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Once Bitten: A Dragon-Shifter Fantasy Romance by Viola Rivard (1)

Chapter One

There was no light to mark the passage of time, so Eloisa used the air. The air was like a thin soup. Over the first few days, she had picked out the meaty bits and was now left to subsist only on broth. No matter how much she took in, she was never fully satisfied. If she alternated between deep, gasping breaths and quick shallow ones, she could sometimes trick her mind into believing that she wasn’t suffocating.

It was called The Dark Room because the darkness was their punishment. Eloisa had been there many times and she found the lack of fresh air and food to be far more troublesome than the dark.

She didn’t mind the darkness.

She never told anyone that, not even Selia. If word got to the Sisters, they were liable to blind her, just to teach her a lesson.

The first few days in The Dark Room, when the air was still substantive and the smell of her chamber pot had yet to become sickening, Eloisa would lay in the center of the room and experience something akin to freedom. With no light to show her the walls or the heavy padlocked door, she could imagine herself to be almost anywhere.

Her imagination was a double-edged sword. As the days pressed on, she would start to hear voices. Sometimes, she would wake to the sounds of whispering. The whispers would start in the corners of the room, slowly closing in on her with each day that passed, until they were rasping in her ears.

They’ve forgotten about you.

You’re going to die in here.

She was not the only Daughter to claim to have heard the voices. Selia believed they were the voices of the Daughters that had died in The Dark Room. Eloisa knew that they wouldn’t leave her to die in there, but the words still held weight because in a broader sense she had been forgotten and she could very well die without ever setting foot on land again.

It was seven days before the door opened. Eloisa knew this by the burning in her lungs each time she inhaled the stale air. There was a heavy clanging sound, followed by the scrape of metal on stone as the door was forced open. The Dark Room was in the lowest level of the tower. The only light that touched the room would be from the Sister’s lantern.

Eloisa wanted to cry as she took in her first breath of fresh air. She wanted to leap to her feet and run to the halls like a fish touched to the water, as she had the first time she’d been freed from The Dark Room. She had nearly gone blind that time, spending another week in near darkness as her eyes recovered.

Today, she maintained her dignity. With her eyes closed, she pulled herself up into a sitting position and waited for Sister Verity to place the blindfold around her eyes. She knew it was Sister Verity by her scent. Most of the Daughters could not tell the Sisters apart by scent alone, as they all smelled of the same starched linens, cleaning powders, and ginsroot ink. But unlike them, Eloisa had no human blood dulling her senses.

By scent alone, she knew more about Sister Verity than the Sister perhaps knew about herself. Her mother had been a lowborn human and her father had been a member of the Castor house—a house that prided itself in the purity of its bloodline. She would have come to The Tower of Light at the age of ten as they all did, both due to her aurasight and so that her father could avoid the shame of having an impure child.

She also knew that unlike some of the other Sisters, Sister Verity was not a hypocrite. Eloisa would never smell the scents of sweet cakes, chocolates, or spirits on her breath. She did not sugar her tea, nor spice her porridge. She didn’t line her robes with flower petals, nor did she burn scented oils in her room. She lived by Truth, never painting, accepting only what was.

Though she had no great fondness of her, Eloisa respected her.

As soon as the blindfold was in place, Sister Verity patted Eloisa’s shoulder.

“On your feet, Daughter.”

Eloisa’s legs didn’t want to support her. She hadn’t been good about exercising them this time, and they’d begun to languish. Coupled with a week of food deprivation and she had to hold on to Sister Verity’s arm to keep from falling down.

“I will take you to the stairs, but no further. You must make The Climb back to Her Light on your own.”

Eloisa nodded, though she knew that she wouldn’t be left to die if she couldn’t climb. Sister Verity would not lift a hand to help her, but High Sister Ionia wouldn’t allow her to die.

Something on her face must have given this away, because Sister Verity clicked her tongue.

“You think you are above the rules. We are all equal under Her eyes.”

Eloisa lacked the willpower for tact. “If we were all equal, no one would have the power to enslave me.”

“Is that what you think you are? A slave?” Sister Verity let out a humorless laugh. “What do you know of slavery, Daughter? Have you ever even seen a slave?”

Eloisa let go of her and hobbled forward. “There are a great many things I have never seen.”

In all the times she’d been in The Dark Room, she never counted the steps of The Climb. Selia said that there were over two thousand. Eloisa just took them one at a time.

