For 'this is not an adventure' disclaimer and background notes, see part 1
Part 2 here
From the private journal of Triginta-Soror-Hortus, Year of Grace 1314:
This situation with Soror-Coquus has not improved. I had thought of bringing it to the attention of the Nono-Dam, but I am certain she is already aware of it, which suggests to me that she hopes we can work the difficulty out between ourselves.
But what happened today overshadowed everything else. I will try to recall it in as much detail as I can.
It began when two of the novices came scurrying in from the Galilaea, completely ignoring the shocked face of Soror-Lavandarius in their panic—oblivious even to her barked reminder that they must not run. In fact they could not be calmed until the Nono-Dam appeared, at which point they managed to gasp out that there was a man outside asking to enter.
This caused almost as much consternation among the older Sisters. Everyone looked at the Nono-Dam, who remained calm but looked, nevertheless, a little at a loss. I took a step forward. ‘I will speak with him.’
Further distress among the Sororiate. The Nono-Dam merely looked at me for a moment, then nodded. ‘But you should not greet him alone. Soror-Coquus will accompany you.’
Coquus and I were united for one moment in surprise. But of course there was nothing to be said, so we went together out to the porch. At the sight of the man she hung back, but I approached him, pulling my Cappa back from my head, which was recommended as a concession when speaking to outsiders.
He was a slight figure, dressed in a neat, close-fitting outfit of black, complete with gloves and a constricting collar. His greying hair was receding over a high forehead and his beard showed streaks of white on either side of his mouth. He seemed to be sweating slightly, as if from exertion.
‘Ah,’ he said as I drew close, inclining his head slightly. ‘Greetings…Sister?’ I nodded confirmation of his guess. ‘Can you tell me where I am?’
‘This is the Cenobate of the Sororiate Pantheia.’
‘Uh, yes, but the…the planet? And the year?’
‘This is Caela. As to the year, we do not measure as other worlds do. It is the year of Grace 1314.’
‘The very back of beyond, spatially and chronologically, in fact.’
I was not sure the words had been meant for my ears. ‘I am Soror Hortus. This is Soror Coquus. Might I ask your name?’
He looked from me to Coquus. His mouth was a contemptuous line beneath his moustache. ‘The gardener and the cook. Not the most fitting reception committee.’
I felt Soror Coquus move closer. ‘You were asked for your own name.’ For once, I was grateful for Coquus’ fondness for the confrontational; she seemed to have overcome her horror of speaking to a stranger.
‘I am…’ He hesitated briefly. ‘You may call me Magister. Will you conduct me to your Dam?’
‘What is your business here?’ persisted Soror Coquus.
I could see him considering his approach. He gestured down towards the lake, hidden from view. ‘…My ship was forced down. I think it’s beyond repair. I will need to find a way off the planet.’
‘There is no way to leave Caela,’ I told him, but Coquus was worrying about something else. ‘You say your ship came down? We have heard nothing—seen nothing.’
He looked at her for only a moment before addressing himself to me. ‘Surely you have supplies delivered? I can scarcely believe you can feed and clothe yourselves; this climate is hardly ideal for crops. When is the next supply ship due?’
‘Everything we need is transmatted from an orbiting station,’ Coquus said with unmistakable satisfaction. ‘No ships land here.’
‘The transmat is one way,’ I said, as I saw him begin to speak. ‘There were other settlements, years ago, on the eastern landmass, but they have left, as far as we are aware.’
‘You’re alone on this entire planet?’
‘We are all alone, wherever we are,’ said Coquus. I was surprised at the depth of feeling in her voice.
‘A pretty philosophical quibble,’ he muttered. Then his eyes brightened. ‘The transmat – you must have some means of communicating with the station, in order to order what you need. If I could speak to someone…show me the communications room.’
Coquus smiled coldly. ‘Only Soror-Medius can enter that room.’
Magister’s eyebrows flared upward and his eyes bulged, before he controlled himself again. ‘I don’t think you realise who I am. I assure you, if I can speak to someone on the outside, I can arrange for many things to be brought, things that will benefit the Cenobate…’
‘We want for nothing,’ I told him. ‘What else could we desire?’
His face took on a set expression. ‘I wish to speak to the Dam.’
After a moment, Coquus took a step back. ‘I will see if that is to be permitted.’ She turned and walked back into the building. I looked after her, trying not to show my sudden fear. I did not think the Nono-Dam had intended for either of us to be left alone with the visitor.
He bent his unfathomable eyes on me. ‘I cannot be expected to live out the rest of my existence here! I have much to do. You must believe me.’
