Niamh was waiting for Aoife at their usual spot, outside a quiet little tea room a few streets away from the Cathedral. The place was always empty, and both girls were amazed the place was even still standing, but unbeknownst to them the place was funded by the Church and meant to act as more of a safehouse than anything. It was no great secret that various underground organisations were at work in the city—most cities, in fact—and while the Church chose to publicly condemn anyone affiliated with such an order, those in the know were all too aware of the Church’s own ties to the muddy underground network. While most orders were workers’ unions, freethinkers, radicals and fanatics, the Church’s order was filled with spies. The Church had eyes and ears it could aim towards its flock, but there were those that eluded their direct influence that needed to be followed and monitored. And while its name had been obscured from the outside world for decades now, those at its heart were all too aware of it—the Order of Saint Olette.
The Order of Saint Olette was miles away from the interest of either orphan, however. The Order had its eyes cast on them, purely because they resided at its very heart and were under the patronage of its own founder, the dearly departed Saint Olette, but they were of little concern. Two girls with no dowry and no hope of life outside the Cathedral, the Order presumed they would simply take their vows and remain another two mouths for the Church to feed. Had they paid a little more attention to the two girls, though, they would have realised Aoife’s doubts and Niamh’s ambitions. Ambitions that were starting to bear fruit. The young Midlander was well on her way to securing a decent husband, despite her absent dowry, and if all went to plan, she was set to marry him as soon as she turned eighteen. She would rather it was sooner than that, but in the eyes of the law she was still under the Church’s guardianship until then, and she could do nothing but wait.
The girl with the bronze skin could tell something wasn’t right with her friend the second she set eyes on Aoife. For once, instead of badgering the elder girl for answers, Niamh instead kept quiet on the matter, choosing to simply get her friend inside the Cathedral and changed before the Sisters caught them. She wouldn’t know it, not yet at least, but Aoife was all too thankful for her silence. She sat through their evening meal and mass like a lifeless porcelain doll, head caught up in the million and one thoughts buzzing around her skull. It wasn’t until she was tucked up in her tiny bed, straw filled mattress beginning to sag beneath her, and all the other orphans were sleeping soundly that she finally put stock to her wondering. With careful steps, she made her way to Niamh’s bed as quietly as possible, nudging her friend gently to wake her up. She knew Niamh wouldn’t mind—they often woke each other in the middle of the night like this.
“This better be important, Aoife,” Niamh muttered, eyes only half open as she tried to fully wake herself up. Despite the annoyance in her tone, there was no trace of it in her heart. If Aoife had woken her, it would be for something important. Her friend was too well mannered to wake her, or anyone really, for something trivial.
“I met a boy,” Aoife whispered, her only means of explanation for the intrusion.
It was all Niamh needed to coax her into full consciousness. The younger of their pair shot upright, a gleeful smile spreading across her lips as she looked down at her friend, still resting on her knees on the floor as if in prayer.
“Well? Tell me about him!” Niamh said expectantly, motioning for Aoife to join her on the bed but the porcelain doll shook her head.
There were too many eyes and too many ears to speak of such things. In truth, Aoife would have preferred to leave the shadow of the Cathedral to talk about Rin, and her plans, but leaving there at night was not only scandalous but dangerous. There were far too many unsavoury types roaming the city streets at night, even so close to such a holy place, and there had been talk of murders all throughout Aoife’s childhood, though luckily none had ever been close enough to the Cathedral to warrant worrying about them. Two defenseless young ladies out at night might just tempt fate, though, and Aoife had no interest in meddling with the Maker’s affairs.
Still, the two could hardly go wandering the Cathedral in their nightgowns. Aoife slung the coat Finni had gifted her around her shoulders. It didn’t do much in the way of keeping her covered, but at least her top half wasn’t on display. As long as she and Niamh acted respectfully, she shouldn’t have to worry about her skirts rising too high. Not that she could say the same for Niamh, who did little more than wrap her bedsheet around her shoulders, and even that was only to stave off the cold rather than to offer any protection from undignified behaviour. With the two of them as covered as they could manage given the circumstances, they made for the Cathedral’s inner courtyard.
Once upon a time, the Cathedral had used it as something of a garden. If you looked hard enough, you could still make out the plots that had housed various herbs and vegetables. No one at the Cathedral could quite remember what they had been grown for. Some insisted it was to feed the orphans, other said it was the Church’s contribution to the harvest, while others claimed it was simply a means of procuring money to keep the Cathedral and its charges in decent shape. But regardless of its former purpose, the courtyard now acted as little more than a playground for the younger orphans, and many a scraped knee had been obtained on the stone surrounding the place.