Some Daughters claimed to have revelations upon reaching the top. Eloisa was of the mind that they were merely experiencing an incomparable sense of relief. Whenever she reached the top, she had only a vague sense of disorientation. Her legs kept wanting to lift up for the next step, only to fall flat on the ground.

In spite of the blindfold, she didn’t need Sister Verity to guide her once they reached the top. She knew where they were going and she knew the way, just as she could have navigated to any corner of the tower with her eyes closed. Consummately curious, she’d explored almost every nook and cranny of the tower in her first decade. By her semi-centennial, she’d explored even the parts of the tower that were off-limits, and the parts that had been forgotten over the ages.

The worship hall was teeming with whispers as she entered. In her mind’s eye, she could see two hundred daughters clustered in the center of the room, their gray veils pulled back as they spoke in hushed tones. They would be flanked by two dozen Sisters dressed in white and faces drawn with reproach.

She almost stumbled on her way up to the dais. She caught herself, though the effort was wasted as she walked only a few steps more before she was made to kneel. Head pressed to the floor, she waited for her orders. A moment later, she heard the soft taps of High Maiden Ionia’s slippers.

“Speak your apology, Daughter.”

The words came easily to her, as she’d said them so many times in the past.

“I disseminated blasphemy,” she said. “I defiled the house of The Mother and polluted the minds of Her Daughters. I plead Her forgiveness, and that She might cleanse me of my wickedness and permit me back into Her Light.”

Predictably, the goddess was nowhere to be heard. In the ensuing silence, Eloisa wondered how many times one could be cleansed before the wickedness began to sink into their flesh. How many times would she be allowed back into The Light before they left her to die in darkness?

A moment later, she heard High Maiden Ionia proclaim, “By Her Light, you are forgiven, Daughter.”

* * *

Eloisa dropped her books down onto the floor with enough force to make Selia jump.

“I was behind before my penitence. How will I ever get caught up now?”

Eloisa grasped her veil, and in her anger she forgot that it was still clasped to her head. When she tried jerking it off, she received several stabs of pain along her skull as her hair was nearly pulled from the roots. With a growl of frustration, she set to the task of undoing the clasps one at a time, ignoring Selia’s poorly concealed laughter.

When she finally settled down, Selia asked, “I take it that none of the Sisters were willing to offer reprieve this time?”

Selia was stretched out on her cot, wearing only her undergarments. Their room was the only place they were permitted to wear the beige, loose-fitting pants and tunic, though Selia often wore them beneath her Lightlace as the material was more comfortable. Eloisa never dared to risk penitence for such a minor comfort. Her luck was not half as good as Selia’s.

“Only Sister Talin, and I suspect that’s because she doesn’t feel like reading another assessment on the intricacies of middle-era Asanai property laws.”

“Oh,” Selia said, putting a hand to her head. “I swear, that was the most boring assessment I’ve written in two decades. Consider yourself fortunate.”

“Hardly. I have two veracity assessments on Hici city-state decrees, and a counter-truth on some vague piece of Ude religious scripture. Somehow, I’m supposed to do all of that while keeping up on this week’s studies and…and I’m just so exhausted.”

It had been on the tip of her tongue to mention the trauma of The Dark Room. Her mind was never quite right in the days after leaving it. The last time, it had taken her nearly a month to stop hearing voices and seeing distorted auras. Even now, she could see ribbons of no less than six different colors dancing around Selia’s head and shoulders, where usually there was only a pale green.

“I can give you my notes,” Selia offered. “You can work on your assessments during grace day.”

Her temper having already cooled, Eloisa folded her veil with care and placed it on the end of her cot. Only as she began removing her Lightlace was she able to force her next words out.

“I have no grace days this month. Sister Verity has assigned me floor duties.”

Eloisa had yet to recover from the indignity of her assignment. The Tower went by the Atolian calendar, which gave them ten days in each week and three weeks in each month. The tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth of each month was grace day, the one day each week when they didn’t have studies from dawn to darkness. The day was meant to be spent in quiet contemplation of Light, Truth, and the goddess Phaeda. Eloisa mostly spent them mentally recovering from the agony of nine days of nonstop studies.

“Oh,” Selia said, bringing her hand to her mouth. “I’m so sorry. Well, at least you can’t get into trouble while you’re washing floors.”

“I wouldn’t put it past myself,” Eloisa said.

