In the thirtieth summer of her life, the sacred clown of the goddess Aelmatia stood in the rain in the market square, laughing. Water ran in rivulets down her face; the bright blue and red cloth of her shirt clung to her arms as she slapped her hands on her body in an imitation of raindrops.
The clown’s name was Delight, or sometimes Joy, and often Rapture, and her play and songs always drew a crowd on market day, people eager to cast off their daily decorum and follow the path that Aelmatia, the Lady of Joy, laid for them. Today some watched Delight with rapt attention, while others tipped back their heads and opened their mouths wide to let the rain fall in. Some stripped off scarves and tunics to let the rain splash their bare skin. Beside the city well an old couple danced, whirled round and round on the cobbled street with Aelmatia’s name on their lips. In their eyes their joy danced with them.
Only one young woman did not smile. She stood at the edge of the crowd, wearing the dark blue robes of the Guild of Secrets, and her eyes bored into Delight’s with single-minded intensity only those of the Guild could master. A tendril of unease crept into Delight’s heart. She skipped over and sang to the sister a song about the joy the rain felt, but the song did not lighten the sister’s face. She held out her hands, with the ten gold rings she wore to symbolize Aelmatia’s own hands, in blessing, but the sister did not take them. So Delight leaned down and whispered into the cloth of the woman’s hood, “What is your pleasure?”
The sister replied in a formal monotone, spoke the words Delight had dreaded hearing for the last seven years. “Ex-Sister Pelagia, the Guild calls in your favor. Come with me now.”
Sister Pelagia, twelve years old and the youngest member of the Guild of Secrets, looked up at the winding stone stairs of the highest tower. At its top the Keeper of Secrets waited. Waited for her, her newest initiate, to whisper a secret in her ear. Pelagia swallowed fear and excitement in one breath, and went. Her bare feet made a small slapping on the stones as she spiraled up and up.
It was a long way, and Sister Pelagia had to rest many times. After a while she stopped looking up and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the stairs before her.
And so she didn’t see the Immortals until she stood at their feet. They stood one on either side of an old wooden door at the the top of the stairs, silent, watching Pelagia with their piercing eyes. Their faces were like marble, their lips pale and fixed in an expression she could not read. Over their bird-thin bodies they wore white robes with hems that swept the floor.
“H-hail,” Pelagia stammered, but the Immortals did not answer, only opened the door, which split in the middle to admit her. Her eyes flicked from one to the other. How alike they looked, their flaxen hair spilling over their shoulders. Each gripped a sword in the hand not holding the door, and Pelagia half expected to be cut down as she slowly edged past into the topmost room of the highest tower.
The door shut with a soft bump, leaving her alone with the Keeper.
The Keeper sat in the center of the room, on a cushion on the stone floor. She was huge – Pelagia’s first impression was of folds of cloth and flesh with no face or hands or human features. But her eyes soon found the head, the soft lips and cheeks, the exposed ear that waited, just at the height of Pelagia’s own lips.
She had been instructed not to ask questions. The Keeper of Secrets did not answer the questions of novices and children. She did not answer any questions at all, only received secrets and, to a worthy few, gave them.
But Pelagia could not remember her own small secret now, only that it was insignificant next to the one she had just learned, that not all Immortals were creatures of near-myth that lived in the High Vale, that they lived and breathed in the Keeper’s tower. She approached the Keeper and leaned in close. She smelled the lightning smell of magic, and a bitter, musty smell that must be the smell of secrets.
“The Keeper has Immortals guarding her in her tower,” she whispered. Not the careful secret she had rehearsed in the dormitory for days, and Pelagia shuddered with the thrill of knowing things that the people of the city below could not even dream were true.
Delight walked lightly beside the Guild sister as they wended their way through the streets towards the Hall of Secrets. Even from a distance the hall was clearly visible, its dark towers piercing the air above the city rooftops. Shopkeeps and guardsmen greeted Delight, but their greetings were reserved, and they watched the sister beside her with uncertainty. Creases folded their brows when Delight did not reassure them that all was well.
The sister brought Delight into the Guild Hall, up several long flights of stairs to a high tower office, and left her. Delight stood by the window and watched as the rain stopped and the afternoon light and shadows turned the sky deep blue and gold. The rings on her fingers flashed in the sun as if alight themselves. She waited, she had been told, for one Sister Omega. The name meant nothing to her, but it had a kind of formal beauty she appreciated. Sister Omega entered presently and seated herself behind a large oaken desk.
“Thank you for coming,” Omega said. She was not a young woman, and she looked weary, her face strained and dark bags under her eyes.
Delight smiled, but inside her heart did not smile. She had not felt this way since before Aelmatia called her – vulnerable, troubled. She wished the Guild of Secrets would leave her alone. She wanted no more to do with them.
“Ex-Sister Pelagia, we need your help.”
“That name no longer calls my heart,” Delight said. “I am Aelmatia’s. My name is Delight.”
Delight waited for Sister Omega to argue. Instead the woman picked up a burlap sack from one corner of her massive desk. “The dolphins have stolen a child of the Guild,” she said, “and you are going to retrieve her.” She held out the sack. “Go to the Bay of Lost Dolphins. In your capacity as a Sacred Clown of Aelmatia, perform the routine, ‘Grace of the Foolish,’ and if any dolphins come, feed them this.”
