble floor, and the ice and snow lay there. I don’t care about the tracks I’m leaving. Not even the snow is given a chance to die. Water returns to the sky to be reborn nonetheless, only to be thrown on the ground once again.

I walk over to Deus’ eye and wonder what Mother thought when she knew she was dying. Or did she even know? Did the opium haze have her too trapped to let her know her own body was wasting away? Or was she always awaiting death? I’m certain she’s disappointed, if she found herself in this place called Paradise. It’s another life, after all, in spite of how tempting The Vulgate makes it seem. After all, I’m convinced when one dies, a person does not leave everything that person was in this life. It all goes with that person in the afterlife. Nothing can ever be perfect, because people themselves are imperfect, and I don’t think Deus changes that when one enters Paradise—if it even exists at all.

I fall down in the center of Deus’ eye, inclining my head toward the skylight. The cold marble floor seeps through my damp coat. The jamb statues of suffering witches are steeped in shadows, their presence tucked away from a world that doesn’t want to acknowledge that real suffering exists. I used to find those statues frightening. Now I just find them sad.

I pull my knees to my chin, not even sure why I’m sitting beneath Deus’ eye. This was the place, after all, where Oliver and I promised we would do anything and everything to rise in the ranks of the Professed Order and change the world of our own accord. I think we made so many unspoken promises that day, ones I can’t even think of, but I know they’re there.

The tears return, sobs convulsing my body with violent tremors. I fall to my side and just lay there, wanting to desperately scream at Deus to forgive me for all my faults, unwind time, and give me back the life I’ve wanted since coming here. I am a terrible, terrible human being. Shouldn’t I be doing everything in my power to find Nathaniel, instead of lying here and sobbing, already having given up on this thing called living? I don’t have it in me though, in spite of how much pain overtakes me.

Colette told me it’s only natural for a living being to want to rid itself of pain. What she doesn’t realize is that sometimes the pain is all there is, and to dispel of that means to steep oneself in nothingness. All I have is right now. I don’t know where I’m going to be tomorrow, or the day after, or even a few months from now. I don’t know if I’ll still let myself cling on to this existence, or let go and find out what the Shadowman existence is like.

I truly don’t know.

Sobs continue to rack my body, my persistent crying only being interrupted by a familiar click of boots on the marble floor.

“Amelia?”

Mother Aurelia’s soft voice tucks the tears in a raw part of my body that is so fragile and ready to break when I need to cry again.

I sit up, not even bothering to wipe my face. I don’t know what I should say to this woman. Should I be bitter that she destroyed my dream?

I truly don’t know.

“What are you doing here?”

I truly don’t know.

She bends down to my level. The hardness I’m used to seeing in her isn’t there. Genuine concern outlines the folds of her face. “What is wrong, dear?” She pauses, as if knowing that question is not enough to make me talk. “You will always be a part of this church, Amelia.”

“But—”

She takes my cold hand in her bony, frigid one. “You can talk to me, Amelia. It’s my purpose as a Mother Superior, to be here for my girls, when they need me. You are still my girl, and you always will be.”

And I know she means it because she never says anything she doesn’t mean. But it’s too late to feel like her daughter, or whatever she considers the sisters and nuns here.

Mother Aurelia looks down, as though she is beginning to understand why I’m here. “I sent you away for your own good, Amelia. If I didn’t care, I would have kept you here, making you endure trials with the knowledge that you weren’t ready for them. I don’t put my girls through the trials knowing they can’t handle them.”

She purses her lips, revealing a pained side that suggests she doesn’t approve of the path to the Professed Order any more than anyone else does. “The girls who make it through all the trials always make the Professed Order. The girls who endure, who show they can endure, they are never told that they won’t make suitable nuns because of any weakness they show during the trials.”

The question slips out of my lips before I even digest the point Mother Aurelia is trying to get across to me. “Then why was I told no?”

“Being able to power through one’s own weakness is a sign that one has the strength to endure this type of life. You weren’t ready, Amelia. You weren’t ready to accept that weakness is an inevitable part of life, and that true strength lies in not giving in to that weakness, but accepting that weakness as a part of yourself and using it to find strength.”

Even now I still haven’t learned that. I don’t want to learn that. The next thing that comes out of my mouth is information that is none of Mother Aurelia’s business, but I don’t know what else to say. “My brother was kidnapped. I don’t know where he is. Father doesn’t know where he is.” I pause. “He’s probably dead.”

Mother Aurelia straightens herself. “How come you have not alerted the authorities of your missing brother?”

I raise my shoulders. “If he’s dead, what is the purpose?”

“And how do you know he’s dead?”

I say nothing.

“I’m going to fetch Theosodore. You stay right here, Amelia.”

This gesture should sicken me. But the only emotion that is acceptable for me is melancholia because that’s what this is, the feeling of giving up on life, not caring what happens next, and accepting the pain as something that will never go away. I harbor no grudges for Theosodore, even though he wanted to make me his Exaltation. He only wants to escape the pain. He just refuses to realize that there is never an escape from pain. Trying to do anything about it only results in more pain.

Those Shadowmen will never understand, and that’s all right. Wanting to get rid of their pain means they haven’t given up on existing just yet—unlike me.

When Mother Aurelia comes back with Theosodore, he is not donning his usual jagged grin. He looks forlorn. Perhaps he has realized pain is impossible to escape. Mother Aurelia grips my wrist and pulls me to my feet.

“Amelia, Theosodore will help you find your brother.”

Mother Aurelia leaves the nave, either because I refuse to respond, or because she planned to leave with the belief that I would protest his help.

I look Theosodore full in the face and say, “I know what you are.”

He responds as I knew he would. “And I’ve always known what you were.” There is no malice in the way he says this, no sharp smiles or hidden motives. But I’m not sure what he means by this. Of course he has always known I was a witch, from the first day I entered Cathedral Reims. Unless he just didn’t know that I knew. “Now why don’t we find dear Nathaniel? Mother Aurelia doesn’t want you to come with me. She doesn’t want me to put you in any danger, but if I know you, you’re not going to stay put.”

Theosodore would be right in another time. Now I don’t care what I do.

“The Shadowmen Alliance has him.”

“Then I have an idea of where he may be,” Theosodore says.

He starts toward the main portal. For some reason, I follow behind, not even questioning why he would help me when I’m still the likely target of his Exaltation. I suppose I’m at the point in my existence where it is all right for others to dictate what I do, what I say, how I act, and where I go. If I have no will to take charge of my own life, someone will have to take charge of it for me.

We are on the main road of Malva. The hail has stopped.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Theosodore leads me through the snow-crusted back roads, his stride sure of where it is going and my stride plodding along with his. Despite Theosodore’s nonthreatening presence and determined demeanor, I nonetheless have an inkling of where he wants to lead me, and this, I believe, is nowhere near my brother or any Shadowman. He may be different from the Theosodore that attacked me in the library, but perhaps he has changed tactics and believes the old adage that one will catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This would explain his seeming eagerness to help with a cause that doesn’t benefit him.

“You won’t have to force me,” I tell him, my voice monotone. “I’ll willingly give myself to you.” At least I can better someone else’s existence this way, since I have not been able to find a way to better my own.

Theosodore stops by an abandoned shack sandwiched between two dingy, boarded apartments. Instead of presenting me with his usual jagged smile, he raises an eyebrow. “You truly think this is why I chose to help you, just so I could take advantage of your vulnerability?”

I nod without the fear that would normally be present. “Don’t you want to make me your Exaltation? Don’t you want to end your suffering?”

Theosodore sighs. “That may be true, but even if I wanted to, I can’t. Mr. Cromwell has already claimed you as his Exaltation, so for me to take your purity would do absolutely nothing. I must choose another. I didn’t know that at the time.”

The mention of Oliver in such a callous manner sends a burst of anger through me that I thought would be impossible for me to muster. “Oliver has not laid claim to any part of me. I will not let him.” At least that is one thing I will not let happen to me. He has hurt me beyond repair, and to give in to the cruel demands of someone I still love would completely undo me.

Now Theosodore’s jagged smile decides to make itself known. “You don’t have a choice in this matter, Miss Amelia. An Exaltation is not a mere concept, but practical divine intervention. Once Oliver fell in love with you, you were branded. It isn’t a mark you can see, and you will never be freed unless Oliver falls out of love with you, kills you, or dies. Then you will free yourself to be some other Shadowman’s fair game. For now, you are his.”

Nausea sweeps me off my feet, forcing me to my knees to hold every screaming part of me together. Before knowing who Oliver was, this would have been a romantic concept, knowing that I am invariably tied to him so long as he is in love with me. I would have seen the idea as a form of marriage. Now it’s beyond frightening to know that as long as he is in love with me, I can never fully free myself from him. I pull myself up, indifferent to the ice soaking through my stockings.

“Is there more to this?” I ask.

Theosodore’s smile widens. “Oh, yes. Because you are branded, Oliver will always know where you are.”

Nausea threatens to push me over again, but I steady myself against the shack and pull in deep breaths of biting air to stem the anger that threatens to burst through my skin. He will always know where I am. Because of this, I’m surprised he hasn’t killed me yet. He has had so many opportunities to do so, but I won’t wonder on that now.

I look at Theosodore with narrowed eyes. “Then if you’re not here to make me your Exaltation, then why are you bothering to help me find my little brother?”

“I care not for your little brother,” he says. “But your little brother is an excuse to confront the Shadowmen Alliance myself.”

“How long have you known?”

“I’ve known what they were planning since Oliver took it upon himself to propose the idea of an uprising. I joined Cathedral Reims to keep an eye on him.”