She folded her Lightlace and placed it beside her veil, before climbing into the cot. The salty ocean breeze flowed through the room and out into the hallway, but she kept herself uncovered, enjoying the feel of flowing air on her extremities.

Their room, like nearly all bedchambers in The Tower of Light, had no door. A century ago, she had probably found this disconcerting, though she couldn’t much remember those days anymore. After fifty years as a Child, crammed in the lower dormitories with dozens of other girls, her little room with Selia felt like a slice of paradise. Now and again, a Sister, Daughter, or the odd Child tasked with dusting or floor duties would pass by, but Eloisa would hear them long before they overheard whatever blasphemy she and Selia were muttering. There wasn’t a woman in the tower, not even High Sister Ionia, who possessed Eloisa’s pedigree.

There were no adornments in their room. Not a rug on the stone floor, or a painting on the stone wall, and certainly no mirrors. There were only the two cots with their hemp blankets and the nightstand between them, a single lamp resting on it for reading light. Below the nightstand were pens, ink, paper, matches, the bottle with their weekly oil ration, and two of their most frequently referenced scripture books. Aside from their clothes, the books were the closest things they had to belongings, but even they could be confiscated at any time and returned to the library from which they’d been on extended loan.

Selia reached over to snuff out the lamplight. A beam of moonlight came in through the window, passing just above Eloisa’s cot. She lifted her hands to make a shadow puppet of a dragon lowering itself onto Selia’s cot. She’d gotten quite good at it over the years, and sometimes cast them into the hall to frighten passing Children. Coupled with her less-practiced sound effects, she could almost always get a laugh out of Selia, but tonight her friend offered only a sad smile.

Sighing, Eloisa put her hands down at her sides and stared up at the ceiling. She knew what Selia was thinking. Each time Eloisa returned from her penitence, Selia would ask her the same questions.

‘Why did you do it again?’

‘Why can’t you just stop?’

‘What’s wrong with you?’

Eloisa had never had a good answer for any of those questions, and if the heavy silence was any indication, Selia had finally tired of asking them.

“I took my blindfold off an hour after The Climb,” Eloisa said, her eyes still fixed on the ceiling.

“I know, I was there. You could have gone blind.”

“I wanted to go blind. I hoped for it. It feels like that’s the only way I could keep from doing it again.”

It was Selia’s turn to sigh. “Eloisa, stop it.”

“I’m not sensationalizing.”

“Maybe not, but you’ve painted the truth so much that you can’t see it clearly.”

Eloisa turned to her, at once angry and desperate. “Then what is the truth?”

Selia returned her stare. “The truth is that you’re maladapted. Instead of learning to manage your urges, as the rest of us did, you indulged them and now they’ve spiraled beyond what you think you can control. You need to stop. At first, it’s going to seem hard, but it does get easier. If you stop feeding the fire, it will die.”

Eloisa rolled onto her back so that her glare would once again be directed at the ceiling. “If I’m maladapted, then so are you. I’ve seen the pictures you draw during Sister Clarine’s lectures.”

She heard Selia huff. “Doodles of ball gowns can hardly compare to depictions of naked men. One gets you cleaning duties, the other gets you six days in The Dark Room, or I guess in your case, both.”

Eloisa could have sworn she was sinking into the bed. The comparison had been a stretch, but it still felt unfair.

Selia lowered her voice as she went on. “Just…keep it in your head. We all have those sorts of thoughts; we just don’t commit them to paper where they can be used against us.”

“If everyone has those thoughts, isn’t that a sign that what we’re feeling is natural?”

“Of course, it’s natural. But so is greed, gluttony, sickness, and killing. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s right. And I’m not saying that…that is on par with those other things. I just want you to remember that we’re above all of that.”

Selia was not usually so dogmatic, and Eloisa suspected that it had something to do with their approaching centennial. In three weeks, they would be concluding their time as Daughters and taking their places as Sisters. Of course, before that, they would have to speak their Truths. If their Truths were deemed insufficient, they’d spend another fifty years waiting for the next ceremony. All of the Daughters were on edge at the prospect, which was probably why Fara had been so quick to report Eloisa’s latest indiscretion.

