Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 51
Mathematical Certainty
by Andrew Neil Gray
Only Then Consume Them
by Aimee Picchi
The Raptor Snatchers
by Rachael K. Jones
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Light Brigade
by Kameron Hurley
Bonus Material

Only Then Consume Them
    by Aimee Picchi

Only Then Consume Them
Artwork by Anna Repp

Sabina's father shifted uneasily in a tall-backed chair, while her mother wore a supplicant's smile, as if nothing more than a blessing would be exchanged once the abbess joined them in the convent's salon.

"Times are difficult--" Her papa turned to Sabina, trying to be kind, as always.

"I know that, Papa." She crossed her ankles under her chair, wondering if her parents would take her home if she promised to never again write letters to the bestia master in Tunis, nor again make feathers and scraps of fabric into her own crudely animated creatures. She opened her mouth, but the vow shriveled in her throat. Even though she knew bestia were one of three heresies forbidden in the Kingdom of Sicily, she couldn't make herself pledge to stop.

Sabina's mother opened her fan and swiped at the air languidly. "The convent of Santa Agata has agreed to accept you as a servant nun. It's the best that can be expected."

"Papa, Mama--please." Sabina pressed her lips together as soon as the words slipped past her tongue, irritated by her girlish tone. She was sixteen, an adult now, and she realized her parents would no longer view her behavior as harmless childhood whims.

Her father refused to meet her eyes; he was ashamed, she saw, and would rather stare at the carpet than at his heretic daughter.

Heels clacked along the corridor leading into the salon. The abbess strode into the room with hands tucked inside her robes, her elbows stiffly angled away from her body. She had the prickly resolve of one of Sabina's bestia machines, as if marching to orders that only she and her creator could hear.

Behind her trailed a servant nun, carrying a silver plate bearing two mounds of cake, soft white domes of sugar-glazed pastry topped with ruby-red cherries.

"Signore, signora." The abbess nodded a welcome, and sat in one of the high-backed chairs. The servant nun stationed herself by the salon's shuttered windows, and as she passed by, Sabina caught a scent of the cakes' vanilla pastry.

Sabina had heard of these delicacies, minni di virgini, and their comical resemblance to their namesakes. She didn't understand why the nuns would sell these sweetened symbols of Santa Agata, as if making light of the saint's sacrifice. Sabina crossed her arms over her chest.

"Reverend mother," her mother said, "may I present our eldest daughter, Sabina?"

"Eldest?" The abbess's eyebrows glided upwards. "No marriage prospects, I take it?"

Her father glanced at her mother, almost too quickly for even Sabina to catch. If they spoke honestly, the abbess would have no choice but to turn Sabina over to the Duke of Pamera or ask the bishop for an inquisition.

Sabina tried to calm her mind with simple tricks--counting, multiplying, adding patterns of numbers--but nothing could banish the worry creeping across her skin. The abbess continued to stare at Sabina with an expression she thought might be something like puzzlement.

"Indeed, just so, Abbess," Sabina's mother said at last, waving her fan with an acquiescent flutter.

"May I present the convent dowry?" Her father fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, withdrawing a small moneybag, which he proffered to the abbess. She tucked the pouch inside her robes with a businesslike dip of her chin.

The abbess turned to the servant nun holding the tray of pastries. "Suor Bianca, please serve our guests."

Sabina's mother picked up one of the white cakes and nibbled at its edges, while her father held his in his lap. He jiggled his legs, making the cake wobble.

Sabina felt as if she might get sick. "Please--don't leave me here," she pleaded.

"If you loved us, you wouldn't make a scene," her mother said.

If only she could run down the hill, back into the twisted streets of Pamera. She longed for a place where could make her bestia without fear, and where she could talk to others like her about designs and ideas. Tunis, she thought. But no ship would take a woman without a chaperone to Naples, let alone into the Gulf of Tunis. Perhaps her older brother and his new wife, in their pretty blue-doored house on Vica Nuova, would take her in.

As she bolted from her chair and rushed into the hallway, two-brown robed sisters grabbed her arms. Sabina screamed, kicked and flailed, trying and failing to pull against their strength while they dragged her down the corridor. She heard the abbess say to her parents, "Such initial struggles are not uncommon, but she will come to accept our way of life."