I dig my fingers in the splintered wood, deliberately piercing my skin to replace the anger with momentary pain. “Why didn’t you stop him then if you knew what he was up to? Why allow him to continue building this plan? Have you known this entire time about the Shadowmen around Cathedral Reims?” I think back to Sash and Asch and how they bolted when Theosodore came to Colette and I. “You could have done something.”

“I didn’t know about the Shadowmen around Cathedral Reims. If I had known, I would have snapped their necks. I have a power many of them wouldn’t trifle with. Very few Shadowmen are so powerful that they are feared, as Shadowmen powers are often equal to one another. This is why they took your brother. They believe he’ll provide them with a power as special as mine.”

I don’t even care to ask Theosodore to clarify his power. He made that clear when he attacked me in the library. “If you’re so powerful, why did you not stop Oliver?”

Theosodore’s smile transforms into a rigid line. “Because I too once toyed with the idea of a rebellion for the longest time, even after I decided to keep Oliver in my sights. But now that’s changed because the stakes are much higher than the Shadowmen realize. They will only be punished in the end should they follow through with this.”

“What are those stakes?”

“Freedom.”

I want to ask Theosodore how he knows that their freedom is in danger when they themselves don’t seem to, but an explosion rips the question apart, replacing any of my thoughts with an echoing ringing. A large plume of smoke rises in the sky, followed by bloodcurdling screams. The mixture of screaming and ringing divides my world into small pieces, hurtling my entire being into a state of confusion as I grasp what I should be doing. There are more explosions, more screams, and the explosions increase in intensity. Everything is in a haze.

Theosodore grabs my arm and hauls me into the shack, shuttering square holes that pass as windows with slabs of metal he finds lying on the dirt floor. There is only a small space between two slats of wood that make up the makeshift door. I see snow and wood and stone through these slats, then black cloaks. A gasp threatens to free itself, until Theosodore clamps a hand over my mouth and drags me back behind a pile of rubble made of wood, stone, metal, and other materials.

“Thank Deus Shadowmen powers like mine are rare,” Theosodore whispers. “Or else Malva would have been torn from the seams by now.”

What if it already has been? Oliver can control nature. Oliver knows where I am. For all I know, a root could be making its way through the earth to strangle me, the way one almost strangled Colette.

“We’ll wait this out. It’s too dangerous for you to be out there.”

“The rebellion has begun, hasn’t it?”

Theosodore says nothing, telling me everything I need to know. I pull away from him, curiosity compelling me back to the slats. Theosodore doesn’t stop me this time. “It’s even more hopeless now to find my brother. He’s dead. That’s all there is to it.”

“You don’t sound so desperate to save him,” Theosodore says.

I scrabble back behind the pile of rubbish as more cloaks trail by. The air is thick with the scent of smoke and other smells I can’t distinguish. “I have to accept it, don’t I?”

“No, you don’t. You don’t know that he’s dead.”

“Yes, I do. If Nathaniel’s power is as special as yours, they will want it.”

Theosodore plants a hand on my shoulder. For a moment I think he’s going to dig his fingers in and shake me. He doesn’t. The gesture feels sympathetic. “You’re a fool for wanting to give up so easily. Where is the determination I saw in your eyes during the trials, that defiance when I fetched you for Mother Aurelia? You had so much life in you, and now you seem to be content with despair.”

I throw his hand off me, my nerves igniting with a spark of anger. “I am a fool, I’ll admit that. I’m a fool for continually hoping anything could change. And why do you seem to care so much, you who enjoys abusing sisters for breaking rules, for partaking in everything that is wrong with Cathedral Reims?” I find my voice rising, but with the screams and explosions outside, I am not concerned with being heard. “You were even willing to rape me, to forever hurt me so you could end your own pain!”

Theosodore doesn’t react in rage. He smiles. “And you were willing to give yourself up to me, so you have no reason to be angry over my past actions.” He crosses his arms to put on intimidating airs that have no effect on me. “If there is so much wrong with Cathedral Reims, then perhaps you should have never considered joining. I care because I want to stop this. I care because I know what Deus wants, and they do not. But if you cannot bother to care, then I will leave you here as dead weight and Shadowmen fodder.”

The anger threatens to tear me apart. In fact, my fury is so heightened that I can feel the fire moving beneath my skin. I want to slice that jesting smile off Theosodore’s face. How can a man who claims to be so devoted to Deus participate in such cruelty? He flirts with girls young enough to be his daughters, and then beats them for some mild infraction. Theosodore is a contradiction, someone who possesses an equal amount of love and hate that he can use together as weapons whenever he feels like it. I have no doubt that was his strength in life, to hide who he is by couching his actions with honeyed words. Whoever he was in life, I’m certain he was the type of man to beat his wife while claiming to do so because he loves her. But what makes him different from other men who do the same is that he doesn’t seem like he would be angry in doing so. He seems to enjoy torment.

“You’re so sick,” I tell him.

“You’re angry. You’re not completely gone.”

I could hurt Theosodore. I could hurt him right now. I feel the fire in me, and it can hurt him. “I have every reason to be angry.”

“You haven’t given up then.” He rises and pins me against one of the flimsy walls. “You know as well as I do that giving in is not one of your traits. You know as well as I do that you would do anything for Nathaniel.”

These words should come out as a scream. Instead they come out soft, yet certain. “I don’t understand you.”

“And you never will. Now why don’t you use some of that anger? It’s your shield, Amelia. Use it to protect yourself so we can find you brother. I have no doubt that whoever Nathaniel is with, he is with someone Oliver would hate to lose, someone so integral to this plan that a loss would be devastating.” He pulls away. “And I never help unless it benefits me, just as I never hurt unless it benefits me.”

“You’re still so sick.”

“Hold on to that anger. It’s working rather well for you.”

Theosodore glides over to the slat and peers through. His shoulders tense. Before I find out why, an enormous blast shakes the foundation of the shack, and a wind torrent throws me behind the rubble and nearly rips my hair out of my skull. The roof of the shack caves in. I look behind me. The edge of the metal roof narrowly missed my spine. It rests slanted against the rubble. If the wind hadn’t thrown me behind the rubble pile, the roof would have landed on me instead of tucking me safely in a space between it and the debris.

Two familiar Shadowmen stand before us, smiles planted on their too-human faces. “We’ve been looking all over for you, Amelia,” Sash says, stepping amongst the rubble.

“Remember, Sash,” Asch says, “he doesn’t want her dead. Just subdued enough so that we can bring her to him.”

Theosodore rises from the wreckage, rubbing his skull that has a purple lump from the roof. “Why doesn’t he fetch her himself? He knows where she’s at.”

Asch laughs as he walks over to Theosodore and matches his height. “That he does. That he does. But Purgatory is too busy keeping this city under siege. He has no time to bother with Amelia until after everything is through.”

Sash grabs me by my hair and hauls me up until I’m hovering above the dirt with bent knees and my face is at his level. There is no tension in his hand. “What are you doing out here? You should be tucked away safely, praying to Deus or some such other nonsense that you convent people do.”

Asch laughs. “Probably to rescue her dear brother.” His demeanor darkens. “Oh, but he’s dead, don’t you know that? Burned alive during that first explosion. It won’t be long before he turns. And we can use him.”

Sash inserts his final input before I scream. “It’s a shame he had to die in such agony, but he fought back…and lost.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Theosodore is right. My anger is my strength. The rage boils inside me, filling me with renewed energy. The feeling takes me back to the barn where Colette tried to teach me how to control my fire. I almost had a grasp on the tempting flames then. Now the feeling is back. I focus on it, drawing the anger down into the skin of my palm, letting it heat my skin until it’s almost unbearable. All I have to do is snap my fingers and—

I raise my hand and shove it in Sash’s face. He screams and drops me onto the dirt. I scramble away, back toward Theosodore. The angry fire races beneath my skin, thirsting to be used again. I keep my attention on it, feeding my anger and channeling it into the heat.

Sash’s screaming turns to heavy pants. He pulls his hand away from his face, revealing a raw and blistered palm print on his cheek. He grits his teeth, throwing a vicious glance at Asch.

“Can we really not kill her, Asch?”

Theosodore doesn’t wait for Asch to answer. “Amelia, take Sash. I’ll deal with Asch.”

Asch laughs. “You really think she can handle him?”

Theosodore replies with a cunning grin. “Amelia and he have the same powers.”

“He has strength to back up that fire,” Asch says, his hand sliding down his cloak and removing a dagger. “So what are you going to do? Manipulate me to death? I told Purgatory we should have killed you before you waltzed away from the alliance. But he’s soft and thought he could trust you not to meddle.”

“We were good friends before our lives were claimed in Shala,” Theosodore says. He circles Asch, whose eyes trail him.

Asch matches Theosodore’s grin. “Oh, and what changed?”

“Deus changed me.”

Theosodore is a part of the past Oliver refused to tell me. Did they die at the same time, caught for the same reasons, killed in the same way? There is so much I don’t know about Oliver.

I have no more time to think. Theosodore lunges at Asch, and the air around us seems to bend, putting pressure on my chest. Their movements are a blur, leaving only one other person in the room to look at. Sash. I turn toward him, and he smirks despite his blistered face.

“Thinking about your precious Oliver?” Sash says. “Or are you thinking about who killed your brother?”

“You bastard!” I run toward Sash, a stream of fire flying from my hand. But he has already leapt aside. He’s so fast. “Were you the one who killed him?”

Sash’s cool voice rises behind me. “I didn’t kill him alone.”