Delight took the sack, opened it, and looked inside. It was dried fish, but another smell hung around it like the smell lightning made when it struck the sea.
“What is this?” she asked. The hairs on the backs of her arms stood up in dread. “I will not do harm.”
Sister Omega placed her hands flat on the desk, and a supernatural power radiated from her that hurt Delight just under her skin. “You will do as I say. We allowed you to leave our order with your life, but you owe us for that mercy, and I am calling in your favor, now. You will feed the dolphins from that bag, and Aelmatia cannot argue.”
Delight clutched the hated sack in her hand. The burlap made her palm itch, and the smell nauseated her; but the thought of hurting the wave-runners nauseated her more. She was the Joy of the Lady of Rapture, the Lady’s hands and face in the world. That she should cause harm was the greatest sin, the only sin. But Sister Omega did not lie. When Delight had left the Guild of Secrets there had been two consequences. The first, that all the secrets she had learned in the order be burned out of her soul, for it was not allowed that a non-Guild member should know them. The second, that she still owed the Guild a single favor, for letting her go.
“I won’t do it.” She dropped the sack on Sister Omega’s desk. “Ask a different favor of Aelmatia’s fool.”
Sister Omega sighed and waved one hand languidly in the air, and Delight fell to her knees. It felt like someone had tied a rock to her soul and thrown it in a well. For a moment she struggled to return to her body, and when she had she felt an invisible force binding her. “I thought you might spout platitudes,” Sister Omega said. “We haven’t time. You will do as we say, and when you are done with your task the spell I’ve laid on you will be lifted. If you do not do it, you will sicken and die. Do you have any other questions?”
Delight opened her mouth to protest, but she could no longer do so. She picked up the sack and tied it to the sash at her waist. It was a long way to the Bay of Lost Dolphins, and Sister Omega wanted her to hurry.
Sister Pelagia had survived twenty winters and stood at the height of power and grace. She swam under the ocean’s skin with gills like a fish and the webbed hands of an otter, and everywhere she went the denizens of the deep acknowledged her right to dwell among them.
The sea was her passion. Its secrets lay before her like pearls and she plunged again and again to retrieve each one and lay it shining upon the shore.
The day before, after two long years of service and loyalty, she had been adopted into a dolphin pod. Today she would speak with the eldest dolphin that had agreed to give her audience, and her breath came quick with anticipation. For the dolphins carried secrets no one else knew, and they shared them with no one but their own kin – but to their own, they shared them freely.
“Laughter,” Pelagia greeted the white dolphin swimming before her, and indeed the old one seemed about to float away on a current of her own mirth. She fairly glowed with pleasure.
“Hello, child.” It usually irritated Pelagia to be called a child, but now she felt such excitement she hardly cared.
“Tell me about the sea dragons,” she said.
And Laughter did.
“Tell me about the wrecks of ships that lie on beds of living stone, that carry treasures forgotten by our grandmother’s mothers.”
And Laughter did. Everything that Pelagia asked, the old dolphin told her. Pelagia became drunk on the joy of the knowing, let her thoughts grow giddy with expansion and her tongue ask wilder and wilder questions. The old dolphin knew things that Pelagia had thought were lost to the sea forever, and things she would never have imagined, had the old one’s tongue not been so eager to teach.
Pelagia, safe in the warm blue depths, thought she would die of joy.
At least, until she realized that Laughter was lying to her.
She figured it out slowly. Through small silences that should have been filled with words, through subtle arcs away from topics that should have been easy. Pelagia never let on that she knew. She pretended to be totally satisfied with what the elder dolphin taught her, and Pelagia was very good at deception. But in her heart she took a vow, that whatever secret the dolphins were hiding, she would find it out. Whatever they were obscuring, she would shine her light on it.
Pelagia left Laughter that day with a sense of purpose deeper and grander than anything she had ever known. She swam back to her pod thanking the goddess of the dolphins, the goddess of joy, Aelmatia, that life had made her a Sister of the Guild, one for whom the world was unlimited in wonder.
The Bay of Lost Dolphins lay miles north of the city, along a rocky coast too treacherous for ships to lay anchor. As Delight followed the path through a forest of gnarled pines she rubbed the place on her fingers where her rings should be. It would not be right to wear Aelmatia’s raiment and do what she was about to do. She sang as she walked, however, songs she made up about fishes and stars, and despite everything the songs made her happy.
She was singing about children when she came to the Bay of Lost Dolphins. It lay spread out below her like a blanket of blue, and she stood for a moment simply watching it glimmer in the sun. Then she considered her way down. The cliffs stood hundreds of feet above the water, and the bay was not a usual destination for pilgrims. She prayed fiercely that no dolphins would come, that they would not hear her. It was a sacred obligation to eat what a Clown of Aelmatia offered – the dolphins would not refuse. And what would happen to them? Delight did not know.
She found an old path that wound down the rocks. It led her past lichen and cave, down to where the sea sucked at the shore. When she arrived the sun hung low above the water. The moon would be full tonight – a perfect time to perform the Grace of the Foolish, under the harvest moon on a warm summer’s night, when all the land lay in drowsy happiness.