There was a new intensity in his gaze as he held mine. ‘You must believe me. You-must-belie—’
‘I rather think she has beliefs of her own to fall back on, old chap.’
I felt a shock, as if released from a kind of paralysis. It was a moment before I could even recollect where I was—who I was.
Magister had spun away from me to face the speaker; over Magister’s shoulder I saw a tall, lean man with white hair, dressed in a red jacket and dark trousers and sporting a dark, blue-lined cape. This man now came towards us. ‘So this is where you got to. No good running away, you know. Nowhere to go.’
‘You continue to underestimate me, Doctor. There’s always a way.’
The tall man stopped in front of Magister. Then he seemed to notice me. ‘I’m sorry, how terribly rude of me.’ He extended a hand, then perhaps recalled my vocation and seemed to think better of it. ‘Pleased to meet you. I’m the Doctor. And you are…?’
For a moment I was unable to answer, my mind fixed on the name he had just given. There was something in his face, also; he looked carefully at me. ‘Excuse me, have we met before?’
‘I do not think so. I am Triginta-Soror-Hortus.’
‘Good grief, of course, those titles. In which case I hope you won’t mind if I call you…simply…Soror?’ He gestured at Magister. ‘I’m terribly sorry if this man has caused you any difficulties; he was in my charge, but I took my eyes off him for…well,’ he rubbed a hand on the side of his neck, ‘for long enough, clearly. I brought him here – well, to the lake garden – hoping the surroundings would make him more receptive to what I had to say…but he’s incorrigible, I’m afraid. I’ll take him away again.’
Magister folded his arms. ‘Really, Doctor? And just how will you manage that? I think being deserted by Miss Grant has left your mind rath—’
The Doctor cut in sharply: ‘By now you’ve discovered that there’s no way for you to escape the planet. And you can hardly stay at the Cenobate.’
‘Not even if I invoke the ancient right of sanctuary?’
They both looked at me. I did not know what to tell them, but I was saved from answering by the reappearance of Soror-Coquus. She paused in mid-step as she saw the Doctor, but recovered herself and came to stand by me. ‘You cannot be permitted – either of you – to enter the Cenobate. And the Nono-Dam, likewise, is not permitted to converse with any from the world beyond. You must leave.’
I could well imagine that the Dam herself might have expressed her refusal in gentler tones and language. The Doctor turned to Magister. ‘Well, you see the situation. And without weapons or any suitable malignant faction with which to ally yourself, I doubt you can force entry into the Cenobate.’
‘My question about sanctuary has not yet been answered,’ Magister pointed out.
Coquus looked at me. ‘I was not sure of the Sororiate law on the matter,’ I told her.
There was silence. Magister looked at Coquus. ‘Well?’
Coquus was silent, which worried me. Eventually, she said: ‘No one has requested such a thing before. I…am not certain the right has ever been repealed.’ I could tell that the admission pained her, but it was not within her power to withhold the truth. I saw that with sudden clarity, and realised, for the first time, she could never help speaking to me of how she felt.
‘Then I claim sanctuary,’ said Magister. ‘I suggest you find out the current status of the right.’
‘Don’t be absurd,’ said the Doctor. ‘You’d be screaming for release within a week.’
Magister was silent. He lifted an eyebrow at the Doctor, then looked at us. ‘Well? Run along, one of you, and find out what we need to know.’
I looked at Coquus. She was clearly very uncomfortable. And my mind was awhirl with too many thoughts. Did the Doctor know me? Did he somehow share memories with others who held the same title? Bringing Magister here had been no accident – the Doctor knew the lake and its surroundings. And I knew, I knew now without having to look, that my favourite bloom in the garden would be displaying the colour of the tall man’s eyes.
Magister shifted slightly. ‘I’m waiting.’
Coquus turned her face away. ‘There is no necessity to check.’ I saw her force herself to look back at the men. ‘The right is still available.’
Magister let out a sharp crowing sound. ‘Well Doctor, what do you have to say about that?’
Magister spread his hands. ‘Ah, you know me so well. And what precisely do you propose to do to stop me?’
The Doctor slid a forefinger up one cheek, looking thoughtful. ‘Well, let’s see…I might try—Hai!’
With this abrupt exclamation he thrust two fingers at the chest of Magister, who stiffened. For a moment they were frozen in a tableau, Magister’s eyes shot with venom, the Doctor meeting his gaze without flinching.
All at once Magister crumpled; the Doctor caught him and eased him down to the boards of the porch. ‘There,’ said the Doctor.