I whirl around, growling as I slash the air with more fire. But my blast meets Sash’s own fire. Our two streams of fire and heat collide, the pressure of his pressing against me like a waterfall. I can feel the muscles rippling beneath his skin as though they’re a part of his fire. He’s too strong for me. Almost as soon as I realize I can’t win, I am thrown back by the force.

I want to cry for Theosodore’s help, but he’s too busy dealing with Asch. For a brief moment, I can see his face. He looks disoriented, like he’s forgotten where he is.

There is no choice but to run. I give up all semblance of defiance and bolt through the door and down the dirt road. I haven’t taken twenty steps before I can feel the warmth on my back that means Sash is close behind. I look over my shoulder just in time to see the stream of fire Sash has thrown. I dodge to one side and only scarcely get my head out of the way. The fire catches the tuft of hair at the end of my braid, freeing my hair so that it flies behind me in waves.

Sash lets out a riotous laugh. He doesn’t even sound winded. “Do you want to know what we did to kill your brother?”

I concentrate on the explosive sounds of fire to block out his voice. Even so, my anger is rekindled, and fire is boiling again beneath my skin. My blood is the butane and my actions are the spark. What did life do to Sash to make him this way?

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway.”

A cry of protest bubbles in my stomach and stagnates there. All I want to hear are the thumping of my chest and the slapping of my feet against the ground.

“It was simple, so simple. He was locked in a metal shed, clawing and scratching like a caged rat. He’s a fierce little kid, I’ll give you that.”

I don’t want to hear this I don’t want to hear this I don’t want to hear this.

Sash’s voice distorts, along with everything else but the road underfoot. The shacks blur into the shadows of my mind. I cling to the strings of pain that rise through my legs and fill my lungs. They connect my feet with the road. With my escape. My only hope is to run longer than Sash is willing to follow. Chasing me is a game for him, but I feel certain Oliver needs him elsewhere. If I can only outlast him.

A loud rumbling breaks through the shadows, hurling me back into the present. There is heat dangerously close, and I make a hard turn to dodge another ball of fire. After it passes I realize the rumbling is coming from below me, moving through the earth like thunder. And I can feel him searching for me. Oliver—no, Purgatory—must be tired of Sash’s game. He must be preparing to send roots through the ground to stop me, or impale me.

I’m going to die not nailed to a cross, but to a vein that keeps the earth alive. I’m going to die with the story of my brother’s death on my mind. With that dark thought, my mind latches on to Sash’s sickening details.

None of this matters, though. I will be joining Nathaniel shortly.

“—and I combined my power with another Shadowman’s power to turn the shed into an oven.” He chortled as he spoke. “An oven with him inside. I wish I could have seen him at those last moments. But it got too hot, and the whole thing exploded. Nothing left to see, unfortunately.”

With a scream in my throat, I stop mid-stride and turn to hurl a mass of fire at Sash that creates a wall of smog, obscuring our views. The earth still rumbles. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

I watch until the smoke clears, and Sash strolls easily forward. His smirk is plastered to his peeling face. Black blood seeps from fissures in his cheek, flowing down to his chin and dripping to the ground. I’m trembling, though my feet are planted firmly in the dirt.

“Your brother is your weakness, isn’t he?” He stops only a few feet from me. “That would make for an interesting Malady. You’re quite good with your fire, too. Not as good as me, of course.” He peers into my eyes. “But fire wouldn’t be your power. It’s weak.”

Fire hums in the palms of my hands. I want more than anything to press my hand into his face again. Something, however, keeps me pinned to the road.

“I can’t figure it out,” Sash says. “I suppose Deus will judge that.”

My tongue grows sharp. “And what is your Malady?” Even with so much rage inside me, I can’t help wanting to understand him. Wanting to understand why he is the way that he is. How he could kill sweet Nathaniel. “Is Claire your Malady? She’s dead, isn’t she? At least, I’ve heard you talk as if she’s dead.”

A tiny flame appears in Sash’s palm, one whose sharp dance threatens to rip off my skin. “Don’t speak of her.” The flame shrinks. “Ever. If you mention that name again, I will kill you and leave your remains for the world to see. I won’t care what Oliver ordered me to do.”

The flame shrinks again. This draws my attention more than Sash’s threat does. “How did Claire die?” The flame is now a tiny point in the middle of Sash’s palm. Claire is his Malady.

Sash screams and tries to hurl his fire at me. Nothing happens. “Shut up! Stop speaking her name.” He slams his foot in the dirt, sifting up a small dirt cloud that settles on his black boot. He seems smaller, weaker.

I draw myself closer to Sash. “Claire must have been a beautiful girl. What did Claire look like?”

Sash throws himself against me and pins me to the ground. He wraps his hands around my throat. His grip is weak, though, like he can’t draw even an ounce of strength that it would take him to end my life. “Stop! Just stop!” Pain radiates from his tone. “I will make your death so painful that your Shadowman life will be unbearable. Your only hope will be suicide.”

Sash gives up on all semblance of being snarky and begins to sob. The pitiful cry of a Shadowman.

“I won’t stop. You killed my brother.”

Sash’s sobs heighten, his hands releasing my neck and his chest rising and falling with misery. His pain twists my heart, and I know then that my weakness is that I care too much. Every part of me is screaming to kill him, but his pain taps into my buried sympathy, and he becomes a helpless child instead of the murderous Shadowman I know he is.

“You’re just a child,” I say, my tone unexpectedly soft. He seems to have forgotten what he wanted to do to me. “Just a child. You have had so many chances to redeem yourself, to let your soul heal, and instead you chose to make things worse.” I pull myself from beneath Sash, leaving him on his knees. His face is downcast.

“I have no redemption for you, though.”

For his own sake, Sash will be better off in nothingness. There will be no pain for him. No grief. No Claire. No Shadowmen. Nothing. I close my eyes and build the fire beneath my skin. Sash made my brother suffer, but this doesn’t mean I have to make him suffer. I will make his death painless and full of mercy.

“At Cathedral Reims, I learned that forgiveness is the epitome of what it means to be human. But I can’t forgive someone who murdered a person so precious to me. I would have severed my limbs to grant my little brother happiness.”

I bend down to Sash’s level, the hot fire ready to burst from my flesh. “I don’t know what happened in your life to make you this way. Though I will never forgive you, I implore you to forgive yourself. Whatever happened to Claire, I’m certain, was not your fault.”

Sash’s sobs stop almost as suddenly as they had begun. The seething hatred returns to his eyes, and, quicker than the tail of a scorpion, he leaps atop me. The action sends the fire back beneath my skin, freezing it in the pads of my fingertips. His hands fly back around my neck, and this time, there is burgeoning strength in those sinewy muscles.

He lets out a single laugh. “Forgiveness? The concept is foolish.”

Under his tightening grip, my breaths come out short and painful. My limbs flail about as my fists try to make contact with his body. My strength is leaving me now, and my arms fall heavily to the ground. Tears fall involuntarily down my cheeks in hot streaks. Sash bends over and licks my cheek. My stomach lurches.

“Such lovely tears. I wish every day for such a release. To mourn my losses.” He twists the skin of my neck, the taut muscles of his fingers digging into my throat. Then he pauses for a second to bend down to my ear and whisper. “My Malady is that I am forever heartbroken.”

The sky above Sash appears calm, now, and Sash himself is beginning to fade into darkness. All feeling is gone from my body, and it is only in the last flicker of light that I notice the hands. Two large, burly hands are wrapped around Sash’s neck. They twist with sudden force, and Sash is lifted away from me in what seems like the same motion. His eyes have lost all their ferocity.

With the pressure released, instinct inflates my chest with air.

I can only feel sorry for him, his Malady pounding in my mind.

Why would Deus grant Shadowmen with immense powers and then burden them with Maladies that can make using those powers difficult? Then again, why would Deus force cruel Exaltation upon them? Will they truly be free if they meet the terms of their Exaltation? I don’t know, but after seeing Sash’s suffering, the true enemy may not be the Shadowmen after all.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“I killed Asch,” Theosodore tells me as he gathers himself and flexes his meaty fingers.

He gives Sash’s crumpled body a swift kick, making me wince. Sash’s death saddens me. I know what this means for him. He will never exist again, in any life. There will never be another boy like him. Ever. He may have murdered my little brother, but I wish I knew what he was like in life. I wish I would have understood him more.

No tears come for my little brother. There isn’t time to fall prey to heartbreak.

I follow Theosodore as he walks away from Sash’s body, his stride uncertain.

“How did you manage to take care of Asch?” I ask.

“I stabbed him through the skull.” Theosodore’s jagged smile appears, twisting my stomach. “Oh, he took a few of my memories in the process, but I gained them back after I killed him.” The smile disappears. “What do you plan to do now? I still have business with the Shadowmen Alliance. I will kill every last one of them, even if it takes me all day.”

I wince again. I have become sensitive to death, even for those who are supposed to be my enemies. They were humans once, who loved and hated, laughed and cried, just as the living do. I want to stop this. I don’t want anyone else to lose their lives. I’m certain Nathaniel would want the same. He took care with even the smallest of creatures, after all. He never had the heart to crush even a cockroach.

Colette told me she believed I could talk Oliver out of this. Do I still have that chance?

“I’m going to find Oliver,” I say.

Theosodore sighs. “I suppose I can’t let you go alone. Mother Aurelia would do Deus knows what to me if she found out you were murdered under my watch.”

“How generous of you,” I deadpan.

“I say we follow the quakes.”

I forgot about the rumbling. I haven’t been impaled yet, thank Deus.

“What is he doing?” I ask.