Delight loved playing the Fool. Even the pull of the spell on her soul, even the sisters’ burlap sack behind her on the rock could not sully the joy of of it. The Fool laughed at danger. The Fool always did the wrong thing and yet always prospered. She donned a tattered vest of spun gold, gold she’d begged from the Queen herself, and a hat that trailed bells and ribbons down her back. She took from her pack a tin flute, the kind the dolphins loved best, and stood on a spray drenched rock. It took a long time, the preparations, and so by the time she faced the bay it shone moon-flooded silver.
“Please don’t let them come,” she whispered in prayer to the Lady of Rapture. And she imagined her performance was for Aelmatia alone.
The ‘Grace of the Foolish’ was a difficult piece, filled with falls meant to look accidental and music that pretended imperfection. Delight lost time and place as she whirled and leapt and played. When the last solitary note faded into the moonlit night, Delight wiped the sweat from her face with her hand and smiled as she hadn’t smiled since the Guild sister had interrupted her rainy day revelries in the capital.
Then she saw the dolphins, and her smile faded.
There were four of them. They stared at her with their bright black eyes and smiled their eternal smiles. A great weight settled on Delight. She fumbled behind her for the burlap bag, and her hands were shaking. Her voice shook, as well, as she gave the customary greeting.
“Hail to you, fair wanderers, who have gathered to hear my tale. If it has nourished your souls, please nourish your bodies as well, with this.” She didn’t know if they understood her pretty speech. She didn’t know much about dolphins, except that they had been the friends of humans until something had angered them so much that now they never showed themselves to any but Aelmatia’s sacred clowns. And that only seldom. Delight herself had only seen likenesses of the wave-runners, tile mosaics on the bathhouse walls, tapestries in nobles’ houses. She found that looking at them roused something in her, an aching loneliness that she couldn’t explain.
They were waiting for her. She held up a fish and they chattered in pleasure. “Please, Aelmatia, don’t make me do this.” But the only thing that happened was a light salt breeze picked up off the sea and blew her hair back. She looked once more at the fish in her hand, felt as if from a distance the relief of letting it fall. One of the dolphins snapped it up before it hit the water.
The spell went off immediately. Delight felt it as a pressure in her ribs that brought her to her knees, gasping. The dolphins, all of them, thrashed the water with their tails and opened their smiling mouths in a silent cry.
When she dared look at the dolphins again they were staring at her, all of them, and in their black eyes she saw bitter reproach. But it was too late. The same force that bound her to the guild now bound the dolphins to her. She felt it as clearly as if the dolphins were physically chained to her. She waded out in the swirling surf, knee high, waist high, shoulder high. Her jester’s cap floated behind her head like a jellyfish’s long tentacles. The golden vest soaked up the brine.
One of the dolphins took her on its back and swam towards open water, and the others followed. They would take her to the child, wherever she was hidden. Delight held on as the warm sea poured over her. Despite her heavy heart she watched in open-eyed wonder as together they left the Bay of Lost Dolphins, left the jagged rocks of the coast, and headed out to the open sea.
Delight lost count of the tiny islands like jewels, where fruit hung low and clear streamwater trickled down to the sea. The further they traveled, the more lovely each one became, and the more Delight both longed for and dreaded the stops. Longed for, to stretch her cramped legs and dry off her sea-shriveled skin. Dreaded, because as soon as her movement towards the guild child ceased, the spell began its torment.
At last an island grew in the distance ahead of them, larger than the others, and the dolphins chattered back and forth as if they were speaking. They entered a cove where the water sparkled blue as sapphires, and the forest came right down to the white sands. A sweet, rich scent spiced the air. It was a place from a dream. Delight rolled off the dolphin’s back and flailed around in the water, her own limbs grown unused to moving her. Finally her feet found solid ground, and she walked, dripping, up the beach.
Only then did she see the child. A small girl, her hair bleached and brittle in the sun, her skin burned and peeling. She sat perfectly still on a rock, watching Delight, her small face showing neither fear nor pleasure.
Delight smiled. “Hail,” she said. Relief and happiness flowed through her, and for a moment she could not feel the spell at all. She pulled a silver ring from a pocket in her vest, tossed it in the air, added another and then a third. She waited for the child to smile, but the child did not smile. She stared, not at the rings as they flashed in the air, but at Delight herself, and Delight found her gaze unsettling. Perhaps she knew the secrets of sleight of hand and juggling already, and prided herself on her composure the way any Sister would.
Delight had lost her long hat in the waves. She caught the rings on her arm instead and wore them sparkling like bracelets.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The girl did not answer.
“I’m Delight. I’ve come to take you home. We’ll go by dolphin back!” Delight did not have to fake the joy in her voice. She had ridden a dolphin past the edge of the horizon! Surely Aelmatia was laughing to see her, her child, caught up in such an adventure. She wished she could stay with the dolphins, play amidst this beauty forever.
Already, though, Delight could feel the spell tugging her. She had found the child. Now she must bring her back again, quickly. She sighed.
“Come on then girl,” she said.
The girl rose wordlessly off the rock and a lump rose up in Delight’s throat. The child was helpless, as surely the Guild’s as she was. She wondered bitterly if the girl even had a name, or if she was just a plaything, some secret that couldn’t be let loose in the world.