Never, she thought.

As the two sisters dragged her to a cell, her heart raced like a rabbit fleeing one of her machines, jolting and frantic to get away.

After three days, when Sabina had stopped yelling and banging against the door, two nuns opened the cell.

"We'll take you to your new job," one of them said. The other handed her a broom and escorted her to the kitchen.

Sugar granules and dustings of flour flecked the black stone floor like stars in the night sky. The sorelle dolci, the sisters who crafted the rounded minni, the arancia candita, the almond paste frutta, circled in tight orbits around the kitchen's center table as they filled molds with pale dough.

Sabina swept up after them, while eyeing the bars on the windows and the filigreed screen where a familiar face awaited customers. It was the servant from the parlor, whom she recalled the abbess had called Suor Bianca.

Bianca sat at the window with a moneybox on the counter and a ledger in her lap. When customers approached the screen, they crouched down to speak their orders through the small opening and push their money across to Suor Bianca. The nun wrapped the pastries in brown paper and pushed the parcels to the waiting customers.

The screen offered the most hope for Sabina to escape, although how she might widen the opening to a size that would fit her body, she wasn't exactly sure. She had never been able to create a bestia larger than a kitten, and she would need a creature stronger and more powerful than that to smash through the screen and allow her to escape to her brother's house.

Suor Bianca motioned Sabina over.

"I notice that you're studying this window," Bianca whispered.

"Does looking require payment, too?" Sabina pointed to the moneybox sitting on Bianca's lap.

The other sister's mouth quirked up in amusement. After the days she had spent staring at the stone walls of her cell, dreaming of living in freedom with her brother--who had always looked on with tolerance when she fashioned a small bestia--Sabina felt her dignity shrink under Bianca's glance, whose light-hearted smile failed to disguise the pity shadowing her eyes. Sabina shifted from foot to foot. She was accustomed to her family's reactions of fear and astonishment, but pity was something new and unwanted.

Bianca tapped the filigreed screen. "I had the same thought when I first came here." She lowered her voice even more. "It won't break. And in any case, you are much better off in the convent."

Sabina narrowed her eyes. "I've had enough of people telling me what they think is best."

Bianca sighed and drummed her fingers against her brown dress. "Fine. Just don't try the screen. It won't work."

Suor Angelica, the oldest of the sorelle dolci, called out, "Eccola." She carried a tray of white, glazed pastries, with cherries tipping upward to the heavens.

Sabina reached out for one, her mouth watering, but Suor Angelica yanked her hand away. "These are for paying customers only," she scowled.

Bianca tilted her head in empathy, but Sabina imagined there was a bit of enjoyment in her expression.

Sabina's face flushed with chagrin and injured pride. She wanted to show Bianca that she wasn't a fool. She hadn't created a bestia in several days, and her brain was itching, full of numbers and patterns that wanted to be put into service. While she understood that creating a bestia inside a convent was a foolish risk, her mind crawled with ideas that needed to find a release. And the thought of seeing Bianca's astonishment would surely be an added pleasure.

After Suor Angelica had placed the tray on the counter by the window and returned to the kitchen ovens, Sabina ran the sequence in her head, imagining how the pieces would move together: a copper piccoli from the coin box, a piece of folded paper from the ledger in Bianca's lap. A puppet of paper and metal, which would move without strings. It would obey the rules Sabina created in her mind: how to move its legs, how to push and pull. The master in Tunis had written that those rules were called an algoritmi.

Bianca gave a start as the ledger jerked and a page ripped itself from the binding, then folded its four corners into tiny legs and a body; she gasped when the piccoli jumped from her box, forming a head for the bestia.

Sabina finished the algoritmi with a set of instructions that would make it prance like a show horse. A second later the bestia galloped about the counter.

"Oh--" Bianca said, regarding the horse with fearful, glassy eyes, just as Sabina's parents had looked when they caught her making bestia.

As the creature scampered about the counter, Bianca's face relaxed, and she clasped a hand over her mouth, hiding a giggle.

Startled, Sabina almost lost control of the algoritmi. Bianca wasn't reacting the same way as her parents. As the creature gamboled, Bianca clapped her hands in delight.