When they’d been Children in their fortieth year, Fara had written a story in the margins of her prayer book called A Prince in the Tower. By the time Sister Verity had confiscated the book, nearly every Child in their dormitory had read the salacious story, and they’d gotten several lashes for their indiscretions. Fara had gotten six days in The Dark Room, but someone must have miscalculated the dates because no one had come for her until the morning of the eighth day. No one could say for certain what had happened to Fara, but the muscles on one side of her face had gone lax and never recovered. Fara had also never reoffended, though Eloisa wouldn’t have pegged her for a snitch, given her own terrible experience.

“Have you given much thought to your Truth?” Eloisa asked.

Selia allowed the subject change. “Only every other second of every day. I still haven’t the faintest idea what I’m going to say to Phaeda, if she’s even there.” Wryly, she asked, “How about you? Were you able to find enlightenment in the darkness?”

Eloisa snorted. “If only. I’m hoping Sister Clarine was right. That when I go before Phaeda, my Truth will suddenly become clear to me.”

“If that were the case, no one would have to repeat their time as a Daughter.”

Eloisa knew she should be more concerned about the ceremony. While the other Daughters were excited about becoming Sisters, Eloisa had never bought into the fantasy of climbing the ranks within the tower. Each rung, from Child, to Daughter, to Sister, to Maiden, and even High Maiden was its own sort of servitude. The only difference was that she would have more people to lord over. All she cared about was staying with Selia, regardless of whether they spoke their Truths and became Sisters or failed and remained as Daughters.

They stayed up a little while longer, talking about the things Eloisa had missed out on during her days away. Selia never asked about The Dark Room. Eloisa couldn’t tell if this was because Selia was afraid it would distress her, or if she thought that Eloisa wasn’t affected by it anymore.

Selia was the first to say goodnight. Eloisa repeated the phrase, but doubted she’d be able to sleep.

Eloisa remained awake long after Selia’s breaths became slow and even. She tried several times to close her eyes, but she could only stand the darkness for so long. Though she reminded herself that she didn’t fear the dark, she couldn’t resist lifting her hand to the shaft of moonlight and holding it up until her arm began to ache.

She considered lighting the lamp at her bedside, but knew that it would be a horrible waste. Grace day, when they received their weekly rations, was still three days out and if she fell asleep with the lamp oil burning, there would be nothing to light their room with for the next two nights, two nights in which she would need to write her assessments and her counter-truth.

I wish I were a man.

It was a blasphemous thought in its own right, but in Eloisa’s mind it was a mere stepping stone to more sinful thoughts.

A dragonkind male would have no trouble seeing in the darkness. Unlike in humans, where males and females were nearly identical save for their sex organs and a few superficial differences, the dragonkind sexes were as different as light and darkness.

As a girl, Eloisa had been taught that males were superior in almost every way, and nothing she’d witnessed had refuted this. Males were larger, stronger, and incapable of contracting sickness. Their bodies could not be scarred and the stronger among them could even regenerate limbs.

And of course, most obvious of all, they could phase.

Female dragonkind shared only a few traits with their male counterparts. They were long-lived—functionally immortal if their bloodline was pure enough. They also had heightened senses of smell, hearing, and vision, though their keen eyesight couldn’t pierce the veil of night as a man’s could. Their healing was superior to a human’s, but with a little creativity, it was easy enough to scar, blind, or otherwise permanently maim them.

And of course, most obvious of all, they could not phase.

As a girl, it made perfect sense to Eloisa that males were superior because males were the only ones who could harness the magic that allowed them to phase into their dragon forms. Throughout the decade of her youth, she’d seen her father, his knights, and even her baby brother phase into dragons and seeing it had never ceased to take her breath away. She had felt humble before the great and powerful beasts, and had believed as she was taught, both by society and by her mother, that she was to keep her head down and her words soft. The world belonged to the dragonkind men, as did their females.

The only advantage females had over males was their aurasight, though men had worked hard to eradicate the ability over the centuries. It was the first truth she’d learned in the tower, and Eloisa still wasn’t sure if she’d fully internalized it. Surely, if she had, she wouldn’t find herself so often preoccupied with thoughts of men. Of holding their roughened hands, of touching their hot skin, and of kissing their lips.

As her thoughts drifted, Eloisa ran her fingers over her lips. It was something she did often on the nights when she couldn’t sleep. She had never kissed anyone on the lips, not even Selia. She sometimes heard of Daughters exchanging kisses, some just to see what it was like, others as a prelude to outright fornication. Eloisa had never held such interests and if Selia did, she kept them to herself.

