"My child." The words were announced to Jeanne loudly enough for the entire congregation to hear them, and even the volume of the echoes felt as though they were penetrating her skull. "You make mockery of our hallowed tenets."
Head bowed, one knee on the cold stone, Jeanne watched light from her hairpiece glint on Matron's leather boots. Behind her the witches stirred, whispering to each other. Jeanne pressed her lips into a tight line; none of them cared about their blasted tenets of faith. They were all too frightened about the unrest in Vigrid, about the slander preached in the Churches against them, about the open abhorrence and malign they were coming to experience on the streets. Respect for the order was gone, and rigidly enforcing tradition wasn't going to magically restore it.
"Jeanne!" Jeanne clenched her fists at the audible disgust in the woman's voice. "Do you not understand what that means to us at such a time as this?"
It was rhetoric; she wasn't supposed to speak. That's why when she did, there were murmurs of contention behind her. "I have examined the scriptures at length, and they speak nothing of mixed blood," Jeanne stood slowly, stiff with anger. "They speak only of those who have Umbra blood and those who do not. This 'impure' blood nonsense is nothing but fear-mongering and misapprehension, such as that which we accuse mankind of."
Far beside them in the hall, from within a gilded cage, a shrouded figure turned with interest towards the commotion.
"She has Umbra blood, Matron," Jeanne continued, taking advantage of the shocked silence to elaborate. "She commands the same powers as you and I, and with greater skill than most." She paused, wondering if she had the gall to continue. "If there's any question to be asked, it's why we would lock one of our own behind bars, and treat her worse than a mongrel dog."
The backhand came as a surprise; however, Jeanne probably wouldn't have blocked it even if she had predicted it. When the Matron's hand connected with her cheek, it was with enough force to knock her over. She let it, dually impressed and horrified she had allowed herself so be so insubordinate.
"How dare you!" The Matriarch advanced on her, swelling with anger. "You have gone too far this time, Jeanne. You will be our undoing!"
Undoing... That word evoked other memories for Jeanne; other, much more pleasant memories.
Her heart was pounding as she fumbled with the key. It was too dark to see clearly, and she felt that at any moment she would feel a tap on the shoulder from one of the adepts and have to face another tiresome public redress.
Steady hands took hers and guided them to the heavy lock; the skin was warm through the coarse fabric of the gloves. "It's here," the voice said openly, not even attempting to whisper.
"Shush!" Jeanne hissed through the bars, "They'll hear you, and then you'll never see the light of day again!"
The fingers turned hers, placing the key at the mouth of the lock and fitting it inside. The mechanism shifted, and the gate drifted open a fraction. The outcast widened the gap and passed through it. "Not to split hairs, but during our little excursions I don't really see it anyway, do I?" She found herself quickly pressed against the exterior of the cage, Jeanne's body against hers and with a glove firmly covering her lips.
"Quiet!" Jeanne whispered directly into the woman's ear. "I realise you have nothing to lose, Cereza, but that is not the case for both of us, is it?"
Cereza turned her chin out of the vice hold. "If you'd dispense with your lecturing for a few moments and stop to listen, you'd realise that there's no one here. We could sing at the top of our lung and never be heard. In fact—" She opened her mouth, presumably to demonstrate, and quickly found it full of palm.
Jeanne left her hand there for a few moments to make a point, and then pulled away from her. "You were clearly sent to test me," she said under her breath, spinning toward the door.
"I suppose someone thought you needed a sense of humour," was the smiling reply. Jeanne could hear soft footsteps following her as they exited the hall.
The only place where it was safe to retreat to at this hour was Vigrid's parklands, and travelling there was only possible out of phase. The looks of fear and derision they faced from those inhabiting the human world were nothing to the torturous atonement that awaited them if they were spotted by any of the Umbran Order. The courtyard they usually favoured was one that was blocked from view of the city by a ring of thick oak trees and a large, ornate fountain. Water trickled uniformly from the open mouths of four winged lions, reflecting the moonlight onto the cobblestones. It was peaceful.
