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Authors: Alexis Henderson

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C
HAPTER
T
HIRTY
-
SEVEN

The last time I saw him he was bound to the pyre’s stake, arms pinned behind his back, head hung. He did not look at me. Even when I called his name above the roar of the flames, he did not look.

—M
IRIAM
M
OORE

IMMANUELLE DIDN’T RETURN
to her cell that night. Instead, after her trial had concluded, she was surrendered to the Prophet’s wives, who ferried her off through the black, back to the Haven and the cloistered quarters where she would remain until the day of her cutting.

It was Leah’s room. Immanuelle nearly laughed at the irony of it when she saw her name painted across the rail of the door. The chamber was now sparsely furnished, not a trace of her left. There was a large bed on an iron frame. Beside it was a table that housed a basin, pitcher, and palm-size copy of the Holy Scriptures. Above the bed, a barred window with a padlock on its latch. A candle flickered on a small table by the door, throwing long shadows across the walls.

Immanuelle slipped out of her ragged dress and tossed it into the corner of the bedroom. She retrieved a fresh nightgown from a trunk at the foot of the bed. Exhausted, she climbed under the sheets and drew the blankets up to her chin.

She closed her eyes, trying to block out the howls that echoed through the swirling darkness outside. The plague had a life and
mind of its own, and, much like the Darkwood, it spoke to her, whispering against her windowpanes, luring her into the black. She was almost tempted to succumb to it, abandon all the horrors that lay before her—contrition and the cutting knife, the Prophet’s wedding bed. Let the darkness make nothing of it all. When the power of the plagues was hers to wield, perhaps she would do just that. Call forth the night, let it drown everything in its wake. It scared her how much she liked the idea, how tempted she was to make it a reality.

The sound of the door creaking open drew Immanuelle from the maze of her thoughts. Before she had the chance to sit up, Esther Chambers slipped into the room.

Ezra’s mother wore a long, fog-colored nightdress and robe. Her hair was heaped atop her head and pinned in place with two golden combs. As she stepped into the light of the oil lamp, Immanuelle saw that her skin was pale, her lips colorless.

“They’re going to burn my boy,” she said. “They’re going to send him to the pyre.”

Immanuelle opened her mouth to respond, but Esther cut her short.

“They’ve charged him with conspiring against the Church and holy treason.”

“I’m so sorry,” Immanuelle whispered.

“I don’t want your condolences,” she said, the timbre of her voice keen and high like a plucked harp string. “All I want is for you to know that if you let my boy die in the name of your sins, I’ll make sure you follow him.”

Immanuelle’s cheeks burned with shame. “Ezra is not going to die. The Prophet told me that he would be spared. He gave me his word.”

“His words mean nothing,” said Esther bitterly. “Less than nothing. I don’t want to know about false hope and promises. I
want to know how
you
intend to save my son. How will you set him free?”

Immanuelle had been careful, so careful, to keep every detail of her scheme a secret. She’d made no mention of her plans to carve the reversal sigil and dutifully played the part of the meek and broken bride-to-be. But with Esther standing there so desperate and afraid, her conscience provoked her to offer some small assurance, enough to let her know that Ezra wasn’t alone. “After I’m cut, I have plans to free him. But I’ll need your help to do it.”

Esther glanced over her shoulder toward the door. When she spoke again, it was in a whisper. “What do you need me to do?”

“Tell me where he is. I need to see him tonight, before his sentencing, so he’s ready when the time comes.”

“Ezra’s in the library with Leah’s daughter. The doors aren’t locked, but the halls are patrolled by two guards. I can distract them, buy you some time.”

“That’s all I need.”

IMMANUELLE WAITED UNTIL
the echo of Esther’s footsteps faded to silence before she crept across her bedroom, drew a shawl around her shoulders, and slipped into the hall. She found it odd that there was no bolt on her door—given that only hours before she’d been chained to a cell wall in the catacombs—but then she remembered, she wasn’t a prisoner anymore. She was a prize lamb, a treasure, the Prophet’s newest bride-to-be.

Besides, he knew she wouldn’t run. She was bound to the Haven, bound to her promise—to the Prophet, to the flock, to Ezra. The time for fleeing was over. What was left to be finished would be finished in Bethel.

Immanuelle padded barefoot down the Haven’s main corridor, careful to keep to the shadows. When she passed the windows,
the darkness rushed to meet her, threatening to break the glass and flood the corridors within. She tried to ignore it, but its call rang through her head like a bell’s toll, and she could feel its pull deep in her belly, reeling her into the night.

Halfway down the hall, she paused before a tall stained-glass window, staring into the darkness. “What do you want from me?”

At the sound of her voice, the dark moved like water, rippling and doubling, turning in on itself. Immanuelle raised her fingers to the window, the glass cold beneath her hand. The shadows rose to meet her, and in them she saw a startling reflection. The girl who stared back at her had her features—the same dark eyes and full lips, the firm nose and pinched chin—but every detail was exaggerated, every attribute refined. She was beautiful and keen, and there was a defiant strength in the way she stood, shoulders squared, chin tilted. And there was something in her gaze that made her . . .
more
. It was as if the girl in the darkness was everything Immanuelle had ever hoped to be.

She pressed her hand to Immanuelle’s, so there was nothing but glass between them. Immanuelle shifted closer to the window, and the girl in the dark beckoned, almost coyly, to the window’s latch. Immanuelle reached for it, and the girl pressed herself to the pane, drawing so close her lips brushed the glass.