But when she went down to the shore five dolphins stuck their heads out of the water where before there had been only four, and the new one, whose head was white and scarred as an old birch tree, spoke to her.
“Sister Pelagia, haven’t you stolen enough from us already, or did you need more?”
Delight stopped as if struck, and her head rang with silence where a hundred thoughts cut off too abruptly.
“And dressed as one of the Lady’s children, to make your treachery complete.”
It took her a long moment to find her tongue, and when she did, her voice shook. “H-How do you know me?”
“Our lives are not that short, or have you forgotten?” She had not known a dolphin was capable of the depth of anger she heard in the white one’s voice. She cursed the Guild for laying just one more trap for her to blindly stumble into.
“I’m not Sister Pelagia anymore.”
The white dolphin fell silent then, for so long that Delight became afraid. If the dolphins somehow managed to leave now, Sister Omega had said what the spell would do to her. She felt it tugging at her, impatient at the delay. A malice lurked behind that impatience that Delight didn’t want to contemplate, as if the spell were a person who wished to harm her.
“I’ve just come to return this child,” Delight said. “That’s all. I mean no harm to you.” The old dolphin snorted. “The Guild told me she was their child. Why did you steal her away?”
The old dolphin practically spat her bitterness. “We took her because it was the only recourse left to us after what you did.” Her old black eye bored into Delight’s. “You were our friend, Sister Pelagia. How could you betray us this way?”
Sister Pelagia had been tracing silences to their source. The dolphins were fools – they could hold a secret but they could not obscure the secret’s presence, and Pelagia was nothing if not a master at finding what others wanted obscured. She swam alone this time, through cool blue tunnels of coral and past a hundred glittering treasures that would have waylaid anyone who did not know that the true wealth lay beyond.
A current of icy cold flowed over Pelagia’s skin, and the water darkened. Though the chill crept into her she kept swimming – each coral polyp and each grain of sand below looked different now, as if they had been sculpted by some unearthly hand, perfect and aloof. Seeing it filled her with a swell of wonder, and she knew that feeling. It was the feeling of the presence of the immortal ones.
And where there were Immortals there were mysteries thick and plenty, a thousand secrets blooming from each one. The dolphins were hiding something ponderous, far bigger than she had guessed.
And she would know it.
The blue world turned indigo, then almost black, and Pelagia blew a light into her palm, and held it high. The very patterns of coral here seemed to hold answers to a thousand questions, but she could not understand the language of branching spines and crevices that gave them voice.
She came to a cave and slipped inside. Here motes like stars lit up the darkness; here, enclosed in rock walls, abode a sense of vastness.
And here the secret lay.
She knew it at once, for it filled the space with wonder. The very water tasted of it, sweet, exalted. She swam forward, the webbing between her fingers catching stars and flinging them away.
On a low shelf of rock lay a small sphere, darker than the rock, its smooth face etched with flowing runes. Pelagia swam close and picked it up, and with it in her hands she felt drunk on it, giddy with the discovery she was about to make. The sphere was Immortal crafted. She had never before seen anything made by Immortal hands, save for the adornments of the Keeper’s guards, and she wanted to study it, or worship it, or keep it. She had to remind herself it was just a vessel, that the real secret lay inside. Sister Pelagia’s mind stretched out with possibilities. What secrets might the Keeper grant her, in return for this most precious, hidden gem?
The box opened easily. Just a thought, a brush of desire against its surface, and it unfurled like a bud in springtime, and years of searching came to fruition.
It was a light, like a small, captive will o’the wisp, and it radiated such an overwhelming power that Pelagia drew back involuntarily, dropping the box and leaving the light hanging suspended in the water.
The light, after a brief pause, drifted towards her.
“Wait,” Pelagia said. She knew to be cautious. Other Sisters had grown too ambitious, other sisters had had their minds destroyed by power, unable to hold secrets they were not ready to hold. Sister Pelagia had not come this far only to make the same mistake.
The light drifted closer.
“Stop, I command you.” But the light drifted to her face, and now Sister Pelagia found she could not move, could only stare as the light grew to fill her field of vision, could only feel the coolness on her brow as the light entered into her, merged with her and left her, shaking, with a secret she knew no one else in the world, not Immortals or anyone, knew. A secret left unlearned in a box with the one race that would not feel the need to possess it.
Pelagia knew how a mortal could become immortal, and it was a terrible knowledge.
And as she thought of how to best rid herself of this knowledge, because she did not really want it, she felt it, that tickle in her soul, that meant the Keeper calling.
She had to bring this secret to Her. She could not avoid it, could not it if she wanted to. It was to bring secrets to the Keeper that the Guild existed.
Sister Pelagia swam from the cave. She swam up past the myriad treasures to where the water was bright and warm and the dolphins played in the waves. She fled when they came near, fled as fast as she could go towards the Bay of Secrets, above which sprawled the City of Secrets, above which loomed the Guild Hall’s highest tower, where the Keeper waited.
Too soon Sister Pelagia stood at the base of the tallest tower. Too soon the stairs spiraled up before her, farther than she felt she had strength to climb. The secret she’d wrested from the dolphins lay on her like a stone around her neck, pulling her, dragging her down.