I heard Coquus draw in a sharp breath. ‘He…you cannot…once he had claimed the privilege, you must not—’
‘I don’t believe I heard you accept him, Madam,’ said the Doctor tartly. ‘And believe me, I have done you and the Cenobate a considerable favour.’
I had no doubt of the truth of his words. I looked at Coquus, and she was clearly still troubled.
The Doctor straightened up. ‘I must apologise again for bringing this man here. I’m really not sure now what I hoped to achieve.’ He looked down at Magister. ‘A reconciliation, perhaps.’ There was a strange longing in his gaze, and I wondered about the other Doctors, the men who had come with others—and the one who had come alone in the night to weep. This man, too, seemed to be suffering a loss; something less all-encompassing perhaps, but something that had made him reach out to one who seemed to be his enemy.
He gestured at the fallen figure. ‘If you could just give me a little help to get him on my shoulders…’
Coquus hesitated, so I stepped forward and assisted the Doctor. He took the weight of Magister with apparent ease. I wondered how old he was. His hair was purest white and there were lines on his face, but the eyes that expressed gratitude sparkled with youth. He inclined his head to Coquus, and seemed about to turn away.
‘What will happen to him?’ I asked. ‘What will you do with him?’
He sighed. ‘That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for far too long. I wish I could give you a satisfactory answer.’ He offered a wry smile. ‘Thank you, Soror.’
He made his way along the path that meanders down towards the lake, and disappeared from sight.
Coquus exhaled. I looked at her. ‘Are you well?’
Her eyes flicked at me briefly, then away. ‘We must…tell the Dam.’
My hand was on her arm. I was not certain how it got there. She stared down at it, then looked up and me and drew away. I lowered my eyes in apology. Then something rose in me and I cried out: ‘Why is it this way between us? What must I do to—’
But she was already walking away. I have not had the opportunity to be alone with her since that moment. I went down to the lakeside this evening and sat with the Aeturnums. My favourite flower was blue, as I had known it would be. It also seemed to me that Soror Coquus’ flower turned towards mine more than usual. The meaning of that, I cannot tell.
From the private journal of Quadraginta-Soror-Hortus, Year of Grace 1322:
I am still recuperating from the events of the last two days, but am finally strong enough to record what happened.
We have not had a dust viper in this area for thirty years, so I did not immediately grasp the significance of the faint marks on the lake shoreline. By the time I glimpsed the movement at the edge of my vision it was too late.
There was only the tiniest stab of pain in my ankle. The reptile slithered away through the flowerbed, and for a moment I simply watched. As the reality of what had just passed sank in, it seemed to me that I already felt a spreading chill in my calf, although in truth it was too soon for the venom to be at work. My heart beat wildly; a moment later I was overwhelmed by a feeling of nausea. And then I fell.
When I woke I did not immediately remember what had happened; my first reminder was the fierce, hot throbbing of my leg. Surging with panic I tried to get up, but my strength had left me. I felt passage of blood as pain through every limb.
A pair of hands rested gently on my shoulders and a voice spoke to me. The sun was at its zenith and the brightness was torture to my eyes; through narrowed lids I could see the silhouette of a man with slightly disordered hair that fell to his tight, high collar.
‘Careful now. You’ve had a nasty bite. Dust viper?’
I moved my head in a weak affirmative.
‘Do you know how long ago?’
I tried to speak but my mouth was too dry. I shook my head.
‘All right. Try to keep calm. You’ll be all right.’
‘Doctor…’ Another voice, female, a few metres away. ‘If it was a snake, will it still be around…?’
‘Reasonable question, Charley,’ said the man, and disappeared from my view. ‘It probably struck in panic and then fled. Dust vipers won’t eat anything bigger than a small dog…but you never know.’ I heard a vibrating sound, which increased in pitch and then seemed to all but disappear from the range of my hearing. ‘Hold the screwdriver, make a 360 degree turn. That should make this area uncomfortable for it, if it’s still lurking.’
‘It’s not too comfortable for me,’ said the young woman. ‘Anyway, aren’t snakes supposed to be deaf?’
‘They respond to vibrations,’ said the man. ‘Now pipe down a minute and let me think. Dust viper venom…not the slowest acting, not the fastest, several known antidotes, none of which we have here, except—ah!’
‘The Aeturnums, of course. But we need the right one…’
‘The flowers? What do you mean, the right one? There are hundreds…’
The man was in my field of vision again. ‘Now, Sister, I need your help. Try to open your eyes wider for me… yes, that’s good. Charley! Over here.’
Another shape joined the man. ‘What?’