But when the bestia pranced to the tray of pastries and climbed the white hillocks, digging its sharp hooves into the glazed mounds, Bianca's laugh hardened into a cry of dismay.

"What is it, my dear?" Suor Angelica hurried over in alarm.

By the time the older nun reached the window, Sabina had brushed the tiny horse from the pastries' white domes, flinging it through the screen's opening.

Bianca trembled. The gentle slopes of the minni di virgini were marred and churned, as if a battle had been waged on their tender landscapes. The cherries had rolled from their pinnacles, and now were scattered like ruined, glistening treasures on the floor and Bianca's lap.

Suor Angelica gasped, her hands flying to her temples. She may have been about to cry, Sabina realized. But the baker pulled her mouth straighter and placed her hands on her hips.

"Suor Bianca, what caused this calamity?" The old nun's voice trembled.

Bianca refused to meet Sabina's pleading eyes.

"A mouse," Bianca said, staring at the ruined pastries.

Through the screen's few inches of visibility, the tiny paper-and-copper horse galloped beneath an umbrella pine, and fell apart.

After a day of searching the convent's rooms, Sabina found Bianca scrubbing the infirmary floor.

Sabina coughed quietly, and Bianca glanced at her with dark-circled eyes. Then she resumed her focus on the floor and her scrubbing. Sabina watched her, her voice halting between her throat and her mouth. She wanted to apologize to Bianca, but she didn't even know where to start the conversation.

Still scrubbing, Bianca said, "At the least you could thank me."

Sabina found her voice. "A million thanks wouldn't be enough." She crouched next to Bianca. "I was concerned about you . . ."

Bianca squeezed her arm. "No need. I've had worse. The abbess gave me a week of cleaning duties, then I'm set to return to the kitchen and my ledger book."

Relief washed across Sabina. "I worried there was a dungeon."

Bianca laughed. "Oh, Santa Agata's punishments are drearier than that." She shook the brush, splattering the younger sister with suds.

Sabina wiped the water from her face and smiled, but couldn't help asking, "Why didn't you tell Suor Angelica the truth?"

Bianca leaned back on her heels, and rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand.

"I was scared at first by your bestia," she admitted. "But when I looked more carefully . . . well, it wasn't anything like the war machines from Tunis."

"I heard they have custom-made machinery for their bestia," Sabina said. The Tunis master had written about how they trained students to hold long and complex algoritmi for hours; the biggest machines required two or more masters working together, with one to control the feet, and another the hands. "I only use what materials are nearby. My mother was furious with me when I plucked the feathers from one of her hats."

Bianca's eyes narrowed in thought. "Your parents knew about this--so that's why you were sent here?"

"They were worried I would taint the family name and ruin my sister's chances of finding a husband. Now I'm the convent's problem." Sabina winced at her own careless chatter. "You won't tell the others here, will you?"

Bianca returned to her scrubbing. "I can't see how a tiny horse is a heresy."

"Maybe not a heresy, but--" Sabina brushed the skirt of her dress, suddenly nervous. She had often wondered whether all bestia were prone to destruction, from the most brutal Tunisian war machines to her small creations. It was what had first prompted her to secretly write to the bestia master in Tunis, since she had had heard that his creations weren't all designed for war. He had answered that he believed bestia could alleviate suffering and solve many problems, but he stressed that his purpose in writing back was to warn her to leave Sicily; he had heard stories about the dismal fate of heretics there. He had room in his studio for an additional student, he had written.

Bianca tilted her head and smiled ruefully. "It was just bad luck. But stop attempting to impress people. Another batch of ruined pastries, and I'll be made to scrub the chamber pots."

When letter day arrived, there was an envelope addressed to Sabina, who took it with a growing sense of unease. Bianca glanced at it, curious.

"My sister," Sabina explained.

"What does she write?" Bianca leaned closer.

She hesitated. It was bad enough that Bianca knew she could create bestia. If anyone overheard what was in the letter, it could get Sabina branded as something worse, a spy working with Tunis. So Sabina didn't tell her its contents: her mother had burned the letters from the bestia master, and was refusing to allow the family to mention Sabina's name. Her sister had written to ask her not to be angry with their family; that they were afraid, and that she was sure they all loved her, since she still did, despite Sabina's faults.