She climbed the stairs anyway. With the secret inside her there was nothing else she could do, for the Keeper pulled all secrets to herself, inexorably.
When Pelagia reached the topmost stair she paused. There were the Immortals, the hems of their robes just touching the stone floor. She could not look into their faces. For an appalling second she thought, “This is it. Now their swords will sweep down, and their secret will be safe forever.” But they opened the door, and she passed them with her eyes straight ahead, and the door bumped closed behind her.
She was alone with the Keeper.
The Keeper had aged since that first day. Her skin hung loose on her bulk, her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, leaving Pelagia with the impression that her eyes were trying to turn inward, inward, away from the world.
The Keeper made no sound as Pelagia approached, only turned her ear, slightly, towards Pelagia’s lips. Sister Pelagia leaned near to do her duty to the Guild. She noticed, as from a great distance, that she was shaking uncontrollably, from dread.
She whispered the secret of eternal life into the Keeper’s perfect ear.
There was a sharp intake of breath. And now the Keeper’s head snapped around, and her small eyes fixed on Pelagia’s with an intensity that burned like fire, and the keeper let out a breath like a hiss, and she spoke.
“Now I will rule,” the Keeper whispered. Naked greed stained her voice; her once implacable face contorted with lust. Pelagia took a step back, then another, while the Keeper laughed a laugh tinged with madness.
Pelagia turned and ran, past the unmoving Eternal Ones, down the long spiral staircase.
Delight lay on the white sand, panting. Her hands burned with her inaction, the pressure behind her eyes was maddening. “Please!” she called out to the dolphins assembled in the cove. “Please, let us go. If the child truly is this ‘Keeper’s’ heir, as you say, then she’ll be safe with the Guild. You have no right to involve her in this. She has nothing to do with this secret you los—with the secret Sister Pelagia stole.”
“That you stole,” said the white dolphin, who said her name was Laughter. She wasn’t laughing now. “She has everything to do with it, for she is the Keeper’s heir and the Keeper will pass the secret on to her before she dies. Without this child, the secret will die with the Keeper.”
Delight burned with anger. “You don’t even know what the secret was.”
“But you do.”
“Then why didn’t you kidnap me too?” Delight said, a searing bitterness coursing though her entire body, like something eating her insides.
“It would appear that we didn’t have to.”
A shout of frustration tore from Delight’s lips. All she had to do was get the child back, just bring her back and give her to the first sister she saw. But the whole wide sea lay between her and the Guild. Perhaps, if she tried, the spell would give her the strength to swim that distance alone. “I’ll be dead if you don’t do something soon, and the ones who brought me here, too. Is that your plan, dolphin?”
“That is the spell speaking, not you, and it is affecting those who brought you here as well.”
“Then let us go!”
“We shall, but we are waiting for something, have patience.”
Delight looked up from the sand. The girl had come down off her rock and now stood looking down at her. Her eyes were empty, her face slack.
Delight found the sight of her unbearably funny. “Some heir,” she said, while laughter forced itself up from her burning lungs. “I bet the Keeper is happy you took her.”
A string of high-pitched shrieks started up among the dolphins, and Delight struggled to rise and look towards the sea. She saw a gray shape carving a wake with its fin as it swam straight towards Laughter. All the other dolphins parted before it.
Delight couldn’t see clearly what was happening, but soon the old white dolphin lifted her head above the waves. “Come here, Pelagia,” she said.
Delight managed to get her body to obey her command, and walked down the beach on shaking legs. The girl followed her, and as they neared the sea the pressure in Delight lessened. The surf swirling around her legs soothed her like a healing balm.
The gray dolphin recently come held something in its mouth.
“Take it,” Laughter said, and curious, Delight did. It was a carved sphere, so finely made it took her breath away. As it lay lightly in her palm something distant stirred within her.
“Open it,” Laughter said to her.
Delight fumbled around on its perfect surface, looking for a clasp or switch, but found nothing. The beauty of the sphere pierced her, filled her with tenderness and a sense of deep loss. It made the Guild’s spell seem far away, like something happening to someone else.
“Who made this?” she whispered, for surely the Lady was close, wherever such beauty dwelled.
“The Eternal Ones made it.”
She had thought, until that moment, that Immortals were just a children’s story. But now…whatever they had placed in this box, she wanted to know it.
And with that thought the sphere fell neatly into two halves, and inside it was empty, but the knowledge of what had lain within lit up inside Delight like a small sun.
Laughter stared up at her with her unreadable black eye.
“Oh no. You said – you said I gave this secret to the Guild?”
“We are sure that you did so.”
Delight looked at the Guild’s child, standing on the beach. She knew, now, why the child seemed so painfully dull. They hadn’t taught her any secrets at all, and they didn’t intend to.
“The Guild isn’t going to pass on their knowledge to her, they’re going to destroy her, like–like they did the secrets I used to have. The Keeper is going burn out her soul and use her body to live forever. Because–” it was unthinkable, but it was true, “–because she a vessel of immortality.”
Laughter let out a high whistle. It reflected the alarm that beat at Delight’s mind now, a pressure as strong as the spell, but irreconcilably opposite.
“I can’t take her to them. I won’t take her.”