‘We need to find a flower precisely that colour.’
The next few minutes passed in the manner of a dream. I heard their movements and voices, close by but seeming far away. The visible world disappeared into a flashing, swimming vision of black and red, and I remember wondering if I would finally be privy to the truth about the universe—if I would know whether the Sororiate’s faith was founded in reality. I do not recall whether I was afraid.
When I returned to myself the brightness of the light seemed less painful. They were sitting either side of me.
‘Welcome back, ‘said the man. ‘We nearly lost you. I’m the Doctor.’ It was not a face I had seen before, but it seemed to me more than the title was familiar; had I looked into these blue eyes before? He had dark curls of hair falling on either side of his forehead, a long straight nose, a thin-lipped mouth. His clothes seemed elegant rather than practical; a kind of medium-length coat and a silken scarf at his throat.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It was the only way we could save you.’
‘Needs must, Charley.’ He looked at me. ‘How do you feel?’
I tried to sit up. They both supported me. There was a mist coming in across the lake, which accounted for the change in light, although with the Aeturnum working in me I was also less sensitised. ‘Probably best not to exert yourself,’ the Doctor said. ‘The Aeturnum petals are cleansing your blood, but it takes a little while.’ He paused, then repeated: ‘I am sorry.’
I could feel nothing from the loss of the Aeturnum. Perhaps it was the lingering effect of the venom, numbing my senses.
Charley was looking towards the flowerbed. ‘What is it about those flowers—what did you call them…?’
‘Aeturnums, Charley. They have low level sentience—a psychic bond with the right person. It’s a kind of two-way empathic support system. But there’s a physical aspect to it—one can heal the other, under the right circumstances. Applying the petals to the snakebite wound allowed the…the Sister to take in…well, I suppose you’d say nourishment.’
Something occurred to me. I tried to see the position of the sun. ‘H-how long was I unconscious…?’
‘About an hour,’ said Charley. ‘We were debating about whether to go for help when you woke up. Here, you sound parched.’ She offered me a flask, and helped me put it to my lips. I swallowed a little of the water.
‘The Cenobate is that way,’ said the Doctor, standing up and looking over, though he could not see very far. ‘As I recall, the rest of the Sororiate don’t come to the garden very often. You were lucky we found you.’
I acknowledged this, but I was curious. ‘You have been here before.’
‘A few times.’ He smiled as if at a private joke. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Yes, the gardener—of course.’
‘Gardener?’ Charley looked around. ‘But there’s only—’
‘The Aeturnums, yes.’ The Doctor looked down at me. ‘But they require the company of a higher sentient for several hours a day—usually someone who’s been with them from a very young age.’ He regarded me curiously. ‘It can be a lonely post, but for the right person…’
I could not hold his gaze. How many times had I wondered if I was, indeed, the right person? How many times had I wished to escape, to see what else the universe held? The thoughts came less frequently now, but I was never entirely free of them.
‘And what do the Soror— the Sisters believe?’ asked Charley. ‘Odd sort of religion, that relies on flowers.’
‘What do they believe? They believe in life. In what can be experienced. All religions, no matter how they end up, begin as a search for the truth—a quest to understand.’ The Doctor squatted down again beside me. ‘The Sororiate welcome adherents of all faiths. They believe in the spirit—in the interconnection of all living things.’
‘Hmm. Sounds a little woolly.’
‘On a certain level, Charley, the entire cosmos is a little woolly to the grasp of intellects of our kind. Wave or particle, dead cat, live cat…? The highest laws are beyond our understanding.’ He smiled at me. ‘But there has to be something that understands them, or how would things have ever come into being—right, Sister Hortus?’
I nodded, but without conviction. He saw this, but did not press me. He stood up again.
‘But…but…how do the flowers come into it?’
‘Well, as a manifestation of the universal consciousness. But they’re not strictly necessary, just…helpful.’ He looked at me again. ‘But only one can bond with any one person in a lifetime.’
Charley now turned to look at me. ‘Ohhh…so that one…we used…’
The Doctor nodded.
‘I…’ My throat was still dry, and Charley bent near with the water. Now that I was over the worst effects of the venom, the proximity of another woman affected me as it often did, with her supporting hand seeming to burn into the back of my cropped hair. I swallowed the water quickly and shifted myself away from her. I levered myself upright, ignoring clucks of concern from both of them.
Was I disappointed not to have died? It was a question I had asked myself before, on emergence from illness, or sometimes even from sleep. This was the closest I had come to passing over, and I had not, as far as I could recall, experienced any of the visions some of the other Sisters had seen on the point of death.
