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Longest Night

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On the longest night of the year, Cassandra goes to the chapel to pray.

Cassandra is no stranger to the chapel. She brings offerings, lights candles—once she even tried to sweep the floors and scrub the fonts as she had done as a child at Sister Nomi's behest. She likes to be active, to be useful, and there is no disgrace in tending to the Maker's house. But the alarmed sisters shooed her out with scandalized alacrity. She no longer tries to do those things, but she still comes.

It is the peace that she treasures most there. The quiet. Others come, to pray or to petition, but there is no insult if Cassandra ignores their presence. It is understood that she is there in devotion.

The candle burns before her. She remembers the way she was taught, the things she was taught to do: focus on the flame, pour all of her trivial and irreligious thoughts out of herself and into it. Burn them away. Breathe, breathe, breathe from the belly. Fire before you, earth beneath you, air in your lungs, water in your tears. Maker everywhere. Heat and cold. Light and dark. Life and death.

Your servant is before you, Maker of all things, bringing praise and devotion.

Your servant is before you, Maker of all things, on this darkest night.

Your servant is before you, Maker of all things.

Your servant is before you.

Your servant.


And then nothing, the blissful calm of a quiet mind, with nothing in all the world but her breath and the candle, and the Maker.

She has no way of knowing how long she remains in that state before conscious thought returns. She floats on her breath as if in deep water, and when it ends it feels, indeed, like rising to the surface of the sea, blinking and gasping into the light.

She does not have the time or—to be honest—the patience for such deep meditation most days. But there are times of year when it feels important to her to make the time, and so she does. This long night is one of them, this moment when the world pauses, poised, in the swing from growing darkness to growing light.

"Still silence," Cole says behind her. (She finds that she is not surprised.) "Light—light before you, light within you, your soul lightening too, rising within you but secure, strong. —Why don't you do this more often? It makes you happy."

Cassandra rolls to her feet, ignoring the twinge in her knee. "It takes time," she says. "I have a great deal to do, I cannot indulge in the full meditation every day." And then, ruefully, she says, "And I admit, I do not always want to. Sometimes I want to hold on to my feelings and my distractions, not let them go." Especially her anger. She knows this about herself, that she has the bad temper for which the Pentaghasts of old were known. It is a sin to be proud of what is, in truth, her besetting vice, but still, sometimes she is: proud of this sign that she is like the dragonslayers of old rather than like the pretentious, lazy aristocrats who bear the name now.

Cole says nothing. He doesn't, always. If he doesn't have anything to say, he won't. Cassandra admires that about him.

"But," Cassandra says, "perhaps I should make more time for it. I forget how satisfying it is."

Cole nods. Then he tilts his head back, far enough that she can see his water-blue eyes beneath the fringe of his hair, the heavy brim of his hat. "Yes," he says. And then: "But now you should go. She's waiting for you."

"She shouldn't have. It's late."

"Yes, but she did. She's tired. It's a small pain, but I can feel it. You can ease it."

"Yes," Cassandra says. "All right."

And surely enough, when Cassandra mounts the stairs to Josephine's room (though she spends more time there than in her closet-sized chamber over the forge, Cassandra cannot stop thinking of it as Josephine's room), she finds Josephine sitting awake in bed.

It is the middle of the longest, darkest night of the year, and there is no light in the room save for one candle by the bed. Its light falls on Josephine, glimmering gold off her hair, drawing warm notes from her skin, shining on the white of her nightgown. (The nightgown is flannel in deference to the winter cold and to Josephine's dislike of same, with crocheted lace at the throat and wrists. It ought to be as erotic as a brick, and yet somehow Josephine causes it to transcend itself.) Josephine looks up, and for a moment the candlelight catches in her eyes, too: the green-gold of summer, here in the heart of winter. She is so lovely that for a moment Cassandra cannot breathe.

But Cassandra is not good at putting such things into words. However much she may want to tell Josephine how beautiful she is, a light in the endless dark, what comes out of her mouth is, "You should be asleep."

Josephine smiles. "And you are one to talk."

"I sleep very well, you know this," Cassandra says, stripping off her shirt. (She was self-conscious, at first, undressing before Josephine, who is lovely, sleek-skinned and soft and unblemished. Cassandra is none of those things, and yet now she bares herself without fear, and that, too, is a gift.)

"After running yourself ragged all day."

"I go when I need to go, and I stop when I need to stop." Cassandra gives a little sigh of relief as she unbinds her breasts, finally, and slips into bed. Normally she would put on a nightshirt of some kind; tonight, she thinks, Josephine will be warmth enough for her. "It is only sensible."

Josephine's smile widens, until Cassandra can see the dimples in her cheeks, tender and rare; she wants to kiss them, and here in bed there is no reason not to, so she indulges herself and does. So close, she can feel the movement of Josephine's lips as she says, "And you are ever sensible, my love, except when you aren't."

My love, Cassandra thinks. This, here, is so different than her devotions in the chapel—different and yet the same, the equal and opposite number. There, she found peace and bliss in emptying herself of feeling. Here, she finds it in a surfeit of feeling. It is a mystery beyond her ability to understand, let alone express, and yet it feels proper on this solstice night. This, the turning point, the moment between the joy of emptiness and the joy of fullness.

She nuzzles the sweet angle of Josephine's jaw, that place of soft skin where throat and ear meet. Her hand slides down, finding the warm curves of Josephine's body beneath the concealing weight of her nightgown. "Then shall we be un-sensible together?" she whispers in Josephine's ear, and follows Josephine's answering laughter down the long slope toward summer.