Aside from a small central lawn, no more than three feet across and five feet long, the courtyard was devoid of organic life. Four great gargoyles sat in each corner, casting their monstrous gaze down towards whoever deigned to sit in the courtyard, and more often than not one of the younger orphans would spook and come crying to one of the Sisters with talk of monsters wanting to gobble them up. All in all, the courtyard wasn’t a welcoming a place. Only the braver orphans would play in the gaze of the gargoyles, and the place was far too barren and too cold to be of much use for reflection or prayer. Once upon a time Niamh had tried to plant some flowers in the old vegetable plots, but nothing had come of it. While she was willing to believe it was simply that the soil was no good, the younger children had sworn it was the work of the stone monsters watching the flowers grow.
Aoife seated herself on one of the four walls edging the courtyard, gaze turning up towards the stars. She could remember, when she was very little, being able to see the stars are bright as day when you looked up at the sky. But then the revolution came, and the city filled with steam and coal, and the skies filled with smoke and dirt, and suddenly the stars no longer shone as brightly. Were the stars sad? Or worse, what if they were dying? What if all the smoke, and the steam, and the grime, was suffocating the stars? Would it suffocate the moon too? And the sun? Niamh’s voice drew her away from her thoughts, and the girl was thankful for the distraction.
“So, this boy. He’s from the library, right?” Niamh questioned, taking a seat next to her friend, that same grin creeping onto her features once more. Forgive her for being excited, but Aoife had never shown an interest in boys before.
Aoife nodded. “He’s the librarian’s grandson. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Niamh, it’s not like that.”
Niamh sighed. “Aoife, it’s alright to be interested in boys. If no one was interested, and we all put on nun’s habits, mankind wouldn’t exist. Much as they try and tell us it’s sin to look at a man, we have to do more than look to make more, don’t we? It’s why I put no stock in any of this,” she said, gesturing at the Cathedral.
“Niamh, shush!” Aoife said sternly, glancing around to make sure they weren’t being watched. “That’s heresy, they’ll burn you at the stake.”
The Midlander let out a laugh so strong it shook her, hand flying to her mouth to try and stifle the noise as she fought to regain control of herself. “I’d like to see them try. Besides, I’m still a child in their eyes, and they don’t burn children for heresy.”
“You won’t be a child for much longer, Niamh. Watch your tongue, or I won’t tell you about the librarian’s boy.”
All thoughts of heresy and atheism were pushed from Niamh’s mind then, albeit temporarily. She righted herself, leaning in towards her friend a little to better hear what Aoife had to say. The chill of the night was beginning to seep through her nightdress, and despite the sheet wrapped around her shoulders, she was beginning to wish she had donned a coat like her friend. Much as she wanted to hear the gossip, she hoped it wouldn’t drag on too long. Not even this was worth freezing for.
“His name is Rinian, and he loves books. More than me, I think,” Aoife laughed faintly, earning a smile from her friend. “He’s going to Olmaea to study, and I think I might go with him, if he’d let him. I don’t know what I’d do there, but… well, there has to be something more to life than this, doesn’t there?”
“Olmaea’s a long way, Aoife. It chews people up and it spits them out,” Niamh warned.
“And how would you know that? Is that what one of your gentlemen told you?”
Niamh shook her head. “I don’t remember the man himself, but I remember my father telling me about Olmaea. He said it was an evil place, and never to go there. He never said why, at least not that I can remember. Aoife, if you go… promise me you’ll be careful, okay?”
“I promise,” Aoife nodded. “But what about you? Will you be alright stuck here without me for a month?”
“It’ll be a struggle, but I’m sure I’ll manage,” the Midlander said sarcastically, eyes rolling in faux annoyance. “Once you get there, you have to write to me, alright? Once I get out of here, I want to know where to find you.”
Aoife had always known Niamh wanted to leave the Cathedral, but somehow it was only just starting to become real. They’d spent their childhood together, they were the best of friends and practically sisters by now, and yet here they were talking of separating, and deep down both parties knew they weren’t likely to ever see each other again. Perhaps that was another way the Church kept its orphans together—relying on them building such strong emotional attachments that they would sacrifice the world outside for the chance to stay together. And what scared Aoife the most was that, were Niamh not as strong willed as she was, the elder girl might contemplate the idea just to remain with her friend.
But as much as Niamh loved Aoife, she had her own plans to follow. She had kept it close to her chest her entire life, and there was no one else she trusted with the information, but the Midlander had her own agenda, and she wasn’t about to throw it all away for the sake of friendship. She had been escorted halfway across the country as a child, there was no reason she couldn’t make a similar journey as an adult if visiting Aoife lay at the end. All they needed was an address for each other, and they could do anything, an attitude she was sure the others would attribute to her homeland and the easygoing mentality of the riverfolk.
The two girls spoke of their hopes and their dreams late into the night, sharing promises they both knew they likely wouldn’t keep, but the sentiment behind it was enough to make them seem real. Niamh would come close to revealing her impending marriage to Aoife, but that night had been about Aoife, not herself, so she would elect to remain quiet on the matter. There was always tomorrow, and if not then, then the day after. If the universe worked fairly, Niamh would have been given six more nights to tell Aoife of her engagement, but the Maker does not always smile so favourably on his creations.