When we come upon the ruins of the shack, the scene before us answers my question. A maze of roots chokes the surrounding apartments, rising to the sky like giant beanstalks. To my horror, there are people speared on the ends, slick blood flowing down the roots. I heave what little I have in my stomach on the dirt. I look up at Theosodore. He clicks his tongue, his hardening eyes taking in the damage that Oliver’s fearsome powers have caused. He closes his eyes, then snaps them open.

“We’ll head toward the main road. The quakes seem to be coming from that direction.”

Theosodore leads me through the tiny alleys. As we cross each back road, I note the vines and roots that trap everything in a cage. Stragglers pick their way among the chaos, their faces glazed over with numbness. There are people strung among the pandemonium, their mouths open in dead screams, their heads dangling askance, and their eyes painted with the colors of death. And the Shadowmen Alliance will most likely spread their horrid rebellion all across Warbele until they have the entire country under their duress. I shudder to imagine what will happen from there.

The final back road that leads right onto the main road bears a more grim reality than the ones farther back. Oliver’s nature doesn’t hold this road under siege. Instead the road is littered with crushed bodies. My knees weaken. I can’t hold myself up. I fall to the road, trying to suppress the scream and the tears that want to overtake my body. The witch burning crosses my mind. This is more than just an efficient way to kill witches. This rebellion started the day of the burning. Those witches were a mere example of what people’s hatred toward them does. Witches are out in the open now. People can no longer pretend witches are just monsters under the darkest of beds. What better way to oppress the oppressors than through fear?

“Are you done wallowing in pity?” Theosodore asks.

I look up to find his hardened stare boring into me. “How can you not feel anything when you look at all of this?”

“It’s my Malady.”

“Some Malady,” I say, wiping the dust off my coat and standing.

“I suppose I was just lucky.”

Pulling in a deep breath, I trudge forward in anticipation of what the main road holds. From where I stand, enormous thick roots skewer the sky. Cathedral Reims appears untouched, its various turrets, spires, and towers devoid of plant life. It seems safe, for now.

Theosodore squeezes into a narrow alley. Just as I follow behind, a voice crosses through my mind and stops me.

Amelia, help.

The voice is Colette’s. Malva disappears, replaced by a vision of a shack guarded by several Shadowmen. Inside the shack is Colette strapped to a chair, some unknown Shadowman speaking unheard words, and then beating her. The vision moves to the corner of the shack, revealing Gisbelle. What surprises me most, however, is not Colette’s sudden change of scenery from a vine cage to prisoner in a shack, but that Gisbelle is cradling my little brother. I suck in a hiss of air. He isn’t dead. He isn’t dead! There is light in his bright blue eyes. I could cry. I could scream. He is alive. Dear Colette, how could I ever have doubted you?

Colette’s voice enters my thoughts again. On the last road. You’ll see the shack.

The vision disappears, Malva appearing around me. Theosodore has a firm grip on my shoulder. I shrug his hand off.

“That was Colette,” I say. “She and Nathaniel are being held hostage.”

“So the boy isn’t dead.” Theosodore groans. “Oliver will have to wait, I suppose. I can’t have you getting killed on my watch.”

We hasten through the narrow alleys, fly across the root-choked roads, and find the shack Colette showed me. It is at the end of the last road, right on the point of the endless field soaked in snow. Just as the vision showed me, two Shadowmen guard the entrance, a flimsy door that could be blown down by a single breath. I start forward. Theosodore blocks my advance with a hand.

“I know you can control your fire, but let me assess the situation first. Some Shadowmen are far weaker than others, and I can sense that these are. They’ll be easy to manipulate.”

The more I learn about Shadowmen, the more mysterious their world becomes. “Your power isn’t effective against every Shadowman?”

“The stronger the mind and will, the harder I have to work, or else Asch would have been easy to do away with.”

I stay hidden in the narrow alley behind a pile of wood, keeping myself discreet as I peer at Theosodore. He approaches the Shadowmen. Once they see him, they start up. For a moment I think a battle is going to ensue, until Theosodore flips his wrist and the Shadowmen walk away as if their shifts are done. They cross my path, distant looks on their bone-pale faces.

Theosodore gestures to me with a crook of his finger. “Now stay behind me,” he whispers. “There are a few Shadowmen inside. They’re not as weak as those. Try to avoid confrontation, if at all possible. We will fetch Nathaniel and Colette and leave. We’ll determine what to do from there, but our next objective has to be Oliver.”

The increased frequency of the quakes shows that Theosodore is right. There can be no more detours.

Theosodore presses his side against the door and peers through a crack. He nods once, then kicks the door down, drawing a gasp from someone, followed by a terse, “Kill him!” The voice belongs to Gisbelle.

There are only two other Shadowmen besides Gisbelle and Colette, and from the blasé look on Theosodore’s face, he isn’t concerned about his ability to defend me. He nods toward Gisbelle, and I race out behind him, prepared to defend myself.

Gisbelle screams a “Get out of here, you bitch!” but she doesn’t do anything beyond that, not with Nathaniel cradled in her arms, so I decide to take care of Colette first.

Colette is not only tied to a collapsed bed, but also gagged. I have to undo the ropes first with a thick shard of glass, and then cut the gag to release her.

“Amelia!” She throws her arms around me, and for a moment I can ignore the smell of death on her and imagine that she smells like clover. She pulls away, her demeanor growing grave. She looks at Gisbelle. “We have to get Nathaniel and run. Gisbelle herself isn’t very powerful, but—”

“But what?”

“I think you can assume what her powers are. Human men find her hard to resist. She will use them as shields should she have to.”

“But there aren’t any around.”

“That doesn’t matter. She has bound several to herself, and they’ll come when she calls. We can’t allow any more people to be harmed.”

Outside, Theosodore fights the other Shadowmen. They’re stronger than the two that guarded that shack. His brow is furrowed in concentration.

Breathing in, I allow Colette to lead me over to Gisbelle, who sits crouched in a corner on a pile of dirty blankets. She cradles Nathaniel as if he is her son. He looks at me with a tear-streaked face, his lips pursed.

“Get away from us!” Her features are akin to the features of a lioness mother. She rocks Nathaniel, shushes him, and says, “I’ll take care of you, you sweet creature. Those girls won’t hurt you. I won’t let the Shadowmen hurt you.”

Her arm crosses a streak of sunlight that drapes across the dirt flooring. It is burned, her black sleeve tattered. “You saved him, didn’t you?” I ask.

Gisbelle narrows her eyes. “No thanks to you. You wretched excuse for a sister.” Nathaniel whimpers. Gisbelle coos, stroking his hair with her slim, white fingers.  Her eyes are soft. “There, there, dear boy. She won’t hurt you.” Rage simmers away the gentleness as she looks back at Colette and I. “How could you be so careless? They were going to kill this child. He would have suffered!”

Colette steps back, a look of uncertainty crossing her face. “I don’t understand.”

“You wouldn’t, you traitor.”

“I don’t understand because the Shadowmen want Nathaniel for the power he may potentially have as a Shadowman,” Colette continues. “Why are you so opposed to this?”

Gisbelle looks to Nathaniel, then to Colette, then to me. Her eyes widen as her frown deepens. Is she fighting some internal monster? Colette closes her eyes and moves her lips. She’s channeling something to Gisbelle, a vision, or some sort of memory from the distant past. Gisbelle cries out, pushing Nathaniel’s face against her bosom.

“You had a son,” Colette says, keeping her eyes closed. “Your husband died when he was an infant, so your son was the only thing you had. He was murdered at fifteen.” Colette relays Gisbelle’s past with unflinching detail. “Someone accused him of being a witch, though he wasn’t. Witches cannot beget other witches.” Now that is something I did not know. I suppose Deus has some mercy. “The priests were trying to draw the fire out of him. They tied him up and threw him in a lake. He sunk and never rose.”

Gisbelle shrieks. “Shut up! Shut up! You wretched bitch! You conniving tramp!”

Nathaniel’s whimper heightens, and Gisbelle’s tone changes. “Oh, sweetie, I didn’t mean you. You’re safe.”

Colette snaps her eyes open. “Her need to mother is her Malady.”

“And she’s using Nathaniel to replace her son,” I say.

Colette nods. “I’ll try to distract her so you can get Nathaniel. Once you get him, you need to run. Take him back to Cathedral Reims. I think he’ll be safest there until all of this passes over.”

So much for not wanting to take another detour. “All right.”

Colette closes her eyes again and makes another connection with Gisbelle. With Gisbelle’s Malady, I doubt she will be able to connect to her marked men any time soon.

Maladies. What wretched things.

Colette starts speaking while I draw upon Gisbelle. “No one ever knew you were a witch. You committed suicide after viewing your son’s bloated body as they pulled him from the lake.” Gisbelle screams again, digging her fingers in Nathaniel’s thin arms. Nathaniel cries out in pain. All I have to do is get her to release him, and I can grab him, and we can run. “His name was Tobias. You shortly drowned yourself thereafter. They never retrieved your body. You turned into a Shadowman and were found by Asch.”

Gisbelle shakes Nathaniel around as she cries, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” Nathaniel whines more, and for a brief moment Gisbelle wants to soothe him. Colette’s connection, however, seems too strong.

“Asch is dead, Gisbelle. I cannot connect to him.”

Screaming, Gisbelle lets Nathaniel go, the connection to her Malady gone, and flies out at Colette, all sharp nails and snarls and wild eyes. Nathaniel prevents himself from falling by leaping away and landing on his hands and the tips of his toes. I pull Nathaniel up, allowing him no time to process the situation.