I had rarely admitted it to myself, but death held a certain attraction, not simply for the escape it offered from my life, but for the possibility of that certainty, that knowledge about the workings of the universe. I had only twice been seriously ill, but I had dreamed of death many times.
But this time I had a clearer answer to the question. Was I glad I still lived? Now it was an unequivocal yes. And I knew the reason, had known the reason for perhaps a year, but it was another thing I had kept hidden from myself. It was why the loss of the Aeturnum had so little effect.
‘Are you all right?’ Charley was leaning closer, her eyebrows arched high. ‘Not feeling dizzy, or…?’
‘I am well…thank you. B-but I must…’ I tried to stand, but my legs betrayed me. They both caught me and lowered me to the ground.
‘You’re not going anywhere for a little while,’ the Doctor said.
‘I…I need to—’
‘What you need,’ he said, ‘is to take it easy for at least another hour. We can go for help at the Cenobate if you like…? Charley could skip along there in five minutes.’
‘I’m your messenger now, am I?’
‘I thought you might like a chance to see the place,’ said the Doctor without taking his eyes from me.
Charley was silent for a moment. ‘Oh. Well, yes…I could go, if you like…Sister.’ She stood up. The mist had closed in, but the shapes of the slopes in the direction of the Cenobate were dimly visible.
‘No. No, thank you. I will…’ I lifted my hands in reassurance ‘…rest.’
‘Jolly good.’ The Doctor sat back from me. ‘Anything else we can get you?’
I became suddenly conscious of the fact my Cappa had fallen back from my head, and I pulled it up. ‘From where?’
The Doctor looked around quickly. ‘Ah, yes. Point taken. It…seemed the right thing to say.’
I observed him in silence for a few seconds. He smiled at me reassuringly.
‘Where do you come from?’ I asked him, surprising even myself with the question. He looked startled, and adjusted his silken scarf while glancing up towards Charley. ‘Um…well, there are several answers to that…’
‘Then—where are you going?’
‘That,’ said Charley, ‘is even more difficult to answer.’
‘I…will try one further question, then. …Why did you come here?’
Charley looked at the Doctor as if she too was interested in his response to this particular query. The Doctor held my eyes for a moment, then got to his feet and looked out over the lake.
‘There are very few places like it. This is a still place in a turning universe. A place far from all the violence, the clash of civilisations…small enough to be overlooked, barren enough to offer no exploitable resources…one constant in a shifting existence.’
I wondered if he meant the existence of the universe, or something more specific. I breathed out heavily. ‘Put differently, nothing happens here.’
‘If you like, though I wouldn’t—’
‘Is it…do you think me foolish, to…choose to live out my life in such a place?’
He hesitated. ‘I try not to judge the lifestyles of others…’
Charley made a small sound as she turned away.
‘…Well, unless they impact on they people around them…’
Charley’s head came around abruptly. ‘Someone coming, Doctor.’
I felt I knew who it would be. I sat upright, as much as I could. ‘You should leave. I am sorry, but there might be…difficulties if you were discovered here.’
‘If you’re sure you’ll be all right…?’
I nodded and smiled. It occurred to me there was something I had not said. ‘Thank you.’
He simply smiled, and ushered Charley away. As their shapes were folded into the mist, I heard the approaching footfalls clearly, and recognised them without surprise.
‘So,’ Coquus drawled, ‘sitting and gazing at a view you cannot see is more important than supper?’
I said nothing, simply looked up and smiled at her. Her wide mouth was set in a mock-disapproving line, but her hazel eyes returned my smile.
‘Or was it that you feared you would lose your way in the mist?’ she added, her tone already softening. She pulled back her Cappa, uncovered her head completely. Her cropped hair was still brown, without the faintest streak of grey. It was difficult to look at her; she was so beautiful.
‘I was worried,’ she said, very softly.
‘I am sorry.’
‘Well.’ She folded her arms, the way she so often did, but now I knew it was because she wanted to use them for something else. ‘Are you ready to come back now?’
I tensed the muscles in my legs experimentally. ‘Not…yet.’
She remained staring at me, and I could not hold her gaze. I dropped my eyes, and casually drew my legs back underneath me so she would not see the swelling on my ankle.
For a time neither of us moved nor spoke. I looked towards the Aeturnums. Now it felt to me that something was missing, but I was not certain if it was because of the death of my own bloom…or because she was so near, and yet not touching me. But I could not speak of this, and I could not look at her.
Eventually she moved. She stepped closer, hitched up her robe, and settled herself beside me. We sat looking in the same direction.
Part 4 here