Delight walked back up the beach, clutching the two halves of the sphere in her hands. With every step the pressure of the Guild spell beat at her mind like a club, but she was done with the Guild. She was working for them no longer, and no matter if it killed her. She could not, would not, be part of this atrocity any longer.
“Aelmatia, please, give me strength.” Delight sat on the sand. The pressure on her rose like a tidal wave. Black spots danced before her eyes. “Please, if I have ever asked anything of you, it is this.”
She almost didn’t hear the old dolphin calling her name. She blinked, shook her head. Her ears buzzed and her heart pounded.
“Pelagia, there is another way.”
Delight’s heart leapt up with hope. She raised her eyes to the water.
“We will help you. Take the child back to the Guild, like they asked.”
“And then, once your duty to them is fulfilled, you will be free to use some other secrets against them.”
“Wha-what other secrets?”
“Come with us, and we will show you.”
The Keeper came down from her tower to perform the ritual that would excise Sister Pelagia from the Guild of Secrets. The sisters had bound Pelagia, hand and foot, on a low marble slab in a high-ceilinged hall, and the cold seeped into her bones while she waited for the Keeper to move, ponderous, in procession from the far end. Sisters formed two lines on either side, and they chanted a low, discordant rhythm that filled Sister Pelagia with unaccountable dread. The procession seemed to go on forever.
At the end of it all, she would be free. Her soul would not be burdened any longer with secrets she did not wish to have, or with the knowledge that she had betrayed those she most loved. She lay on the cold stone and she repeated that over and over to herself. She wished it were already done. She was done with the Guild, sick almost to death of secrets.
The Keeper tottered forward. She seemed loathsome to Pelagia now, her her fat fingers, her sunken eyes gleaming with malice. Pelagia tried to read the sisters’ faces, to see if they knew, knew that they had been giving their secrets to a monster. For that was what the Keeper was. She was no god of power, no wise repository of the sacred. She was a vicious, conniving, plotter, who hoarded knowledge like a miser hoarded gold and gave only a pittance to her followers. If only Pelagia had known.
But she couldn’t have known. She was a member of the Guild of Secrets. She only knew the things that didn’t really matter.
The Keeper stood over her, cast her huge shadow across Pelagia’s face. The Keeper’s face, unlike the sisters’, was easy to read: it was a mask of disdain. The Keeper intoned the words of the ritual, but Pelagia didn’t really hear them. She heard the words she knew the Keeper spoke to her in her heart – you are too weak to be one of us; the Guild is far better of without you.
The Keeper’s voice rose to a crescendo. She raised her hands.
And then the pain came.
The secrets of the sea went first, seared away in a blast of power; how to breathe water like air, how to grow the skin between the fingers. She felt them burn and she screamed with the pain and also with the loss, for she loved the sea more than anything she had ever loved.
Next went the secret of how to speak the dolphin tongue. And that of birds, and the language of dragons. Sister Pelagia had known, abstractly, that she was going to lose these things.
She had not realized how much she cherished them.
Pelagia’s secrets incinerated beneath the hands and mind of the Keeper of Secrets. All the small secrets of her youth, and the furtive secrets of adolescence, and the guilty secrets of her early adulthood, when she still competed for dominance with other Guild members. The fat woman standing over the stone mercilessly took them all, careless of the damage to the rest of Pelagia’s soul. She took the joyous mysteries Pelagia had learned poring over books in the Guild library, and the hard-earned secrets of journeys to faraway lands and people. She took the meaning of the the name Pelagia had chosen for herself upon entering the Guild. She could not take the name, for it was too much part of her.
At last the secret of immortality took its turn beneath the woman’s scorching hands. It flamed, stubbornly, for a long time, the pain of its burning driving Pelagia nearly to darkness.
And the final thing she took was the first secret the young sister had ever whispered in her ear.
When she was done, the woman turned and trudged away, back down the hall, leaving Pelagia, cold, drenched with sweat.
“You have left the Guild,” said someone in a long dark robe. “Rise, and go, and forget your life here.”
The Guild sisters untied the bonds tying her to the stone and she sat up. She held her hands before her face and they looked like stranger’s hands. She felt light, like a great weight had been lifted from her. She smiled.
Delight stepped dripping out of the Bay of Secrets with Hope following obediently behind. She had named the child that, on the long ride back to the city, and though Hope said nothing Delight chose to believe that the name was a balm to her, that it undid some of the harm that the Guild had done. The two of them wended their way through the sleeping city, past shuttered shops and unlit lanterns, and no one tried to stop them. They came to the massive ebony doors of the Guild Hall, and the sisters flanking the doors stared at Delight in open scorn. She wanted to turn and flee, but the spell wrenched her forward.
The sisters tapped once in unison on the doors with short carved rods, and the doors opened soundlessly inward. Delight tried to hum a tune to calm her heart, but the notes caught in her throat. She glanced down at Hope, to remind herself to be brave for her sake, but the child stood staring straight ahead with empty eyes.
Sister Omega stood in the darkened foyer. “Welcome,” she said, but her voice held no welcome. “I would invite you to refreshment, but I am sure that now, so close to the end of your duties, you have no stomach for anything.” The cruel double meaning of her words stung Delight, and it was true – now that she stood in the hall the pressure of the spell was so great she could barely draw breath.