“We have to go, Nat, now!” I grip his wrist and run out of the shack. I don’t see Theosodore or the other Shadowmen, but what I find is even worse.

True to what Colette told me, Gisbelle has called upon her marked men, and they barricade any chance I have of escaping to Cathedral Reims.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

They’re all ordinary men: fishermen, fruit sellers, store clerks, accountants, and perhaps a pastor or two. Their eyes are glassy, their bodies tall and strong as they press together to form an impenetrable barrier. They don’t appear hostile, but they are the oppressors the Shadowmen want to get rid of.

Nathaniel sniffles. I squeeze his hand, and the men press in on us, forming a circle that we’re trapped in the middle of. I don’t want to harm these men. I may have to, but I’m not certain how I can do this without killing a single one. They’re too close together, getting too near to us.

That feeling of wanting to collapse and give up creeps back into me, but as my little brother presses himself against me, defeat is not an option. Nathaniel is alive, not dead like Asch and Sash claimed. I have to fight with every last cell in my body to keep him alive. Nathaniel did not choose this life, did not choose to be caught up in something I could have prevented so long ago.

The men stop encircling us once they cannot squeeze together any further. Now they just stand there, a human wall.

Nathaniel’s voice comes out small. “Amelia, what are we going to do?”

I ignite a flame in the palm of my hand. “Nat, can you control your fire?” He shakes his head. I sigh and hold the flame up to one of the men. He doesn’t flinch. Gisbelle’s marking must have also suppressed their instincts. If they were on fire, would they put themselves out, or would they keep trying to block me in, even while aflame? That is my primary concern, for I cannot stay back and beat the flames out for them. “We’re going to have to make a few sacrifices, Nat.”

Nathaniel shakes his head, letting out a teary, “No.”

I swallow hard. “We have no choice, Nat. It is either us, or them. And if we’re dead, then that leaves Theosodore and Colette to deal with all these Shadowmen.”

“But what can you do?”

“I can convince Oliver to stop this, Nat. I have to.”

Tears sting the backs of my eyes, and I build the fire up inside me. Nathaniel tugs on my hand, tears sliding down his sooty face. “Amelia, don’t!”

I shake my head. Tears choke me. “There is no other way.” I squeeze my eyes to fight the tears. “This won’t be me. This will be Gisbelle. She is the one who put me in this position.” And I know Colette said we won’t let any more people be harmed; however, not even she can predict how this rebellion will finish -- whenever we can stop it.

I bring my hand back to funnel forth the burgeoning fire. Nathaniel screams, and I let the fire fly free, wispy flames unfurling like butterfly wings as they fly out and latch on to the men. Our surroundings cloud with smoke. With Nathaniel under my arm and a hand over my mouth, I run headlong into what was once the barricade, and push free, breaking into a sprint.

“Forgive me, Deus,” I say, forming a cross on my chest that will hold my sadness for a later time.

Nathaniel and I have to run in between alleys, duck into shacks, and hide behind rubble to avoid further Shadowmen encounters and reach Cathedral Reims. Weeds now choke the roads, tendrils creeping along the sides of the cobbled stones and buildings in search of more victims. Blood paints the stones of the roads, forever marking Malva with the history of those who died today.

We fast come across the dormitories of the north transept and cross through the same place where Ann accused Nathaniel of being a witch. We stop by the doors to the north transept, a minuscule part of me hoping that, with one tug, the door will open. It does not. After sermons are through, Cathedral Reims locks all of its portal doors, and only unlocks them when schedule demands. With this war going on, I doubt the cathedral is maintaining its tidy schedule. If anything, Mother Aurelia would have done the responsible thing and herded everyone in the basement.

But it is unusual that Cathedral Reims remains intact in the first place. Perhaps Oliver cannot disengage himself from this place any more than I can.

Nathaniel squeezes my hands. “We can’t get in!”

“Shush, Nat.” I pull him along and scale the side of the cathedral, searching for a loose brick, something that will let us in. This cathedral is hundreds of years old, so its structure is not as fortified as it once was. There has to be a way in, particularly to the basement.

We wander to the east transept, scale the wall there, then come across the south transept, and that is where I spy a small frosted window peaking up from a pile of snow. I let go of Nathaniel’s hand, fall on my knees, and shovel the snow away. Gesturing Nathaniel down, both of us use our hot breaths to melt the frost. We peer in, finding an archive crowded with ancient bookshelves.

“Find a rock, Nat, a good one.”

Nathaniel leaves and comes back with several. I choose a sizable one with enough density and a jagged surface that should make at least a good crack in the window. Pulling my arm back, I hurtle the stone at the window, and to my surprise, the glass shatters. Excitement bubbling through me, I get back on my knees and clear away the remaining pieces of sharp glass stuck into the craggy wood.

“I’m going to go in, Nat, and you’ll come in after. I’ll catch you, all right?”

He replies with a curt nod.

I slide in with ease. I land on a pile of dusty books, a sheet of dust encircling me. I hold my arms out for Nat, and he slides through, landing square on my chest and knocking me backwards. Both of us cough as we stand.

“What are we going to do now?” Nathaniel asks, running his hand along the cracked binding of a book.

“I’m going to deposit you with Mother Aurelia, and then I’m going to leave.”

He cries out. “You can’t leave, Amelia! You can’t leave me alone again! What if you don’t come back?” He frowns. His next words come out unsure. “I want to go with you.”

“Nat…don’t be silly. Don’t try to play brave. The bravest thing would be to let me do this on my own.”

“But I need to know what is happening with you.”

This entire time I haven’t even been worrying about what would happen to me. I’m still not concerned. Whether or not I live or die, that doesn’t matter to me now. I know what is after for me. Fearing death is pointless.

“Don’t worry, Nat.” I offer him no more condolences.

His hand in mine, we leave these dusty archives and enter the familiar corridor Theosodore used to bring my sisters and me to our second trial. As Nathaniel and I make our way through the narrow hall lined with cells, I find the cell Colette and I were in. Its walls are tinged with soot, and the prie dieu has been reduced to a pile of wood. The setup is chilling, and it reels in memories of that day and the innumerable feelings that overwhelmed my body. I have to hasten Nathaniel and I through this hall. I can’t bear to be in the space where Sash killed Colette.

We wind our way farther through the basement, the corridor widening. The space around us grows colder. Scant light from tapers fills the corridor, revealing more cells and shut doors. Before Cathedral Reims was built, I once learned that this basement used to stand in its space as a prison. I don’t think the Professed Order has done much with it, other than make it a place that could be used for the trials.

It isn’t long before we push through a set of double doors and find ourselves in what looks like a common area. It is filled with sisters, priests-in-training, priests, and all of the Professed Order, including a few cardinals—which means Pope Gilford must be here. They’re all huddled together, wrapped in threadbare blankets, and perched on straw pallets. There are tapers scattered among old tables and fell bookshelves.

I step into the common room, and everyone turns toward Nathaniel and me. Hushed whispers erupt, almost as if all of Cathedral Reims knows Mother Aurelia sent Nathaniel and I away. I ignore their curious gazes and whispers in favor of seeking out Mother Aurelia. She doesn’t appear to be anywhere in this small space, but there is a shut door ensconced between two fell bookshelves. Squeezing Nathaniel’s hand, I step among the crowded floor, careful to avoid kicking any blanket-wrapped inhabitants. Upon approaching the door, one of the sisters stops us by grabbing the hem of my coat.

She coughs. “You can’t go in there. Mother Aurelia is currently in a meeting with Cardinal Brandon and Pope Gilford.” She hunches over, trying to warm her bare hands. I almost want to hand her the pair of fur-lined gloves I have in my pocket, but it would be an insult to one who has devoted her life to shirking luxuries. “I think they’re talking about what will happen from here. Best not to get involved in that.”

I clench my teeth. I have no time to waste. Not even Pope Gilford’s presence is enough to stop me. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but I have some business myself to conduct.”

I push past the sister and tug on the iron rung handle. The door opens up into a heated conversation, Pope Gilford’s words being the first to register.

“—burn every last one of them!”

“They are demons sent from Deus,” Mother Aurelia says. “Burning will do no good. What is going on out there is something we cannot comprehend. Perhaps this is our day of Judgment.”

“No,” Cardinal Brandon says. “This is something more. This is not a day of Judgment. Our day of Judgment will not occur in this manner.”

“And just how do you—”

I cough, cutting Pope Gilford short. I close the door behind Nathaniel and I, shutting out the scant light from the tapers in the common area. Pope Gilford grumbles. He strikes a match and lights a taper, whose flickering flame soon reveals Mother Aurelia sitting at the helm of a desk, with Cardinal Brandon and Pope Gilford flanking either side of her.

“I didn’t want to waste a blasted match, you know,” Pope Gilford says.

“Miss Gareth,” Mother Aurelia says, “what is the meaning of this? Can you not tell I am in a serious discussion?” She flits her eyes from me to some point behind me. “I do not see Theosodore with you.”

Nathaniel retreats behind me as Pope Gilford turns his penetrating gaze on me. During the burning he looked regal; now he just looks haggard, as though the consequences of his actions are beginning to weigh heavily in all the folds and wrinkles of his face.

“Theosodore is preoccupied at the moment, Mother Aurelia. I am here to leave Nathaniel in your care.”

She blinks once. “And what of you, Miss Gareth? Where do you intend to go?”

“Just take my brother, please!”

Pope Gilford raises his head. “I’m assuming you came from outside. Not sure how you found your way in here, but, if I may ask, what of the outside?”