Sometime towards the early morning, sleep began to wrap its tendrils around her. Eloisa fought against it, knowing that she’d be more tired for having a short rest than none at all. She lost the battle briefly, slipping back into the darkness of her mind where she awaited her dreams.

They never came.

Something roused her back to waking. She knew she hadn’t been asleep long, because the room was still dark. She sat up and rubbed at her eyes, and then strained to look around for the source of her disturbance. Across the room, she could just make out Selia’s shadowed frame, still resting on her bed.

It was not in the room, but outside of it, Eloisa soon realized. She heard the sound of footsteps approaching fast. Stretching out her senses, she recognized Sister Verity only seconds before she appeared, holding a lantern in one hand and clutching her chest with another.

Sister Verity was wearing her nightclothes.

It was the first thing Eloisa’s mind registered, but was followed quickly by surprise as the Sister didn’t shuffle past the room, but stopped at the doorway and peered both ways down the hall before stepping inside. She lifted a finger to her lips as she regarded Eloisa, and Eloisa could see that a fine sweat had broken out across her face.

“Be silent,” Sister Verity whispered. “You must come with me at once.”

Eloisa’s head was still muddled with her broken sleep, and she climbed from the bed, not entirely sure that she wasn’t dreaming. When she went to grab her Lightlace, Sister Verity smacked her hand.

“There’s no time for that. Get your veil and follow me.”

Eloisa did as she was told. Contrary to what others believed of her, she always did as she was explicitly told. It was just that sometimes her mind, her feet, or her pen would wander, and those were the times when she got into trouble.

Her hair was a mess, but she did her best to pin her veil to her head as she sprinted behind Sister Verity, who was ascending the spiral hall at an unnerving pace.

“Sister, where are we going?” Eloisa practically slurred the words. She rubbed at her eyes again, as if the act could somehow rid her of her fatigue.

Sister Verity spoke without looking back. “The Cloister, Daughter.”

Her words did not fully wake Eloisa, but they did put the stirrings of panic in her gut.

“Why?”

She knew that there was only one reason a Daughter would be in The Cloister, but her mind refused to draw the logical conclusion because it simply made no sense.

When Sister Verity didn’t answer, Eloisa said, “Sister, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in there yet. The ceremony is still weeks away.”

Sister Verity spun around and grabbed Eloisa by the arm. “The Goddess has no need for ceremony. All She needs is your Truth, and She will give you Her blessing. You’ve come this far. You’ve devoted a century of your life to Her. How could she not have you?”

Tears in her eyes, she looked up as she spoke, as if beseeching Phaeda to answer her question.

Never, in all of her years, had she seen Sister Verity give such a display of emotion, and all at once Eloisa was terrified.

“Sister Verity, what is going on?”

Again, she received no response. The Sister began pulling her along like a chained dog.

The room that Eloisa shared with Selia was at the highest point of the tower’s center. Eloisa had read once that heat rose, but as they ascended into the upper level of the tower, beyond the cramped, hive-like rooms of the Sisters and past the Maiden’s rooms with their heavy doors, Eloisa’s skin grew chilled and clammy.

When they finally reached the ornate double doors that led to The Cloister, Eloisa dug her heels in, forcing Sister Verity to stagger. The Sister whipped around, her teary eyes replaced with a fiery glare.

“I am saving your eternal soul. Try and act gracious.”

Eloisa yanked her arm free. “Clarification, please! How can you expect me to be gracious when you’ve told me nothing?”

Sister Verity was already pushing the doors open. “Just come inside and I will explain everything.”

As Sister Verity stepped inside, leaving Eloisa at the doorway, Eloisa knew it was her opportunity to run. She glanced over her shoulder, and then into The Cloister. The room was illuminated by moonlight spilling in from the skylight, and beyond Sister Verity’s shambling form she could see the massive likeness of Phaeda.

She was drawn in not by Sister Verity’s words, but by the beauty of the statue. Beyond the walls of the tower, the statue would have been sacrosanct, as it depicted a female goddess in the form of a dragon. At least a dozen spans high, it loomed over the room, its elongated neck bent so that its head pointed downward, its sapphire eyes leering at the room’s occupants.

It was the second time she’d seen the statue, though the first time she’d only peeked at it, too afraid to enter the room without permission. Constructed of marble and ivory, the serpentine dragoness was adorned with crystal scales that caught the light and reflected it throughout the room. On Phaeda’s back were expansive wings, the likes of which Eloisa had only ever seen on the backs of swans.

