Chapter 92: A Sanctuary of Sin
“That’s quite a storm you’ve brought with you, Father Alden,” Head Sister Temperance commented as she led him past the congregation room. “It’s fortunate you were able to find us. What in the name of the Saints were you doing so far from the capital without a horse or escort?”
“My—horse went lame in a field close by,” Alden answered as he followed, shivering and dripping mud and water along the chapel floor. “I—require—food and—dry clothes—a new horse—”
“You require rest and someone to tend to that eye,” Temperance interrupted sternly. “But, of course, our Sisters will be happy to provide whatever supplies you require, Father.”
“Thank you,” Alden muttered, too weary to protest.
“There’s a room for traveling guests this way. I hope you will find it comfortable enough. I’ll have one of our sisters bring a fresh set of clothes right away so you can change and some medicine for that injury. Then, if you wish, you can either join the sisters in the dining hall or eat in peace in your own room. I’ll leave that up to you.”
“You are—very kind, Sister Temperance, but—I would prefer to dine alone. I must—rest and rise early—to continue my journey.”
“It seems your departure is rather urgent,” Temperance observed as she passed through a door that revealed a narrow staircase. “I pray your visit to Lafeara has not uncovered anything too dangerous.”
“You’ll forgive me for not—sharing the details—but it is—of the utmost importance,” Alden muttered tiredly as he leaned upon the stairwell railing. He pulled back the handkerchief she had given him from the injury below his eye. Blood and mud graced the otherwise simple white cotton linen.
“Even without your explanation, I can already guess,” Temperance replied with a shrug.
They moved to the side as they reached the second landing so that two sisters, carrying baskets of linen, could descend the steps. Alden noticed the nuns staring at him but avoided meeting their gaze. He could only imagine what a sight he must be covered in blood and mud.
“Since you sent word through the Abbess to request a witch hunter,” Temperance continued as she turned left down a hallway. “I can only assume your business involves the presence of witches in Lafeara.”
“How did you—”
“As the head of Averly Chapel, I have a somewhat close relationship to the Abbess and hear many things. Both you and your hound rested here on your journey to Lafeara. It was not hard to put two and two together.”
“Of course,” Alden echoed hesitantly. “And what else have you gleaned from your observations?”
Temperance smirked as she stopped by a door which she unlocked and pushed open. “That you were forced to leave in a hurry and without your witch hunter. That you met with some pestilence upon the road before you arrived here. The state of your clothes, the blood and wounds on your face, and the fact that you lied about your horse going lame—” she paused and raised a sardonic brow at him “—would all suggest that you brought not just a storm, but trouble to my chapel.”
“I apologize, Sister,” Alden said hurriedly as he pulled back his hood. “As you have deduced, I encountered something more dangerous than a coven-witch in Lafeara.”
Temperance snorted and shook her head. “No need to apologize, you have your reasons for being secretive, and I would never turn away a member of the church in any storm.”
“Then,” Alden said hesitantly, “could I trouble you, Sister, to keep my presence here a secret and to provide me with a fresh horse for my journey. I would leave at first light before trouble finds me again.”
“And will your witch hunter be rejoining you before you return to Zarus?”
Alden halted with one foot over the threshold. He turned slowly and met her perceptive gaze. “Actually, if that witch hunter should come looking, it would be best he never knew I was here.”
Temperance studied him silently for a moment then shrugged as she waved him into the room. “I shall see that your arrival and departure are kept discreet. Please, be at peace and rest your weary body and soul. You are safe here, Father.”
A fire brazier was already lit in the corner of the room. The warm glow illuminated the far stone wall while smoke filtered through an iron vent along the upper corner. Alden unclasped and dropped his soaking cloak in a puddle by the door and then shuffled towards its warmth. He exhaled in relief as the smoky scent of saffron and cinnamon washed over him. The blaze restored life to his cold, stiff fingers.
Alden tossed the soiled handkerchief onto the floor and stared into the crackling wood as his thoughts darkened. A sense of trepidation sank into his cold bones as he considered the possibility that Nero might have survived. He shook his head quickly. ‘Even a coven of witches can’t take down a pure-blood.’ Somehow, even that knowledge offered him no respite as the storm continued to howl outside the dark glass window.
‘What if—what if Nero was able to weaken the Emperor’s bastard with the Witch Star?’
Alden chewed the nail of his thumb in a weak attempt to stop his teeth from chattering. Cold darkness seemed to shroud the walls. A sense of being observed by unfriendly eyes crawled up his spine, but the room and window were empty. He moved closer to the fire. ‘I should rest tonight and leave early tomorrow as planned.’
Determined as he was, Alden knew it would require a strong drink to shut his eyes. Hopefully, with morning light, the world would seem less sinister.
Once his fingers were adequately warm, he unbuttoned the collar and front of his priest’s robes, then loosened his belt. A modest but comfortable looking bed rested opposite the brazier. Alden stared at it with tired, longing eyes and dragged shaking fingers through his damp brown hair.
‘If Nero is alive, he could be out there looking for me?’
“Bastard can’t track me in the rain,” Alden muttered as he gingerly touched the welts and cuts along his neck and ears. “Perhaps he’s even running scared now that his secret has been discovered.”
The bedroom door opened, and Alden jumped as he spun around. Two nuns stepped inside, one with a tray of food, the other a stack of clothes. They both paused as they took in Alden’s startled expression.