"Just daily things, about shopping and who has visited the home." Sabina shrugged, and tucked the paper under her arm. "What about you? Any letters?"

"No, not that I would expect any."

"Why is that?"

"My brother-in-law and his wife paid my convent dowry. After my husband died, they didn't want to support me longer than they needed to. So--" Bianca made a motion as if brushing dirt from her hands. "They were glad to get rid of me, and the rest of my family died in the last war with Tunis."

"You--your--" Sabina tried to keep the shock from her voice. Just as she was about to ask if Bianca had seen Tunis's bestia in action, what had they looked like, how had they moved, she stopped herself. How could she have thought to ask her to relive that? And how could Bianca treat her with such kindness after losing her family to the machines?

Bianca patted Sabina's knee. "It was a long time ago."

The bell rang, signaling the end of reading time.

Suor Angelica stood at the front of the room and picked out a handful of sisters, Bianca among them. Bianca whispered to Sabina that they would be allowed to eat the day's unsold minni di virgini.

"I wish I would be chosen," Sabina said, imagining the soft sweetness of the cakes.

Bianca smiled, but sadly. "Suor Angelica likes to choose sisters who have nothing left except such small pleasures."

The letter from Sabina's sister scratched through her thin wool dress. "As I do," she said.

Bianca blinked slowly, her chin crumpling. Sabina's breath caught in her chest; of course she had no understanding of the kind of loss suffered by Bianca.

Bianca joined the others as they disappeared into the kitchen.

Every night, the sisters prayed to Santa Agata.

The abbess began, "Agata was both ordinary and extraordinary; the same as any of us." She recited the familiar story: After Agata's beauty attracted unwanted attention from a Roman suitor, she spurned him, wanting to remain faithful to her beliefs. The suitor forced her into a brothel, but Agata remained steadfast and refused to consort with customers.

For her committed beliefs, she was subjected to torture. Her suitor cut off her breasts. She died.

It was a tale as familiar to Sabina as Pamera's streets; a bit of Santa Agata's knee bone was enshrined in a reliquary in her neighborhood church. She had always thought Agata's life was a lesson in piety, illustrating how a good Christian girl had bravely rejected the pagan Romans. But now, in the candle-lit chapel, she wondered if its meaning was entirely different: a warning about adhering to an unpopular belief.

Sabina shivered and pulled her shawl tighter.

During the service, she devised a plan. If she couldn't find an open door at the convent, if the bars were too strong and her bestia too weak to break through, she would find a cleverer method of getting out.

The bestia master in Tunis had shared some of his ingenious plans with her: machines that whirled like seedpods on the wind. Others could burrow under the earth, like moles.

As the choir sang a hymn in honor of Santa Agata, Sabina felt warmth flooding her limbs as she recreated the beauty of the Tunis master's algoritmi. Running instructions for flight, for lift and spin. She closed her eyes, lost in creating each step of instruction and holding it to memory so that she would be ready to set the creature aloft later that night.

When Sabina opened her eyes, she found the abbess was staring at her with the same expression as when Sabina had first met her in the salon, as if she were trying to decipher a code. Sabina slumped in the pew, hiding behind the heads of the sisters sitting in front of her. Did the abbess suspect she had heretical plans swirling through her mind? She ventured another glance at the abbess, who was now studying the chancel's fresco of Santa Agata's agony. Sabina breathed easier.

That night in her cell, Sabina created the mechanics of the bestia: three feather-like blades, twisted together and secured with a bit of wax. It was so beautifully simple. Sighing with delight, she took a quill nib and dipped it in ink, writing cramped letters to save space.

"Dear Brother," Sabina wrote. "I am in Santa Agata's. Please fetch me."

She held the fragile creation by her barred window, running the algoritmi through her mind, concentrating. A moment of fear jostled her focus as she remembered how quickly the horse she had made in the kitchen had fallen apart. But that had been a toy cobbled together on a whim. She brushed the fear from her mind, willing her algoritmi to make the bestia more than just feather-blades and wax. .