I suck in a sharp hiss of air, tempted to fill every furrow on his body with the biting truth that he made himself a part of what is going on outside by leading the witch burning. He still had free will to refuse, and he didn’t. Pope Gilford is no more innocent than Oliver.

“I have no news.”

Mother Aurelia furrows her thick eyebrows. “Cardinal Brandon, I leave you to this matter. Pope Gilford and I have much to discuss concerning the matter of the Professed Order and Cathedral Reims. You’re good with children.” She gestures Pope Gilford out of the room, keeping trusting eyes on Cardinal Brandon until they are gone.

Cardinal Brandon sits on the edge of the desk and folds unlined hands on his lap. Even through the muggy glow of the candle I can tell he is young, possibly his late twenties. He runs a hand through ruffled brown hair and settles calm eyes on us.

“I won’t question why you feel the need to leave your little brother here.” His eyes follow me as I pull Nathaniel against my side. He relaxes me with a smile. “It seems you have important business to take care of that extends beyond this cathedral. I will care for him.”

I look down at Nathaniel, wondering if I could trust this man to care for him, this man who assisted Pope Gilford in the witch burning, who can’t be any more innocent than Pope Gilford, in spite of Mother Aurelia’s trust for him. But then she’ll believe anything Pope Gilford tells her. If Pope Gilford told her the witch burning had to happen because Deus commanded it, she would have accepted that reason. After all, in Warbele it is the belief that only the pope has access to Deus’ will, and no one else.

Cardinal Brandon lets out a rasping cough into his fist. “I can tell you don’t trust me. You have no reason to.” He closes his eyes, a crease indenting his forehead. The frigid air turns solemn. “I ran an orphanage before becoming a cardinal. This is why Mother Aurelia believes I’ll be the best fit to care for your brother until your safe return.”

Nathaniel rubs his face against my side. “Don’t leave me. I want to go with you. I know I’m brave enough.”

I turn him around and bend to his eye level. “It’s too dangerous for you to come. You know I have to do this.” I cup his face in my hands, my thumbs catching the tears that fall down his face in little rivulets. “You have to promise me that no matter what, you will not leave this cathedral.”

He grabs my wrists, his hands shaking as he openly sobs. “No. I won’t promise you anything!”

Tears threaten to ruin my composure. “You have to, Nat.” My voice cracks. “You have to. I don’t, I don’t—” I don’t want those feelings to return, those feelings that sapped every bit of will out of me, those feelings that made me accept my brother’s death, that threatened to make me accept my own. “I want to know you’re safe, Nat. That is why you cannot come. You are the most important person in my life.” I brush his bangs aside, cupping his tearful face. “You are all that I have.”

Nathaniel latches on to me. “Don’t make me feel helpless again. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. I’ve always been helpless, and I’m done being that way.”

My heart weakens. I wish I could grant Nathaniel’s wish without putting him in danger.

Cardinal Brandon rises from the desk and gently takes Nathaniel by the shoulders. “I shall fix you a cup of tea. Perhaps with honey.”

I embrace Nathaniel. “I love you, Nat.”

Cardinal Brandon leads Nathaniel into the common area. I don’t know what will happen to him, as I don’t know what will happen to me. So I latch my thoughts on to Oliver and of all the places he could be. He wants me. I know he does. Since this is the case, why would he want to put himself somewhere I can’t find him?

I should have thought of this before when Theosodore and I were searching for him earlier. There was just too much going on. Still…how could I have been so foolish?

Now I realize that he is in the most obvious of places that should have occurred to me right from the beginning: the gazebo.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The plum orchard is ripe with fresh, green leaves and fat plums that look ready to burst. Fresh flowers alight in grass that is too green, too earthy for this time of the year. Even the sky above the gazebo is a clear, bright blue, lacking the winter clouds that grace the rest of Malva outside of this spring-enshrined orchard. Oliver has toyed with nature to make this place as enticing for me as possible. He knows both spring and summer are my favorite seasons: spring for its flowers and summer for its fruit.

I peel the coat away from me, stripping down to the layers beneath my dress, and pick my way among a group of fragrant white roses. Oliver stands atop the gazebo, his arms behind him. I pass beneath a plum tree, and Oliver moves his hand. A plum drops right at my feet. I smell all the pies and jams and ice creams and every sweet this single plum can produce. I shake my head, dig my heel in the plum, and decide to tear apart the roses on my way to Oliver. Once I’m at the bottom step, I incline my head at him.

“You don’t have to do this.”

He draws his hand through the air, circulating the slaughtered rose petals around my head. “I don’t have to do this? You witnessed how far Pope Gilford was willing to go to rid Warbele of witches.” He drops his hand, the rose petals fluttering in small piles around my feet. “They say revenge can tear a man apart and reduce him to nothingness, but we Shadowmen can already reduce each other to nothingness. There is no difference to me.”

I climb the first step, balled hands at my sides. “There is a difference to me, Oliver. What happened to the boy who sat with me beneath Deus’ Eye and practically promised the world to me?”

Oliver holds out his hand for me. “That boy never existed. He died the day he killed his best friend, then everyone else, then himself.”

I take Oliver’s hand, a tiny part of me praying I can convince him that he is wrong. “I don’t care what you did in your previous life, what mistakes you made, what your regrets are. I only care about the boy standing before me, the one I gave every part of myself to! That was a special night to me, Olly, and still is, and you’re going to throw it all away on some petty vengeance.” I shake my head, trying to free myself of tears. I have cried too much already. I am tired of crying.

“I love you, Olly. I love you, I love you, I love you…” And as I keep repeating these three simple words, anger captures my heart in a fiery inferno knowing that what I say is the truth. Why is the heart so foolish? Why can the heart not let go when it knows it is supposed to?

Out of despair, my words of love turn to words of hate. If there is no turning back for Oliver, then the least I can do is free myself of him. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you…Purgatory!” The words taste bitter. I shake my head again.

Despite how much I want to hate him, I can only love him. There are too many good memories outweighing what he’s doing. I want only to fill the vengeance in his heart with my love.

“You have love, now. Why can’t you see that?”

Oliver tilts my chin and brings his lips to mine. I push him away, dragging my bare arm across my lips in an attempt to erase any kiss he has ever placed upon me. “This is what I love about you Amelia, your ardent passion, your willingness to do something. So you should understand why I will not turn back.”

He tries to kiss me again, but I step away from him until my back is against the railing. Calm passes through his eyes.

“To suddenly change my mind would snuff out that passion, and that isn’t who I am Amelia. When I start something, I finish it, no matter how heinous it may be. And believe me, I know this is heinous, but I have never felt so alive before.”

Oliver draws near me. I sidle against the railing to emphasize that I do not want him. He complies, stopping a foot from me.

“You’re throwing away everything,” I cry. Damn tears. I cannot hold them back. “Me, anyone who ever cared for you in this life, and the future you could have had.”

There is no saving him. Colette misread him. His love is deluded. He might believe he loves me, but his Exaltation latches on to any remote feeling that might evolve into love and nourishes it with lies until his victim—me—is branded.

His Exaltation makes him feel false love.

My words come out dark. “You do not love me.”

“How can you say that, Amelia?” He looks away from me. “You know I don’t want to, Amelia, but I have to.” He looks back at me, his eyes wide with tears he cannot cry because he is dead. “You don’t understand how much I want to end my suffering, and you’re the only one who can do that for me. That’s why I made all of this for you, these ripe plums, these bloomed flowers. You’ll have a beautiful place to die and turn into a Shadowman, and I can take you and guide you and love you.”

A strangled laugh slips out, one that must have been building in me this entire time. “Love me? You do not love me at all. Your Exaltation has led you into believing that you do.” I bite my bottom lip to suppress further laughter. “I understand you’re in pain, but I do not want to be your Exaltation! I don’t want to be anyone’s Exaltation!”

Shadows overtake Oliver’s entire demeanor. His gray eyes narrow and grow cold, and his mouth slips into a frown that is worse than Theosodore’s jagged smile. “You don’t love me then. If you did, you would want to do anything and everything to end my suffering, knowing that there is a life for you after this that does not have to interrupt the life you are living now.”

Our surroundings shift. Storm clouds overtake the clear blue sky, spitting out lightning and heavy rain. The plum trees shake themselves of their leaves, the plums dropping from the branches and landing as rotten plum spatter. The flowers wither into brown husks, their delicate frameworks beaten away by the heavy rainfall. The gentle heat turns searing. Ten minutes out here will graze my flesh with cherry-colored burns.

Oliver takes a step toward me, trapping me so that I cannot sidle away from him. He slams his lips against mine and thrusts his tongue in my mouth. I press my hands against his chest to push him off. He grabs my wrists and stays me. I bite his tongue. He slaps me. The slap feels like acid, and I cry out.

“Damn it, Amelia. Give me this. Let me enjoy you before you die.”

“No!” I ram my fist into his stomach.

Oliver grunts, but doesn’t let go of me. The force was too weak.

“Please, Oliver!”

He ignores my protests and presses his lips back to mine, one hand holding my wrist, the other wandering downward. He grips my bottom and holds me against the railing with the weight of his body. He licks my lips and pulls away, smiling.

“You’re beautiful when your face is so flushed.” He lets go of my bottom and brings up that hand to stroke my face. His fingers burn on my skin. “Tell me what you want, Amelia.” His tone is mocking.

I attempt to push him away, but he forces more of his weight on me. “I don’t want this!”

“Then what do you want? You want something. I think you want this.”