She felt the weight of the divine press down on her as she entered The Cloister, her bare feet making nary a sound on the marble floor. In moments such as these, she wondered if she was truly feeling Phaeda’s presence, or if it was simply the majesty of it all, filling her with awe. In any case, she didn’t hesitate when Sister Verity instructed her to go to her knees.

“Good, good,” Sister Verity said, rushing over to close the door behind them.

The sound of the slamming door gave Eloisa a start, and she felt her earlier uneasiness creeping back in to gnaw at her confidence.

“Please, tell me what’s going on.”

Sister Verity shook her head. “After, I promise. But now you must say your vows and speak your Truth.”

“But I…” Eloisa shook her head and started to stand. “I don’t know the words. The ceremony isn’t for weeks. I haven’t practiced them.”

Sister Verity put a hand on her shoulder, forcing Eloisa back down. With her other hand, she produced her Oathbook from her pocket and thrust it at Eloisa.

“The thirtieth page. Say the words and speak your Truth.”

Eloisa accepted the Oathbook, her hands trembling as the thumbed through the pages. It was Sister Verity’s personal book, and although the spine was worn and the pages were yellowed with age, there were no creases or notations to be seen. Eloisa had no doubt that the Sister knew every line of all one-hundred twenty pages by heart.

When she opened her mouth to begin speaking the words, she first let out a strange warbling sound. She looked up at Sister Verity with pleading eyes, but the Sister returned her stare with a stern expression.

What would be the consequences if she refused? Eloisa had no idea. She’d broken rules plenty of times, but never had she refused the order of a Sister, especially Sister Verity. And although she had the impression that Sister Verity was doing something she wasn’t supposed to, Eloisa had never known Sister Verity to break a rule or to even paint the truth.

If Sister Verity said that her eternal soul was at stake, she meant it. So, Eloisa read the words.

“Goddess Phaeda, Mother of the Sun and Stars, Keeper of Light, Holy Maiden of Purity, Seer of Truth, I humble myself before you.”

Try as she might, she couldn’t keep the tremor from her voice as she spoke. Her eyes flitted between the words, Sister Verity, and the white dragon looming over her. The words felt like an incantation, and she wouldn’t have been surprised if the statue came to life and devoured her whole.

I’m not ready. I’m not worthy.

She couldn’t push the words from her mind, even as she continued reciting her vows, the vows that would, if accepted, make her a Sister of the tower and bring her fully into Phaeda’s fold.

“I come to you pure of body, m-mind, and soul. I claim no king, no emperor, no earthly sovereigns, or lands. I claim only one title: Daughter of Phaeda. I now shed that, too, as I bestow upon you my deepest Truth. I pray that you take it into your keeping, absolving me of my final burden. My Truth is this…”

Her mind stuttered, her entire body trembling now. This was the moment she’d been dreading for years, since the very day she’d taken her oaths as a Daughter a half-century past.

Her Truth.

Every living person, human and dragonkind alike had one. It was the secret hidden inside the soul, the private desire that many might find shameful to speak of, either because it was selfish, or because it was abhorrent or perverse.

If she were to speak her Truth, no matter how vile or banal, so long as it was indeed her deepest Truth, Phaeda would absolve her of it. The goddess would cleanse it from her soul, and she would fill the void with Light and Truth. At least was what she’d always been told.

Eloisa wet her cracked lips. “I’m sorry, I don’t know it. I can’t think. I’m not prepared. I need more time.”

As the words poured out of her, Sister Verity fell to her knees and took Eloisa’s shaking hands into hers. Her aura danced around her head, flickering with so many colors that Eloisa scarcely knew what to expect.

“Do you want to know what my Truth was?”

Eloisa’s eyes widened, and she nodded without having to consider it. Never had a Sister offered up her Truth. It wasn’t explicitly against the rules, but it was understood that Truths were to be left in the past, never touched again once they’d been cleansed.

“My Truth was that I wished vengeance on my father. I wanted him to suffer and I wanted him to die, and I wanted him to know that I was responsible for his misery. For a century, I learned the scriptures, the oaths, and the prayers, but it meant nothing to me because deep in the core of my being, all I truly wanted was to be free of this place, free so that I could enact what I believed to be justice.”