“Come here girl,” said Sister Omega, and Hope walked forward. As she crossed the polished floor the pressure on Delight nearly brought her to her knees, but she resisted. When the spell ended, everything depended on her being ready.
Sister Omega held out her hand and Hope placed her tiny fingers in hers. It was done.
But the pressure didn’t lift.
“I did your will,” gasped Delight, “free me now.”
And Sister Omega laughed. “You wretched, treacherous girl. What did you have planned for us? A little dolphin magic? Fool, you gave us all the dolphin’s secrets long ago. Your duty to us isn’t done while you are plotting another kidnapping, or worse.” She turned and gestured, and a sister glided out of the shadows. “Take the child to her quarters,” she said. “It seems our Pelagia had something nasty in store for us, and I must attend to it.”
A wave of rage and revulsion swept over Delight as it sank in – the sister’s spell had read her mind, or her emotions, or taken something from her that she hadn’t meant to give. She could feel it tightening its hold on her, wrapping her like a snake in its coils.
“Hope,” she called out, “Hope fight them!” But Hope merely followed meekly in the sister’s footsteps and was lost among the shadows at the edge of the hall.
“You are evil,” she screamed, anger reviving her voice. “All of you, snakes, murderers, treacherous backstabbing fiends!”
Sister Omega smiled. “You’re hardly in a position to call us that, traitor.” She tsked and shook a finger at Delight. “And this is hardly becoming of a sacred child of our Lady of Joy. Perhaps your faith is flagging.” Sister Omega looked positively elated.
“She’s not your lady!” screamed Delight. “Not-” and then she was sobbing on the floor because Omega was right. Somewhere along the way she had forgotten her faith. Her Lady’s joy had fled and Delight had not tried to find it.
“Well, don’t worry your empty head about that,” crowed Sister Omega. “We’ll help you. We’ll send for the Keeper straightaway, and let her burn all those nasty, vindictive thoughts out of you. We’ll soon have you happy again. Happy and empty, just like the Lady wants you.”
Sister Omega didn’t bother to have her bound, just told her where to go and she was helpless to resist. Delight fought furiously in her mind, tried to win back one ounce of her own volition, but she could not gain enough to enact the dolphin’s plan. The dolphins had thought she would be free.
“You used to do this, you know,” said Sister Omega. “You were good at it, too. Shall I tell you about the things you made people do?”
Delight ground her teeth, and tears of helpless frustration sprang to her eyes. She had never felt like this before, a burning rage that consumed her wholly.
“Oh, I can tell you anything I want, can’t I? You won’t remember any of it, once the Keeper’s done with you. Did you know I tricked the Griffin Lord? Stole a dragon’s egg from him, the one you gave him as a royal gift ten years ago. He won’t live long enough to get another one. Would you like to see it?” Omega laughed. “Oh, I forgot, you’ve seen it before. It would just bore you.”
Sister Omega led Delight into a wide hall, the vaulted stone above hung with spherical glass lanterns. At the far end, a slab of stone.
“And that – do you remember that, Pelagia?” Sister Omega said.
Delight tried. She had been trying, through all the long weeks riding dolphinback to the Bay of Secrets, to remember something, some secret to aid her. But she had remembered nothing. Laughter said to stop trying, that the Immortal secret was different, that all the others had been burned away to ash and past ash, and were gone forever. Delight had not wanted to believe her.
“They bound you right there, stupid girl. And you let them. At least now you’ve got some spirit back in you.” Sister Omega whirled on her, her voice suddenly fierce. “Why did you do it?” All Sister Omega’s mockery had gone. “You had everything. Do you hear me, Pelagia? em>Everything. And you gave it up to be a jester, a fool. Some of us would have killed, to know what you knew.”
Delight burned with the desire to hurt Sister Omega as much as she was hurting her. “I still know a secret,” she whispered. The secret was the only power she had, and if she didn’t use it now she never would. “I know how to create a child who holds the key to immortality. I know how to destroy its soul and take its place. I know how to unlock the door, so I can live forever.”
“You know I’m not.”
Sister Omega stopped her procession down the long hall.
“You know I’m not. I told the Keeper, and now there’s an heir who doesn’t know any secrets. She doesn’t need to.”
“Sister Pelagia,” Omega said, and her voice was warning.
“I’ve been waiting all this time,” said Delight. The lie came out of her smoothly, though inside it hurt. “I’ve been waiting to return, once the child was old enough. The Keeper wants to keep the secret for herself, but if I rule we will all live forever, an unstoppable sisterhood. The secrets of the Immortals and the dragons will no longer be beyond us. Help me.”
“The secret first,” Omega said.
“If I tell you the secret, you will trick me.” Delight tried not to think of how she was attempting to trick Sister Omega. What would Aelmatia think, if she could see Pelagia now? Sister Omega is trying to hurt me, she thought, but the excuse rang hollow. The Lady of Rapture only played jokes that made people laugh and harmed no one.
“If I let you go the Keeper will do worse than that to me. She made that spell on you herself – she wants you. Tell me the secret now, and then I’ll help you.”
Sister Omega gasped. Then she crumpled to the floor and lay still.
“Sister Omega?” Delight whispered. “Sister Omega?”