Immanuelle pulled the iron handle and the window swung open. A blast of winter wind rushed into the hallway, snuffing the lamps and candles. Night poured through the open window and the corridor went dark.

There was the distant clamor of footsteps. A voice: “Who goes there?”

Turning her back on the darkness, Immanuelle ran—fleeing the guards and the hallway and the girl who haunted the black.

It didn’t take her long to find the old cathedral, where the library was housed. Padding across the cold stone floors, she ducked
down the hall to make sure the doors were unguarded. The corridor was empty.

Relieved, Immanuelle started forward. She was halfway to the library doors when she heard footsteps. She turned and found a guard standing before her, a long blade hanging on his belt. And he was looking right at her.

“Easy,” he said. As he stepped into the torchlight, Immanuelle realized he was one of the men she’d journeyed back to Bethel with. The only guardsman who’d shown her any kindness. His gaze went back and forth between her and the library doors. Then, in a low, urgent whisper, he said:
“Go.”

“Thank you,” she managed to stammer, more grateful for that act of mercy than he could possibly know. She turned to the library doors and slipped through them into the darkness.

“Ezra?” she whispered into the shadows. “Are you there?”

There was the scrape of iron on stone, shackles slithering across tile. “Immanuelle?”

She started toward the sound of his voice, weaving between the bookshelves, tripping over toppled stacks. “It’s me.”

And then he was there, and she was in his arms, and he in hers. They clung to each other in silence, Ezra’s hands shifting down her back, each of their bodies fitting into the contour of the other’s.

“Are you hurt?” Immanuelle said at last, murmuring the words into his shoulder.

“No,” he said, and she could tell he was lying. There was no light to see, but she gingerly lifted the corner of his shirt. She felt the bandages beneath, binding his stomach and chest. They were wet, and when she touched them he hissed.

She sucked in a breath. “Ezra.”

“All right,” he said, wheezing a little. “I might have had a brief encounter with a bullet or two, but I’m fine. What about you?”

“I’m all right.” In truth, she’d sustained a bad beating the first night of her contrition, and several lashings after it, but she wouldn’t trouble him with those things. Not now, not when he was so weak, so frail in her arms.

“Why are you here?”

He didn’t know, she realized. He couldn’t know, of course. He hadn’t been there. He hadn’t heard her final confession.

“I was sentenced today,” she whispered. “I was sentenced, and the Prophet decided to free me.”

“How can that be? I haven’t even been sentenced yet myself.”

“Listen to me.” Immanuelle grabbed him by both hands. “About your sentencing, you have to tell them you’ve repented for your sin. Swear that you will.”

“I don’t understand.”

She heard the echo of footsteps in the distance and ducked instinctively, shifting behind a nearby bookshelf. “I made a deal with your father.”

“What kind of deal, Immanuelle?” Ezra’s voice was tight. “What have you done?”

“I agreed to take his hand in marriage, to save your life and mine,” she said, the words like bile on her tongue. “I’m going to be cut on the coming Sabbath.”

“No.” Ezra’s hands tightened painfully around hers, and in his voice was such revulsion—such
rage
—that Immanuelle flinched away from him.

“It was either the Prophet or the pyre,” said Immanuelle, rushing to explain. “He said he’d spare your life if I married him, and I agreed to it—to buy you time, to save you.”

“He lied,” said Ezra, in a tone so low, his words were barely audible. “That was the deal I made with him. He said if I pleaded guilty he would make sure you survived your sentencing, and he’d set you free.”

He’d lied to them both, she realized. His deal had never been about sacrifice—hers or Ezra’s. The Prophet claimed he was carrying out the Father’s will, but it was power that drove him. The power to purge, to punish, to control. It was all he cared about.

“Immanuelle, you can’t go through with this,” Ezra said urgently. “He’ll hurt you. He’ll break you, the way he does everyone.”

She closed her eyes, and when she did, she saw a glimpse of that fateful night when the Prophet turned on her mother, and her mother turned on him. “He’s not going to lay a finger on me, or on you or anyone else. We’ll find a way to stop him, to stop all of this, but I need you alive and well and by my side to do it.”

“This is madness,” said Ezra. “Isn’t it enough just to save ourselves? You got past the gate once; we can do it again. We should run, tonight. I know a way out of the Haven, through the back passages. If you can free me from these chains, we can escape before anyone realizes we’re gone. We could make our own way.”

Immanuelle humored the idea. She imagined turning her back on Bethel and all of its troubles, running away with Ezra, making a new life for themselves beyond the gate. It was an appealing dream, but Immanuelle knew it was nothing more. Her fate was not that of a runaway.

“Saving ourselves isn’t enough,” said Immanuelle firmly. “There are other people in Bethel suffering as well, and they deserve better. We have to help them. All of them.”

Ezra didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally, he asked, “So you’re just going to trade yourself? Barter your bones to that tyrant?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. And then, after I’m cut, I’m going to end these plagues once and for all.”

“How?”

Immanuelle thought of the sigil, of the sacrifice she’d have to
make to bring its power to fruition. “Better that you don’t know. That way, if you’re ever asked, you can claim ignorance.”

Ezra sighed and tilted his forehead against hers. Immanuelle was suddenly aware that this was as close as the two of them had ever been. But all she could think of, as they clung to each other in the darkened library, was how she wanted him even closer.

BOOK: The Year of the Witching
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