Its wings fluttered, then the bestia lifted from her hands and flitted between the iron bars. As it disappeared into the night sky, she uttered a prayer under her breath: Please find the way. Fly to my brother's blue-doored house on Vica Nuova. Fly.

The day after sending the flying bestia, Sabina waited in expectation of her brother's arrival.

As the noon bells chimed, the convent's door shuddered with pounding.

Sabina, in the kitchens, stopped sweeping. Bianca looked up sharply, eyebrows pinched in worry.

In the hallway, the abbess swept toward the convent's entrance, keys jangling on her belt. Suor Angelica, Bianca and the other sorelle dolci left their posts in the kitchen, following behind. Sabina trailed along. In the hallway, all the convent's nuns were gathered, a river of brown-robed women following the abbess's tall black form.

She unlocked the front door.

There stood Bishop Antonio, well known to all of Pamera's citizens; his blue eyes and handsome face had caused many young women to swoon during mass.

Behind the bishop stood ten heavily armed men, wearing the Duke of Pamera's sigil.

The abbess pulled herself tall. "To what do I owe the honor?"

The bishop cleared his throat. "An alarming charge, I'm afraid." He didn't use the customary honorific when greeting the abbess, Sabina noted. "A citizen of Pamera has evidence of heresy at Santa Agata."

The abbess froze, her arm dangling the keys by her side. "That is an outlandish assertion."

The bishop pulled the flying bestia from his cassock. He read Sabina's note, "Dear Brother, I am in Santa Agata's. Come fetch me."

The abbess's shoulders relaxed. "It must be a child's joke."

The bishop frowned. "The citizen who brought us this bestia saw it flying through the air. It landed on his doorstep."

Had Sabina's brother found the device and turned it over to the bishop? Was her brother also washing his hands of her? But no, her brother wouldn't have reported her, because in doing so he would implicate the entire family in her heresy.

Sabina's breathing quickened, and her robes felt heavy and tight. Black stars swirled in the corners of her vision. A hand reached out: Bianca, lending support.

The bishop tucked the bestia back in his robes. "I am here to investigate whether a heretic may be hiding behind your walls. The duke agreed to my request to station these men," he gestured to the guards, "for your own protection."

Some of the sisters whispered to each other in disbelief. Bianca tightened her grip on Sabina's arm, and Sabina gratefully leaned into her, trembling as dizziness washed over her.

"Creating a bestia is a heresy that strikes at the core of the Church's teachings," he said. Although he had raised his voice, it still had a calm tone, as if he were lecturing children. "The Ottomans have perfected this heresy by entering pacts with demons. One of you may even be in communication with the heathens and their devils. A spy."

Softer, he continued, "As long as the heretic recants, everyone will be saved. If not, then I will be forced to punish all of you."

The abbess bowed her head. "Your Excellency, I assure you there are no heretics within the convent."

Knees shaking, Sabina pushed against Bianca's grip. Heretic or not, she wouldn't allow anyone else to suffer for her crimes. "Don't draw attention to yourself," Bianca hissed, pulling at Sabina's sleeve.

The bishop glared at the abbess. "An old song that no longer makes me dance. The abbot of Castelli also vouched for his monks. I took him at his word. That night, as I slept as a guest of the monastery, an infernal bestia attacked my guard. It burrowed its way through his flesh."

The bishop tugged at his collar with shaking hands, revealing white scars that slashed down his neck and disappeared beneath his cassock. "I narrowly avoided the same fate."

Sabina stopped struggling against Bianca; she no longer was confident the bishop would listen to her explanation about her bestia, no matter how much she assured him she wasn't a spy.

The abbess made the sign of the cross. "I will say a prayer for your guard and all innocents who have died due to bestia. Yet what happened at the monastery does not mean evil is hiding behind this plaything. If you are going to punish foolishness as heresy, you may as well punish all of humanity."

The bishop's face paled. Without warning, he grabbed the abbess's collar, pulling her close. He shook the abbess as if she was covered in filth and his hands could dislodge the dirt from her robes. She let out a small choking sound as his fists pressed against her throat.

Sabina glanced at Bianca and the other nuns; they were staring, unsure of whether to intervene. Already, she was thinking of how to create a new bestia, but the hallway was bare of useful materials, and she wasn't sure she had the mastery for a creature that could knock over a grown man.