A heel swung beside Jeanne's face and she very nearly didn't evade it. At the last second she rolled away, pointing a gun directly at the head of the perpetrator.
Cereza didn't even flinch. "I almost had you."
It brought a smile to Jeanne's lips. "In your dreams." She tapped underneath Cereza's chin with the nose of her pistol. "You'll have to work much harder if you want to land a blow on me."
In the hours that followed, Cereza did work much harder. Tirelessly, she swung and she blocked and flipped and ducked and kicked. Without hesitating, and without complaint, she perfectly copied every movement taught and repeated it until it was honed to perfection. "And yet, still I can't hit you," Cereza reflected as they lay on their backs on the stone, staring above them at the stars.
Jeanne had considered several times allowing the woman to connect a punch – and in her heart she was desperate to see that joy that had been missing in her friend's eyes – but it would be a lie if she conceded a strike that shouldn't have met. Instead, she opted for validation. "I've been trained from birth by the best in the order, and I've only been teaching you for how long now? A year?"
Cereza reached up to adjust her mask which moved as she scrunched her nose at that explanation. Jeanne watched the movement. "You can take that—"
"No, I can't," the other interrupted her firmly.
Jeanne raised her eyebrows at Cereza's commitment to that answer, but made another attempt. "Face it, we're dead anyway if anyone sees. What's the difference if you just take if off for a little while?"
Cereza put her hands on her stomach, which rose and fell as she took a long, thoughtful breath. "It's not that," she said eventually. "There's no use living in a fantasy where I'm wearing the Umbran uniform and fighting with a clear face. I'm branded; I'm dirty: this mask and hood lets everyone know that. If I'm ever allowed to fight anyone, it's going to be wearing these, isn't it?"
"You're not fighting now," Jeanne pointed out quietly. When she was certain Cereza would let her, she pushed herself onto an elbow and reached across the short distance between them, lifting the butterfly mask from Cereza's face. Then, silently, she unwrapped the hood and pulled it; Cereza lifted her head from the stone to allow it to be removed. She discarded them both nearby.
Falling from the hood, Cereza's hair spilt into a perfect arc around her. Inadvertently, Jeanne found herself stroking the locks that extended from her friend's temples, admiring them. Even through her thin gloves she could feel the butter-like smoothness. "Truly, Cereza," Jeanne told her, noticing the crescent moon reflected in a sea of rich black on the stone, "you are a witch. No other lineage could produce hair as beautiful as yours." It wasn't just her hair, Jeanne decided. Those pale eyes and that defined jaw were Umbran. Anyone who felt different was blinded by their own fear and prejudice.
Lost in thought, Jeanne had forgotten about where her hand was until Cereza lifted her own and covered Jeanne's on her temple. There was such emotion in Cereza's eyes, it was difficult to identify what was important; longing, resignation, hope, surrender... they all made an appearance as they swum in unshed tears. "You know," Cereza murmured, a far cry from the usual sarcastic amusement Jeanne was used to hearing from her, "you're the only person in the world who touches me. Everyone else acts as if I were some horrid disease they want to avoid catching."
"They can all rot in hell before their time," Jeanne found herself spitting in condemnation before she was able to smother her frustration. She took a calming breath. "Anyone who finds anything except beauty in this face," she stroked a thumb across Cereza's cheek, "is trapped by their own fear, and hiding behind that ridiculous prophecy as the reason they revile you." Her face twisted. "It's pathetic, really."
When she went to pull away and lie back down, Cereza made a short noise and wouldn't relinquish her hand. Jeanne found this side of Cereza – when she was privileged enough to see it – especially endearing, and so she shifted her hips along the stone towards the other woman. Pulling the gold netting from her hair with practised ease, she lay her ear against Cereza's shoulder, and let their hair spill together on the stone. In this position, Cereza allowed Jeanne's arm to settle instead across her ribs.
Listening to the hypnotic pulse of Cereza's heart, Jeanne conceded that after their exertions she could fall asleep here, and that, despite the consequences, she almost had half a mind to.