Delight found she could take a full, deep breath. She could stand up straight. The spell was ended. Frantic, she reached into the pocket of her still damp vest and pulled out a piece of broken coral. With trembling hands she dropped it to the floor and crushed it underfoot, like the dolphins had told her to do.
An obese woman shuffled into view at the rear of the hall, leaning heavily on a cane. Delight knew at once who she must be, though she could not remember ever having seen her before.
The Keeper was the most age-wracked human Delight had ever seen. Her skin hung loose on her tremendous body, and her hair wisped around her scalp like thin smoke. She shuffled down the hall one laborious step at a time, and with each step closer Delight felt more and more hopeless. The power the Keeper radiated stunned all thought of escape from her mind.
When the Keeper stood close enough for Delight to reach out and touch her, the Keeper’s flesh pulled across her cheeks in a mockery of a smile. Delight looked away. There on the floor, Sister Omega’s body was no longer whole. The clothes had rotted and the flesh fell away in hunks. Delight suppressed a scream. She had tried to trick Sister Omega, and now sister Omega was dead. And Delight’s last magic had failed.
When other Sisters came and chained Delight to the stone, Delight did not fight them.
She lay on the stone, waiting for the end to come. Guilt and dread made her body feel heavier than lead. Where was the joy Aelmatia promised? Where was the wide-eyed wonder she had always felt in her Lady’s service?
When it came down to it, it had burned away like mist in the sun.
Delight opened her eyes when a soft hand caressed her cheek. Eyes the color of twilight looked down into hers. A face as perfect as a marble statue hovered above her face, and a soft voice sounded deep in her head in the place reserved for her own inner voice. It spoke an unfamiliar language, but she had no trouble understanding.
“You have one of our secrets,” it said.
Delight turned her face away.
“Under your scars you keep it, it is heavy.”
“Go away,” she whispered. If she looked at the Eternal One her heart would break. She had thought that the Immortals were wise, compassionate. Yet here they stood with the Guild, saying the very things the Guild said.
“We will take you away from here,” said the Immortal in her head. The beauty of its voice filled her with longing. “You will live with us – we can heal you, you can commune with the Lady all your days, in peace. The Guild will not hurt you any more.”
Despite everything, relief flooded through her like water. “You would do that?” she whispered.
“But you must take the child Hope, too. They’re going to kill her.”
A second pale face appeared beside the first. Its eyes held the rose-orange glow of dawn, and a second voice high and clear as a chime rang in her head.
“We only offer you back yourself. You, the keeper of our secret.”
But she could come back. She could go with the Immortals now and then come back and save Hope before the Keeper could complete the ritual. She had no sooner thought it than the first Eternal’s voice filled her. “No,” it said. “Once you go with us, you will never return to this land.”
“Then just save her! Don’t you care?”
The Immortals shook their heads, solemn. “Only you. We have sworn a vow to leave the world to itself. Ours is simply to watch its unfolding.”
Delight felt something inside her twist. Aelmatia had abandoned her – she knew how it felt to be left alone. She would not repay her the Lady’s unkindness with unkindness of her own. “No,” she whispered to the Immortals. “No. I won’t let my life mock the Lady. I am her voice. I am her hands. I won’t abandon Hope to the Guild.”
The Immortals fell back. “Then we can do nothing.” They lowered their hands and Delight heard the ring of metal. Then they held two bright swords high.
The Immortals turned to the Keeper, and this time one spoke aloud. “She has refused our gift. We will carry out your sentence.”
Delight looked up at the Eternals with their bright swords. Even holding her death they were beautiful. She waited to feel the rage and betrayal, the hate that, even bound and helpless, she could pour through her eyes into them, but she felt only a small sadness. She was the Lady’s hands. Every harm she had done for the Guild had only hurt her deeper. She was done with it.
“Thank you Lady,” she said. For her pain had not gone, but it was enfolded by something larger, some peace that existed in failure, some joy that encircled loss. “Please help Hope, when I am gone. I know you can.”
She waited for the swords to come down.
But they did not. Instead the Immortals lowered their weapons and stood staring down at Delight with some fierce expression. Her body felt strange, her hands suddenly burned with agonizing pain, and when she twisted against her bonds she raised her arms with the melted ends of chains hanging off her wrists. Her hands shone bright gold, like twin suns. As soon as she saw them, the pain grew into a joy so piercing she cried out.
The Immortals fell back before her. The Keeper watched her with a face twisted in terror. Everywhere sisters fled, scattered into the shadows of the hall, which echoed back their cries of fear. Delight held her hands, Aelmatia’s hand, out before her. She could do anything with these hands. They were a song with no ending.
So Delight sang in the hall of the Guild of Secrets, of a joy so huge it contained both happiness and sorrow, love and loss, within it, and her song brought a small child with sunburned skin to her and placed Aelmatia’s spark in her that no one might harm her. And then the song took the child away from the Guild, to the sea where the waverunners played, and set her a home on a beach by a cove, where the sun sparkled on the water, where a white dolphin named Laughter would see that she was safe and loved and happy.
Then Delight walked out of the Hall and into the winding cobbled streets, still singing, and danced among the people. When they saw her some of them laughed, and some of them cried, and all of them felt, deep in their hearts, that joy would never truly leave them.