With an abrupt shove, the bishop pushed the abbess away from him.

"It is clear this convent does not take the threat seriously," he said. He breathed deeply, and his calm tone returned. "This device may seem harmless, but I have interrogated many bestia masters. The woman who created this has a stain in her heart. She will one day aspire to creating war machines or assassination devices. She may be a spy, already corresponding with Tunis, perhaps even sent here to infiltrate our kingdom. Do you want to see the cities of Sicily crushed by the war machines? Do you want to see your loved ones killed by the monstrosities of Tunis and their Ottoman sultans?"

The abbess, her face red, placed her hands over her throat and said in a hoarse voice, "Your Excellency, we are merely simple women devoted to the message of Santa Agata, may the Lord bless her soul."

The bishop tugged at his dark sleeves, pulling them over his wrists, and brushed the fabric of his cassock, as if throttling the abbess had sullied his clothes. "I will begin interviews with the sisters tomorrow." He squinted at the abbess as if inspecting an insect. "I will start with you, Abbess, at first light."

Bianca took Sabina's hand and gave it a squeeze, a gesture that was more calming than a mindful of numbers.

Sabina swept the kitchen floor, watching the corridor for the sisters as they exited their interviews with the bishop. Most left the chapel with bruises and cuts. While the convent's work continued, the women spoke in anxious tones. The icing on the minni di virgini had a sickly sheen, and Bianca cast a worried look toward Sabina as she wrapped the pastries.

The night before the bishop was set to interrogate Sabina, the abbess called her into her office. Her hand was splinted, and she moved gingerly, as if something deep within her had been wounded.

A numbness overtook Sabina, as if a cold ocean current had engulfed her. Could the abbess know that she was a bestia master? But if the abbess knew, then why hadn't she told the bishop about her suspicions? Or had she called Sabina into her office to convince her to confess? Taking a seat across from the abbess, Sabina hid her trembling hands by tucking them inside her sleeves.

"My parents forced me into the convent," the abbess said. "Only a handful of our sisters entered on their own accord. Most would have chosen freedom, such as it were."

She folded her hands together. "But through the years, I came to understand how Santa Agata's was a gift. Instead of bowing to the wishes of a husband, or sons, or parents by law, I found the convent formed its own world, where women could choose, to some limited extent, what type of life they would lead.

"But now, not only I but every sister here is at risk of losing it all. The bishop will burn each of us, then tear the convent to its foundations."

"Abbess--" Sabina began, and her heart was suddenly beating fast. "I--am sorry."

The abbess smiled, sad and tired. "Yes, child."

Sabina bowed her head. "The bestia are truly creatures of ill-tidings."

The abbess leaned forward, and caught Sabina's downcast eyes. "Let me show you something."

The abbess took a scrap of paper from her desk, and held it in her outstretched palm. Her face relaxed, erasing the worry marks between her eyes. A placid mask replaced her tired expression, yet something moved behind that blankness. It was concentration and pure will, Sabina realized.

The paper in the abbess's palm folded into triangles, once and then twice, transformed into the dress of a dancer. It spun and twirled in the abbess's palm.

"You--" Sabina sat up as if fire had coursed through her veins. "I have never met another--not in person, I mean--" Flustered, she started again. "I thought I was alone."

The abbess crumpled the paper in her hand, and the worry lines returned to her face. "That is the curse of being forced to live in hiding," she said. "There are more of us than you would suspect. Did you watch my face when I created the dancer?"

Sabina nodded.

"That's the look most bestia masters have when they are creating." The abbess smiled sadly. "I have prayed over and wrestled with this ability for many years, but God remains silent. I have come to believe the bestia are merely reflections. To Tunis, they are war machines. To the bishop, they are a taint that the church must eradicate. You, however, are a young woman with a head full of ideas. But so was Santa Agata. If she had had someone to protect her, our convent would have been named after another saint."

The older woman's shoulders sagged. "I was certain about you after seeing that same expression on your face in the chapel. I had planned to have a confidential chat with you the following day about keeping your bestia work inside your own cell. Some sisters are more understanding than others."