Cereza's fingers twined themselves in the hair that had fallen across her stomach, creating false curls as they played. "We've not done this since we were children," she observed.
They certainly weren't children anymore, Jeanne thought as she listened to Cereza breathe. They were no stranger to each other's bodies – after having spent many nights teaching Cereza how best to wield weave attacks, she felt as if she intimately knew every inch of her friend's skin – but seeing them momentarily and feeling them at length against her were two entirely different experiences. In another time, another place, Jeanne wondered what would transpire between them without the watchful eye of the Umbran Order.
She was shaken awake some time later. "If we don't move, we're going to see a beautiful sunrise," Cereza told her, the grin on her face evident in her voice.
Panicking and a little disoriented, Jeanne propped herself up, her hair a silver curtain around her. She shrugged it over her shoulders. "Why did you not wake me earlier?" she asked, looking with concern at the light on the horizon.
"Suppose you are not able to gaolbreak me again?" Cereza posed the question with such light-heartedness, it belied the bleak implication. She reached up, brushing Jeanne's cheek with the back of her fingers; the rough fabric from her scrappily-woven gloves scratched Jeanne's skin a little. Cereza felt it, and flinched. Jeanne shook her head to indicate it didn't bother her.
Seeing Cereza without her face covered reminded Jeanne that it ought to be, so she felt around above their heads to retrieve the hood and assisted Cereza to once again don it. With the outcast mask, before placing it back on Cereza's nose, she paused for a moment to consider it. In isolation of what it represented, it was such a pretty motif, she decided. On a whim, she put it on her nose. "Do I make a fair outcast?" she asked.
Cereza's horrified expression caused her heart to almost come to a stop. She reached up and tore the mask from Jeanne's face, cradling it away from her. "Only in my worst nightmares," she muttered. Jeanne didn't ask her to elaborate, but she did anyway, turning back towards Jeanne as placed the mask on her own face. She then spent a few moments regarding Jeanne with sobering gravity. "I have few comforts, but one of them is being safe in the knowledge that you will never share my experiences."
Jeanne thought of all the times she'd seen Cereza spat on, kicked around, teased. She'd thought many a time that no one should have to endure such treatment alone. "I would share them," Jeanne told her. "If I could."
Cereza nodded slowly. "You're too noble for your own good," she accused, gazing at her friend affectionately from behind the wings of the mask. "It's disgusting, really. It will be your undoing."
You're my undoing, Jeanne thought indulgently, allowing a disgustingly wide smile to spread across her face as they snuck back into headquarters, hand in hand.
"Are you listening to me, child?" The Matron's voice brought her back to her senses. "Even as we speak the streets fill with those who would slay us, those who would see our hallowed order wiped from all existence." She took Jeanne by the shoulders, white knuckles taking fistfuls of Jeanne's flesh. "And you! Our future leader! It is you who would see us divided, arguing amongst ourselves!"
Jeanne stared defiantly at the woman, teeth grit on edge. "I will not condemn a living creature for a mistake of birth," she said evenly. "And if our order is as threatened as you say, wouldn't you rather have another soldier on the field?"
The Matron shook her head and opened her mouth to reply, but another voice from the restless congregation spoke before her. "Matron, surely there can be no harm in allowing the Outcast to face off against one of our own. Jeanne is a truly formidable witch; there is no chance any injury will come to her."
From the expression visible on the Matron's forehead, she could not have been in more profound disagreement. Further assent from the body of witches caused her brow furrow to deepen into a well-ploughed trench. "—I see no harm in—" "—not strictly against our laws—" "—the Romans called slaves that fought 'gladiators', I believe—"
Jeanne wasn't particularly encouraged by the fact they were likely salivating only at the thought of watching blood sports; but at least she would be able to prove to them Cereza was more than just a burden to the Order.
Extending her hand towards Cereza's cell, she asked, "Will you face me in this hallowed arena?"
...the beautiful 'punchline', of course, being the Cereza actually beats Jeanne in the game, thereby proving that 'impure blood' isn't so weak and vile after all...