Sister Verity’s grip tightened. “I knew, deep down, as you do, what my Truth was, but I was afraid to speak it. I was afraid because I didn’t want Phaeda to cleanse me of it, because that hatred was all that I knew, it was all that I thought I was. But when I spoke the words I—”

Her head turned towards the doorway. It was still shut, but she must have heard the approaching footsteps as Eloisa had seconds before.

Taking on a rushed, urgent tone, she said, “Truth does not need to be considered, Daughter. It simply is. Recognize what is true to you and say it. Say it, now.”

Eloisa bowed her head, tears rolling down her face. Sister Verity was right. She knew her Truth. She’d always known it, and at the same time, had discounted it. It was not some great and terrible secret. She didn’t wish harm or death upon anyone. She held no hatred in her heart. She did not even resent her family for sending her away, or forgetting about her.

Throughout the century, only one desire had plagued her. It was the wish she held closest to her, that colored her every hope and dream. Without it, she didn’t know who she was, or how she could possibly have any joy in life.

For the first time, she understood what it meant to give herself fully to the goddess, and it terrified her. But if the alternative was to damn her eternal soul, then what choice did she have?

“My Truth is…”

“Go on,” Sister Verity encouraged. Her grip had become almost painful.

Eloisa sucked in a breath and then let the words fly from her in a sob.

“I want to know the love of a man.”

Speaking the words aloud felt akin to tearing her heart from her chest, but she felt nothing from the goddess, and heard no voice save for Sister Verity’s.

“Bless you, Sister,” Sister Verity said, pulling her into an embrace that was unexpectedly warm. “Feel no shame. You are far from the first to speak that Truth. Phaeda has heard you. You will no longer be a slave to your worldly desires. You are free.”

Eloisa cried against Sister Verity’s shoulder. “No, this wasn’t right. The goddess didn’t speak to me. We should have waited for the ceremony. This is—”

“Sacrilegious,” thundered High Maiden Ionia as she slammed open the doors. “I should have known I would find you here. Stand up, you insipid wench!”

Eloisa was shocked enough to hear such a harsh tone from the demure High Maiden, but it was a double blow to realize that she was talking not to her, but to Sister Verity.

“You cannot have her now,” Sister Verity said, her aura at once flaring hot red and imperious purple. “She has spoken her Truth and belongs fully to Phaeda.”

Ionia strode across the room, her white veil flying back as her hand rose. Sister Verity made no effort to block the slap that struck the side of her face. The sharp sound echoed throughout The Cloister.

“Whatever you think has happened here, you will speak of it to no one. If I hear so much as a whisper of this, I will leave you in The Dark Room to rot.”

For the second time that night, Eloisa was taken by the arm and pulled along. She tried looking over her shoulder at Sister Verity, but the older woman had hung her head, her aura once again a muddle of incoherent colors.

High Maiden Ionia’s aura was always a blue so pale it was nearly white. It was a color that Eloisa had grown to associate with purity and piousness. Selia had once told her that Eloisa’s own aura was similar to High Maiden Ionia’s, except that it shimmered a majestic gold—though less and less with each year that passed. Indeed, many of the Sisters had told Eloisa that she could be High Maiden herself one day, could she but control her wickedness.

Today, High Maiden Ionia’s aura looked to a pale gray, though it flickered with a sallow shade of yellow—the color of cowardice. Eloisa blinked several times, and when the color remained, she knew she must be truly addled from her time spent in the dark.

The thought put a new and intense panic into her. Was that where she was being taken? Was she to be punished for breaking with tradition?

“High Maiden Ionia, you must know that I…”

She started to say that she had nothing to do with any of this, but she recognized that it would be painting the truth. It might not have been her idea to go forth with speaking her Truth and her vows, but she’d done it just the same. She was every bit as responsible as Sister Verity.

“It was not my intention to break the rules. Sister Verity came to me in my chambers and I went with her, not knowing what she intended. When I—”

“Enough,” the High Maiden said, sounding weary. “You, too, must put this out of your mind. There was no ceremony. You are not a Sister, nor will you ever be one. It is through no fault of your own, but you must leave this place.”

Eloisa was shaking her head. “I don’t understand. Leave where?”

“The tower, Princess.”

It was the first time she’d heard the title in decades, and Eloisa’s mind did not immediately register it as her own.

High Maiden Ionia went on, “Circumstances have changed. I can no longer keep you here. You must return to your kingdom, now.”