They are waiting for her downstairs.
Her mother sits at the table, looking tired and anxious. Her father stands once again by the door. Aunt Limmiya has left, undoubtedly not before collecting her fee, while Stellia was still putting her clothes back in order.
The Parson walks back and forth in the middle of the room, hands clasped behind his back. When he sees Stellia on the stairs, he ceases his pacing. “Pure as the day you were born.”
“Surely this is good news,” Stellia says.
But the Parson does not smile, nor do her parents look any less worried than before.
“It is a mystery,” the Parson goes on. “A young girl is abducted by faithless outlaws, yet the next day she returns to her home, unaccompanied, with her virtue intact.”
“I was not unaccompanied,” Stellia says. “My two saviors brought me to the edge of our village, before they departed and once more went their own way.”
The Parson purses his lips. “Two saviors, who chose to remain unseen, when your parents would have welcomed them with all possible gratitude for their chivalrous conduct.”
Stellia takes the last step down. “It happened as I told it.”
“No one questions your sincerity, child. I’ve no doubt that you mean to tell us no lies, and describe only what you firmly believe to have occurred. But—” He lifts a finger and looks from Stellia to her father, then to her mother, and back again to Stellia.
Imagine a friend of yours was abducted by vicious outlaws as you were, and dragged into the Thorns to the fiends’ lair, only to be returned to her home shortly afterwards, unsullied and unharmed.”
“I should thank the Shaper for granting my friend such good fortune,” Stellia says.
“And yet, would you not also puzzle over the miraculous manner of her rescue? Two wandering strangers who, having witnessed her abduction, ride for miles to save her and restore her to her kin, yet never show themselves to those who would surely laud their gallant actions?”
“I would marvel at the modesty of these valiant men,” Stellia replies, “who did what is good and right simply because it needed doing, without thought of collecting a debt of gratitude for it. Or may a young girl no longer believe that such noble virtue is still to be found in the world?”
“She may, she may,” the Parson sputters. “Sure enough.” His restive mouse eyes dart around the room as if to make certain he still has her parents’ support. “But in two nameless vagabonds?”
“Why not? It is the deed that makes the virtue, not the name. Nor the title.”
The Parson glares at Stellia, as does her father. Perhaps he wishes again that he had found her a husband before letting her learn to read.
“You would lend credence to such an account, then?” the Parson asks.
“It is the way it happened.”
“Forgive my obstinacy,” Stellia says. “But surely you do not believe that I could have escaped my captors, and found my way home in the night, all by myself, across a region utterly unknown to me, had I not had help.”
“Indeed I do not,” the Parson says. “But whose help, in truth?”
“Whose help?” For a moment, Stellia is utterly bewildered. “Why, that of the two men I told you about, of course! Or do you think the brigands simply let me go, and in their great kindness escorted me back home, as well?”
“You mean it as a jest, girl. But that is precisely what I fear did happen, though I suspect none of it was done out of kindness.”
“What? Am I accused of lying?”
“No, child,” the Parson says. “Not in the sense that you are willingly telling falsehoods. But we live all too near to the lairs of barbarous apostates, against whose evil plots our own vigilance is our best defense in these dark days. The tale of your return may seem the Shaper’s truth to you, but I suspect in it a dark deception.” He turns to Stellia’s father. “I am afraid your daughter must be confined, Master Saddion, at least until the morrow, when I shall have made arrangements to conduct her to Maltaros. Will you be able to safeguard against her escape here, or do you wish me to take her to the Cresset Hall?”
Stellia’s mother begins to sob. “Leave her with us,” she pleads. “At least this night, let me have one child left.”
Her father takes a deep breath, and for a dreadful moment it seems that he, too, is on the brink of tears. With a thick voice he says, “I will keep her here, locked in her room.”
“Good, then.” The Parson nods repeatedly, pinching his lips together. “Good. I shall return at first light. The sooner we set foot on the path that leads to the truth, the better.” On his way to the door, he stops before Stellia. “Have no fear, my dear child. It is all for the best.”
Once more Stellia is sent to her room.
This time, as she sits down on her bed, she hears the key being turned in the lock.
NEXT: The Instrument of Evil