“I want things to be the way they were before!”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

Oliver grabs my wrists and throws me on to the wood. I scramble away. I can’t take Oliver on by myself. What was I thinking? He throws himself on top of me, pulling a scream from deep within my belly. He kisses me again, fiercer this time. His teeth graze my lips, his tongue chokes me, and his hands wander to places they do not have permission to be. I flail beneath him in a pathetic attempt to get him to release me. This is just like that time with Theosodore in the library. Exactly like that time. But this is Oliver, and when I’m with Oliver, I can’t think well.

Oliver snatches my hand and pulls it downward until it cups the thing between his legs. I look away, squeezing my eyes shut. “Why? Why are you doing this to me?”

“It’s going to take a while for you to turn, Amelia. I don’t plan to burn you because I want to be beside you and only you. I don’t want a pile of ashes. So let’s enjoy this while we can, hmm?”

He flips up my petticoats, undoes his trousers, and I lay back, squeeze my eyes shut, and let him have me. The pain is excruciating. I bite my bottom lip and sob. This is nothing like our first time. He finishes fast, and he pulls my limp body up and holds me, his head resting on my shoulder. “Thank you, Amelia. Thank you.”

He kisses me again, his lips rough and swollen, and I let him. I bring up a trembling hand that forms a fist. I tap his back; I can’t even punch him. Oliver grabs my hands and draws me to my feet. Pain grips my lower back. “Are you ready, Amelia? Are you ready to die?”

I almost nod, but when I look out into the stormy surroundings, I can’t become complacent with death. Not right now, not when so much is dependent on a love struck girl with a special, cursed power. A power that can stop Oliver. There is no time to become a victim.

Oliver raises a hand. The gazebo begins to quake, and through the white flooring erupt roots that capture me in the same cage Colette found herself victim to. Oliver produces a dagger, sending a thousand screams through me. How Colette managed to escape, I will never know. These roots are far more binding than a corset, and with the searing heat and the roughness digging into my skin, I fear I will faint in a matter of minutes.

Oliver touches the point of the dagger right where my heart is. “The heart is a rather hideous looking organ, but sentimentalists have turned it into a symbol of love.” Either he is tapping the point against my heart, or the heavy, fast beating is bouncing the dagger against me. “Many believe all emotion originates in the brain, yet, when we feel immense pain, the pain starts in the heart. Isn’t that peculiar? When you’re in so much grief, your heart hurts just as much. My heart doesn’t beat, though. I don’t feel the pain there. I feel the pain somewhere else.”

This is my last chance to convince him—otherwise, I will have to kill him. I have control of my fire. All I would have to do is imagine that single candle, and the fire will be there for me.

“I feel the pain in my heart. I feel it everywhere,” I say. “I feel the pain for you, knowing you want to relieve yourself of pain by choosing to destroy everything that you were.” I gulp. “It doesn’t have to be this way…Olly.”

His eyes fly open, his pupils shrinking to tiny pinpoints. “It has to be this way!”

He pulls the dagger back. The snarl coating his demeanor, the rage in his eyes, the lost air about him—they all tell me there truly is no turning back for him. I swallow tears as I blacken the world around me and conjure the single candle. I wrap my hand around the fire and scream as it touches my already raw skin from the searing heat of the sun.

When the stormy gray overtakes the blackness, I find the roots are in ashes around me, and I am on top of Oliver with the dagger in my hands, the tip pressing against his forehead. If his heart is already dead, then stabbing it will do no good. His brain must surely be alive though—something in Shadowmen must be alive to make them as animated as they are.

“A-Amelia,” Oliver says, his hands shaking, his eyes wide with fear. “Don’t do this. Please don’t do this. Please…” He draws his head in to kiss me, but it falls back down.

“You told me you didn’t want to kill me. Well, I don’t want to kill you, either, but you have left me no choice.” My tears fall on his face in little droplets. They are now his tears, the ones he is unable to cry. “This is what you’ve done to me.”

“Amelia—”

I cut him off by shoving the dagger into his forehead. He screams, and his body spasms. His gray eyes cloud over with black. Tarry black blood seeps from every opening in his body. I pull myself off him, leaving the dagger where it had stuck, and scream as his body disintegrates into charcoal black smoke that flies off into the now-winter sky. Nothing remains of Oliver, not even the clothes he wore. There is only the dagger, laying still and alone on the floor of the gazebo.

A torrent of tears flood my face, the most tears I think I have ever cried. I cry so hard that I fall to the floor and press my forehead against one of the wooden planks. My head pounds, but I let every single emotion tear through me, until I am reduced to a quiet, sobbing heap.

There is nothing left of Oliver. Nothing. He is nothingness, just like Sash, like Asch, like any other Shadowman who has died in this senseless battle. Everything that he was, everything that he could have been, gone, just like that. There will never be another person like him. There will never be—

I grab the dagger, tempted to tear out my heart in the hopes of destroying myself along with my pain. “Damn it, Olly! Why did you lead me to this? Why did you make me do it?”

I toss the dagger over the side of the gazebo, retreating back to the sobbing state I find comforting. Tearing out my own heart will not end the pain. Using pain to replace pain never does. As my sobs quiet down, a heavy hand presses upon my shoulder.

“Amelia?”

It is Theosodore.

“Amelia?”

When I give no response, he lifts me in his arms and cradles me as he steps down the gazebo steps.

“It’s over. Those who cling to Purgatory’s ideals are gone, and those who wanted anything to cling have retreated elsewhere. The city is in shambles, but it’s over.”

“How is it over so fast?” I ask. “I just—I just killed Oliver.”

“I am very powerful, Amelia. As is Colette. We killed the ones who wouldn’t relent, and those too weak to defend themselves against us gave up.”

I should be happy that it’s all over. Every bit of happiness, however, has been drained from me. There is no chemical in my body that will make me happy ever again.

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

“I will have to go into hiding. I think I will retreat to Belhame where no one knows me and where I can start anew.”

“Are you going to find a new victim for your Exaltation?”

His jagged smile returns. “In time, I will. For now, I will concentrate on rebuilding. I cannot go back to Cathedral Reims. Pope Gilford knows what I am. He has known for a while. Sneaky Bastard. He took it upon himself to stop this by trying to call down the might of Deus, as though He will intervene. That man has no more connection with Deus than a pauper does.”

“What of Colette?”

Theosodore’s smile drops. “She died fighting a powerful Shadowman. Not Gisbelle, of course. She was easy to dispose of.”

I should scream again. I have no energy, no will. She is another casualty. Just another casualty. But then, she hasn’t been Colette in a while, has she? She died when she turned. She was never Colette after that. How could she be? Her wants as a Shadowman differed from her wants as a human being. Her Exaltation would have eventually seen to that.

“And what of me?”

“That’s your decision from here. Be grateful for free will, Amelia, because when you die, your will is bound to Deus and Deus alone.”

“My decision from here. The only thing I have to go back to is Nathaniel. Will you take me to him?”

Theosodore sets me down at the entrance to the south transept. “I can’t. You are on your own from here.”

I look at the enormous portal doors. I have been on my own since I left three years ago. This is the first time in three years that I wish to go back in time and stop myself from leaving.

Regrets are useless, though. Repentance is what I will use the rest of my life for, even if this means seeking forgiveness in the darkest of places.

Chapter Thirty

Theosodore was right. This was my decision. Even if he was the one who led me here, I still chose to come back, even with the knowledge of what waits for me.

I sit in the basement with Nathaniel, huddled around a dying taper whose light wanes with the passing minutes. Theosodore had no reason to watch me walk free, just as Pope Gilford had no reason to let him walk free, at least without some sort of stipulation. The Professed Order is out with Pope Gilford gathering the witches Theosodore unveiled in exchange for keeping his life, a life Pope Gilford mistakenly believes belongs to a witch. Theosodore could have kept my being a witch a secret, but I doubt he did, even though I was the one who stopped the Shadowmen, even though we shared that same goal.

I am certain I am branded as Theosodore’s Exaltation. I can feel it in my bones. Freed from Oliver, I am his. He can’t have me, though. He will be all the way on the other side of Warbele, lusting after something he can never get. The only way to break that brand is to stop wanting me. That will not happen for Theosodore. The one other option, then, is to kill me. It will be only a matter of time before Pope Gilford comes back and accuses me of being a witch. Then I will be tortured. I will not let that happen, though. I will show everyone that I am a witch without fight.

Oliver told me nothing has to change when I become a Shadowman. This is a lie. Everything changed when Colette turned. I will accept becoming a Shadowman though. This life…it is no longer for me. This life never was for me. Life as a Shadowman may offer more stability because I will be bound by the will of someone else, and not bound by my own earthly wills. Serving Deus, too, will allow me to seek the repentance I desire. This life has nothing more to offer. I have nothing more to offer it.

Nathaniel falls into my lap, and faces my stomach, his hands curled beneath his head. “Amelia, what will we do from here, when they come back?”

I tangle my fingers in his hair, relishing in the warmth radiating from his scalp, the warmth I will no longer have when I turn. Best to cherish it now. “Cardinal Brandon, I’m certain, has something planned for you.” Theosodore had no reason to let Pope Gilford know Nathaniel is a witch. I am confident he is safe.

Nathaniel flips on his back, his eyes widening with worry. “Something planned for me? What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me, Nat. There is something out there for me. I don’t know what, but there is.”

He bolts upright and throws his arms around me. “Don’t talk like that, Amelia. Please? I can’t take this anymore. I can’t take not knowing what’s going to happen to us next. I need you.” He pulls away, his face painted with tears. I hope one day that same face will be painted with nothing but the smiles of a better life. “Why do you have to do this to me?”