“Excuse us, Father, we should have knocked,” said the first nun as she hastily moved to place the tray of food on a small desk in the corner. “Some vegetable venison stew to warm you up and wine to help you sleep.”
“Bless you, Sister, you have my thanks,” Alden said, almost reverently. He caught the second nun staring at his exposed chest and hastily crossed his arms. “Ahem—are there no other priests or deacons here?”
“No, Father,” the second nun replied. She was younger, perhaps twenty, and despite the dim light of the brazier, he could tell she was quite pretty. Her doe-like brown eyes stared at him with an expression that was both curious and alluring. “Since the Abbess took office, fewer priests have applied to fill the necessary positions here in Lafeara, so the Abbess took it upon herself to appoint nuns with suitable experience and background to manage the province chapels.”
“I see.” Alden frowned as he turned back to the brazier. ‘Just how many rules had Abbess Mercy gotten away with bending since she took over after Bishop Currier.’
It was only natural that priests would be reluctant to serve under a woman—even an Abbess. That was why a Bishop was required to keep them in order. But Lafeara’s last Bishop died of old age more than ten years ago, and neither the royal family nor the Abbess had requested a replacement from Zarus. ‘Is it any wonder witches have returned to a country that has forgotten to strengthen its religious backbone.’
The bedroom door closed behind him as the nuns left. Alden fanned himself and stepped back from the brazier. Rain still dripped from his robes and hair, but the chill of the storm had finally left him. Instead, the room seemed suddenly stifling and hot. He turned slowly and started when he discovered the doe-eyed nun still waited by the door with her stack of clothes.
“Ah—you can leave those on the bed,” Alden instructed quickly. He fanned himself furiously as he turned back to the fire, suddenly aware of a growing discomfort beneath his robes.
“Shall I wash the garments you’re wearing?” the nun asked lightly. He heard her footsteps behind him and the soft ruffle of her habit as she moved.
“Ah, no need,” Alden replied with a glance over his shoulder.
She caught his look and smiled. ‘Was she wearing makeup? Her lips were oddly—’ he stared blankly at the backside she presented to him as the nun set down the clothes and leaned over the bed to smooth out the sheets.
“Avert thy eyes from sin!” the voice of his old ecclesiastical teacher rang sharply through Alden’s ears as he spun back to the fire.
“Should I help you change?”
“What?” Alden half turned towards her and caught himself. ‘Does she think I’m a noble who doesn’t know how to change my own clothes?’ He cleared his throat and shook his head. “No! No, I—can manage—just fine—on my own—thank you.” He clenched his fists in a silent effort to stop himself from babbling. The bulge within his damp pants was growing uncomfortably hot the longer he stood by the fire, but he dare not move away. “You may go now.”
“Are you sure?” Her voice tickled against his neck as her hands slid around his shoulders. Alden’s body went rigid as she pulled the unbuttoned robe down his arms and slid his hands free. “Oh!” she gasped softly.
Her cold fingers touched the wounds on his neck, and he shivered.
“You’re hurt, Father. Of course, the medicine!” She stepped back and pulled a bottle from her robes. “You cannot apply this yourself. Come sit by the bed.”
Alden’s lips fumbled uselessly for a protest as the nun pulled him towards the foot of the bed and then pushed him down on the wooden trunk. He sat uncomfortably with his arms crossed over his embarrassing predicament as she opened the bottle and, using her handkerchief, dabbed ointment against the cuts on his face.
“Did you get into a fight with a cat?” she asked with a playful smile.
‘She—smells odd—is that perfume?’ Alden’s gaze shifted from her shoulder to study her face. ‘And she is wearing makeup! How absurd!’
“Just a few more,” the nun murmured as she turned her handkerchief over, applied more medication, and then shifted to the other side of his face. Her knee brushed against his leg, and Alden bit his lip. “Oh, no, does it hurt?”
“You realize—” he said haltingly. “That you are in a room—with a half-dressed man?”
“Hmm, the cut under your eye is particularly worrisome.” She slid her fingers through his hair then yanked his head to one side as she dabbed at the swollen flesh that all but forced his right eye closed.
Alden fought against the temptation of her touch, voice, scent, and physical closeness. ‘Blessed Saints—were all Lafearian nuns this—provocative?’ It wasn’t like he could see much of her beneath the formless habit that covered everything except her hands and face.
“Avert thy eyes from sin!”
Alden shut his eyes tight, but that only made him more aware of her touch, her smell, her breath, and the feel of her fingers trailing down his chest.
His eyes snapped open as he caught her hand in his. “What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Her dark eyes entrapped him as he gapped at her raven black locks, no longer hidden beneath their religious binds. Sultry scarlet lips twisted mockingly as she chuckled and tightened her grip on his damp hair. “You’ve had a harrowing journey, Father,” she whispered as she leaned in closer. “Allow me to chase away the cold.”
Alden froze. ‘Was this—some sort of illusion?’
Her mouth felt very real as it pressed against his. When she pulled back, he watched those mysterious lips move in a voiceless whisper. He neither recognized nor understood the language she spoke. As her sharp nails trailed over his hips and loosened the drawstrings of his trousers, a jolt of pleasure raced down his spine—and all thoughts of Nero, the pure-blood, Jericho, and even his priestly vows faded into the depths of her twilight eyes.