Sabina's chest felt as if it were going to swell and burst at the pain of regret and sorrow. Unknowingly, she had found a place where she could have been left alone to craft bestia, where at least Bianca and the abbess would have accepted her. She had placed them all at risk.

The abbess reached for Sabina's hands and held them between her own, the splint hard and rough.

"You must choose between either burning at the stake, or exile." The abbess's hands trembled, ever so slightly. "I am sorry that I am not able to protect you any longer. Is there a place where you might find refuge?"

"I had hoped my brother would take me in--"
"No," the abbess said sharply. "They would find you there within hours."

Thinking of the offer from the master in Tunis, Sabina whispered, "I'll travel to--"

The abbess raised a hand, cutting her off. "Do not tell me. The less I know, the better."

"But it's impossible for me to leave the convent. There are guards at the entrance, and in my habit, I would be easy to track."

"There's one door that the guards have overlooked. And they'll be searching for a girl." The abbess stood and opened the side door to her office. Bianca bustled inside, a roll of clothes under her arms. The nun shook them out, revealing a man's suit of clothing.

"Bianca has worked tirelessly since the bishop arrived to sew this for you. You'll be a young man on a voyage. Once you are away from the convent, you must find your own way." The abbess pressed a small purse into her hands.

"I'll leave Sicily. I'll find a bestia master who can teach me." Sabina said. Her voice sounded firm, but the coins in the purse jangled as she accepted the bag with trembling hands. She had dreamed about traveling to Tunis, although she understood now that she would never have had the courage to leave Sicily if she had any other option. Exile, the abbess called it.

The abbess squeezed Sabina's hands. "When you can, send a letter--but please, not via bestia--to let me know how you are."

"And the bishop?"

"He will believe you have escaped by witchcraft. As for the rest of us . . ." The abbess's eyelids drooped, and she rubbed her forehead in tired thought. "He will continue with his inquiry. With your disappearance, he may believe the convent has been cleansed of heresy. I can only hope he might grow tired of us after a few more days."

"I'm so sorry." Sabina's stomach twisted at the thought that the sisters would face more questioning after her departure. Her eyes felt hot and wet, and she buried her face in her sleeve, letting the rough fabric soak up her tears. The abbess pushed her chair back, and Sabina felt her cool hands touching her head in a blessing.

Later that night, after Sabina had changed into the new suit, Bianca came to her cell with scissors and a cloaked lantern. Her head felt light and free, and Sabina couldn't help but run her fingers through the novelty of her short hair.

Silently, they walked to the kitchen.

The abbess stood by the screen, where Sabina had weeks ago sent the horse flying into the dirt. She fit a key into the screen, and the metal door swung open silently.

The night air ruffled her shorn hair and touched her ears.

Once Sabina was on the other side, the convent loomed above her, dark but comforting. She had the impulse to jump back inside, into safety and comfort; where Bianca had accepted her, even though she had lost her own family to Tunis's bestia, and where the abbess saw something other than heresy in her eyes. Sabina swallowed, surprised at the memory of how eager she had been to escape and how her feelings about the convent had shifted.

The grate closed with the quiet click of the key. Bianca appeared at the window with a plate of two minni di virgini, and pushed them through the screen.

"Goodbye, Suor Bianca," Sabina said. She closed her eyes, unable to think of any words eloquent enough to express her gratitude. "Thank you," she said, at last.

Bianca smiled through the filigree of the screen. "Peace and good travels." Glancing behind her to check that no one was listening, she pressed her mouth to the screen opening and whispered, "Forget what I said about trying not to impress people. If you find a teacher, do whatever you can."

Something like a sob left Sabina's body. She picked up the soft, sticky pastries and turned away.

As she walked down the mountain path, the scent of vanilla and sugar filled Sabina's nose. She was soon walking through the narrow streets of Pamera, passing her childhood home and her brother's blue-doored house. She wondered if her family would ever think of her again. Everything was quiet; not even the wind called through the trees.

As she ate the pastries, she tried to appreciate the way the sugar-glaze hit her tongue, as velvety as a rose petal. But she could only taste the bitterness of leaving. At last she understood the meaning of the minni di virgini. They were a delicacy of pain, requiring reflection and awareness before consumption; a mirage of sweetness that would never conceal the pain of loss.

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