The doors to the common area burst open. In white robes stands Nathaniel’s answer. Pope Gilford points at me, then gestures me forward, and I know this is it. This is the end of Amelia Gareth.

Pope Gilford has had boarded me in a cell for the past week, keeping me alive with the barest minimum of food and water. It’s enough so that I am breathing, but not so much that I don’t feel the pain of my own existence. I haven’t felt much this past week. No bitterness or resentment, anger or sadness. Nothing. I have only wished for this day, today, to come. The day I will be executed. I will not be burned. Mother Aurelia begged for a humane death: beheading.

My jailer brings me my final cup of water. I never caught his name, or even what he looks like. He is a faceless thing. “That pretty little head of yours will be lying in a cushioned casket. You’ll be all but forgotten.”

I hold no ill-will toward him.

“Oh, and you have several visitors.” He clinks his keys against the door, teasing me with tempting freedom I no longer care for. “Make it meaningful.”

His laughter echoes down the corridor.

A slat opens from the outside. In peeks the teary blues of Nathaniel. “I-I—” He cracks, covering his face with a dirty hand. “I should have saved you.” A pair of unlined hands gently move him out of the way. Cardinal Brandon’s eyes replace Nathaniel’s.

“He will miss you, you know.”

“I know.” I raise my voice. “I love you, Nat. Always remember that. I will be here for you, and some day, I will come back to you, one way or another. I promise that.”

He speaks up, though his voice is small. “Promise?”

“I will come back.” And I will because I can. “This will not be the end.”

It is never the end for a Shadowman until all that is left is nothingness.

Cardinal Brandon speaks up. “Also, I am resigning from being a Cardinal. I will simply be Pastor Brandon, from now on.” He lowers his voice. “I’m going to—I’m going to open a sort of safe house for witches. Nathaniel will be able to participate. It is now sanctioned law that all witches be executed, and the search for them is more fierce than ever. I have done things in the past I am not proud of. This is my way to repent.”

I smile at Pastor Brandon. “That sounds like a wonderful idea.” I close my eyes, imagining a safe place for Nathaniel. “That is a wonderful way to repent.” I open them. “Tell Isis to take care of Nat, Pastor Brandon. He will need her, now more than ever.”

“I will.”

I raise my voice again. “Nat, no matter what happens in your life, hold on to all your feelings. Don’t let a single one slip from your grasp.”

They leave me alone.

Hours pass. Mother Aurelia appears around what must be evening, for I can hear the bells ring for the third time, signaling evening Liturgy. My execution awaits me, and I suppose she is brazen enough to fetch me.

“Amelia,” she says, her voice soft and sad, “it is time.”

She opens my cell, bounds my wrists with rope, and takes me down the corridor.

“This is no easy thing for me, Amelia, to see one of my own girls executed, in spite of innocence filling every bit of her soul.”

I almost want to laugh. “I am no saint.”

“Regardless of what you think, Amelia, I saw that desire to change the world in you from day one. I never once saw it wane. When you die, Amelia, pray for that same change you came to Cathedral Reims for. Whatever reason you came here, pray that your wishes will one day come true. Do not let your dream die with you. Speak your dream out loud, if you must.”

Mother Aurelia says nothing more after that. She is not one for sentimentalism; however, I can tell she does not approve of what Pope Gilford wants to do to me. She is powerless to stop this, though. Pope Gilford is the merest of mere men, but he will only discover that on his own death bed one day.

Mother Aurelia brings me out to the steps of the west portal, where sawdust—to catch my blood—and a chopping block with a cloaked ax-man await me. Although this execution is far more humane than being burned, it is still horrific. All of Malva has turned out for my execution—not that they had much of a choice. They will later attend a mass witch burning. Parson Hill will not have a spot of grass when this day is through. At least I can die knowing these people do not want to see me die. I do not want to look at them, though. Nathaniel is out there somewhere, and I do not wish to see his face.

My father may even be out there. I have not seen him since the day I left to find Nathaniel.

Mother Aurelia hands me over to the ax-man, who pushes me to my knees and plants my head on the chopping black. He moves my braids out of the way, my bare neck exposed to the biting winter that still pervades Malva. I prefer this to the blooming plum orchard Oliver brought about, because at least this is real.

“Do you have any final words?” the ax-man asks.

I close my eyes, unwilling to leave these people with any amount of hope, for who knows if hope ever existed in the first place. I must though. It is what Mother Aurelia wished of me.

“My name is Amelia Gareth. I died at the age of eighteen, on this cold winter day. I wish for you to never forget my name. I wish for you to never forget my dreams. This world will change.”

A sob cuts through the silence. It is Mother Aurelia. Her stoic composure has cracked, and I have been blessed with this human side of her on the day of my death. It is a gift, one I will never forget.

“All right, does anyone else have any final words?”

I expect to hear Nathaniel’s voice. Thank Deus I don’t.

“All right then.” He raises the ax. “Three…”

My life should fly out on a film reel. It stays locked in the prison of my mind.

“Two…”

It is because death is all there is for me.

“One…”

Amelia Gareth will die today. But she is a star. She will scatter. And she will be reborn. A new star.

“Ready…”

I am—

Epilogue

I am Dervla Adair. The name means ‘daughter of bile’ in some forgotten language. A new name for a reborn girl.

It has been five years since my death. Death changes those who are unfortunate enough to remember how they died. Annarelius, or Anna as I call her, told me it took a year for me to change because I was not burnt. For some reason, she protected my body during the change, and when I came to, I discovered Anna and I were hiding deep in the woods. I suppose she wanted to prevent further maiming of my body so that I did not appear like a rag doll when I changed.

Because I was beheaded, I bear a thick scar around my neck from where the axe sliced.

“It could have been worse,” Anna told me. “They wanted to cremate your body, but I saved it. I know you want to change things, and so do I. We should try to change this world together.”

And so, here we are, five years later, back in Malva, where everything started. The city is slowly being rebuilt, but people’s lives are still fractured, and their patchwork hearts match the patchwork layout of the city. I can’t even tell the backstreets from the main road anymore.

Anna steps out beside me. Since she has already infused herself with human blood, her green eyes stand out wildly against the gray sadness of Malva. “Do you think we will have to destroy this place again?”

I dislodge a cobblestone with my steel-toed boot. “We will have to do whatever we can to free ourselves from this pain, to free all Shadowmen from their suffering.” I stop toying with the stone. “This isn’t just about us, Anna. Even if we have to level this entire city, we’re saving everyone in the end, especially from themselves and their bitter hatred.”

Anna sighs. “I know, but—”

“But nothing.” I have hardened over the years. “I wanted to die so I could have the power to do something, and now that I do, I intend to make well on that promise. Sacrifices will happen, Anna. You should understand that more than anyone.”

Anna gulps. “I do.”

“Then we have to strip the city bare to find this girl and kill her. Theosodore said it is this girl that will break this endless cycle of suffering.”

“But why someone so innocent, so young?”

“It is Deus who put the fate on this girl. She is Deus’ daughter, so Theosodore says.”

Anna frowns and casts her eyes downward. “It’s not fair that everything has led up to this, that we were given such special powers to complete our Exaltation, and then sent on a goose chase to find a child who never asked for any of this.”

I give her a sad smile. “She is your Exaltation, Anna. You will be freeing us. She will be a martyr, remembered.” I pause, then let out a sigh. “None of us asked for any of this.”

“I know, and you’ve already freed yourself.”

“I did.” My Exaltation was simple: kill my father. When Shadowmen change, we feel the Exaltation in our blood. I’m not sure why Deus would do this to me, but I fulfilled it nonetheless. It was that Exaltation that hardened me, made me so single-minded that whatever I must do to achieve a goal becomes top priority.

I no longer cry. I can no longer cry. But I have no more urges to cry.

I begin walking down the main road that reminds me of a collage. “Are you ready, Anna?”

She nods. “Where should we light the first fire?”

“Let’s start with Cathedral Reims.” I close my eyes. “If we have to flush out every last person in Malva to find her, then so be it.”

We light the first fire. The smoke climbs high to the stars. Those stars have born witness to the thousands of years of human tragedy and suffering. When all is said and done, we will die into dust that the stars will take back into themselves. Or we will die to be used once again by Deus.

However we die, Anna and I will make certain we all die free.

 

Amber Skye Forbes is a dancing writer who prefers pointe shoes over street shoes, leotards over skirts, and ballet buns over hairstyles. She loves striped tights and bows and will edit your face with a Sharpie if she doesn’t like your attitude.  She lives in Augusta, Georgia where she writes dark fiction that will one day put her in a psychiatric ward…again.

But she doesn’t care because her cat is a super hero who will break her out.


When Stars Die - Book 1 of The Stars Trilogy

The City of Malva is rife with puritanical hatred for witches. It is said they embody the Seven Deadly sins of mankind. Amelia's only chance of saving her brother Nathaniel, a born witch, is to become a professed nun at Cathedral Reims. Enduring a series of trials including starvation, isolation, physical abuse and blood-sucking leeches, she will sacrifice all that she is to save him. Complicating all of this is the fact that Amelia can see what is lurking in the shadows. Shadowmen, seeking witches like Nathaniel to join their ranks. This group of Shadowmen begins planning. The results could be devastating. Oliver Cromwell, a dashing priest at Cathedral Reims, is the only one who can protect Amelia, her brother and save Malva. Yet, he may prove to be more dangerous than the shadows themselves.

  • Author: GnomeOnPig
  • Published: 2017-05-04 16:05:15
  • Words: 83329
When Stars Die - Book 1 of The Stars Trilogy When Stars Die - Book 1 of The Stars Trilogy