‘Burning the Sinners with Lamplight’, Michelle Denham

Illustrations © 2017 Eric Asaris

 [ Sinner, © 2017 Eric Asaris ] Lamplight is a city of gods and sinners. The only laws in Lamplight are the laws the strong choose to enforce.

The girl is thin, small and brittle. When the Seventh Dragon Knight Samson brings his foot down on her stomach there is a crack! in the air and a strangled cry.

“Vermin you are,” the Seventh Dragon Knight says. Samson is a bulbous man, four hundred pounds of pure muscle. His scales are a burnt red, the exact color of decaying metal. “Vermin must be stamped out.” He brings his foot down again and there is another brittle crack! and stifled moan.

It is because the girl hides her cries that Ketha watches. The girl—bone-thin, naked as an open wound, scars across her arms and down her back—does not shout out loud. She bites her lips, turns her eyes upward, and tenses her whole body, waiting for the next blow.

Samson will stomp forever. He will turn her to red mush on the cobbled stones of Lamplight. This is his law.

Ketha has laws of her own.

“Good Sir,” she says after his third footstamp lands on the girl’s left shoulder (crack! ) and before he can lift his foot again.

Samson tilts his head in her direction. His fire eyes fix on her but dragon sight is notoriously bad. He smells her just fine, though. Patchouli incense and blood.

“This poor sinner has offended you,” Ketha says smoothly. “She is yours to punish. But might I offer an alternative? Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds welcomes all the poor sinners in Her bleeding arms. Let our church have this girl. We will make her a nun and she will serve Our Goddess—most faithfully. She will not offend again.”

Samson laughs. “Vermin is vermin. Will not survive your church’s mercy. Better I stomp in ground. Is quicker.”

Ketha spreads her arms wide in invitation. “Why not let this poor sinner decide if she prefers your mercy or mine?”

“Eh vermin?” The Seventh Dragon Knight crows. “Whose boot should stop you? Mine or church?”

The girl opens her mouth but no words come. It is quite possible that they can’t. Slowly a single word forms around her lips.


Hee-Jin wakes, which she did not expect.

Lamplight has many gods but Hee-Jin never believed in an afterlife. Rather, she’s always hoped for oblivion. If death does not bring the solace of nothingness then there is no such thing as divine mercy.

So when Hee-Jin wakes she trusts she is alive but does not count this as a certainty.

The first thing Hee-Jin is aware of is the smell of stale blood and patchouli incense. The second thing Hee-Jin is aware of is fear.

She rises. Her wounds are patched up, her body bandaged in many places. The Sisters of Pain are adept healers; no one knows the body as they do. How to heal, how to break.

“And so you awake, child,” a voice says.

Hee-Jin looks for a voice and finds a woman. The woman is clad in the bloodred robes of the Sisters of Pain. She is a thauri. She has a long, snake-like neck characteristic of her kind, large almond-shaped black eyes that take up half her face, and ears shaped like a cow’s protruding from the side of her head. The thauri are a gentle people who can kill with the sheer volume of their patience.

Three barbed necklaces pierce the skin at the base of the thauri’s long neck. Hee-Jin can see where the sharp wires dig inside and reveal blood but the blood does not spill. It only remains there, caught between flesh and metal.

“I am Ketha Keth’Rin,” the thauri says. “But you may call me Mother.”

Hee-Jin flinches as memory catches up with the present.

“Ah,” the Mother says. “You remember. Good. Then you can enlighten me, poor sinner. You angered the Seventh Dragon Knight. I wish to know how.”

Hee-Jin licks her lips. She opens her mouth and then swallows hard; words bubble in the back of her throat and remain there. She licks her lips again. “I ran,” she says finally, “When I should not have.”

Her words meet silence.

It is impossible to read the face of a thauri. The black eyes take up too much space, there is no white in those eyes that might reveal a flicker of doubt; the patience of a thauri leaves the face blank as eternity. “That is indeed a sin,” the Mother says. “I gave you a choice last night, child, but choices made while bleeding are not always truth. This, we know better than anyone. I give you the choice again: Samson’s mercy or the church’s. Which would you prefer?”

Hee-Jin shivers. Choices made while bleeding are not always truth. Now that she is no longer being pummeled (stomped), now that she is (momentarily) safe from harm, now that her body is healed, Hee-Jin remembers why the sinners of Lamplight mistrust religion.

This is not a rescue. Hee-Jin was not saved. Some churches might have intervened to spare Hee-Jin’s life, but not Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds. (And, of course, the Dragon Lord would not have obeyed other churches. The Dragon Knight handed her over simply because he knew there was nothing worse he could do her.)

“If I choose the Dragon Knight you’ll give me back to the Dragon Knight.” It’s not a question, not really. Hee-Jin knows the answer. She is, however, stalling for time.

“Not just that,” the Mother says. “We will make sure he finishes what he began before we intervened. As is only right.”

Hee-Jin thinks quickly: In case his Dragon temper had soothed in the meantime, she means. In case he forgot why he wanted to stomp me and decided it was better to have a live slave than a dead vermin. She saved me from death, she’ll return me to death.

“Why did you intervene?” Hee-Jin asks. And this she has no answer for. The Sisters of Pain are not known for their generosity.

“Because you did not cry out,” the Mother says, “when you should have. I thought you had potential to bear a tremendous amount of pain. Will you accept our mercy or not?”

A thauri will wait forever for an answer. Hee-Jin isn’t sure what a nun would do.

“Yes,” Hee-Jin says.

Because there is no other choice. Because she does not want to die. Because she’s been in pain her entire life and does not expect anything else but more pain.

“Yes, I will accept your mercy.”

Everyone sins in Lamplight. Even Ketha. But she embraced the purity only pain brings long ago and now it’s only a matter of knowing what sins last forever and what can be burned away with mercy.

“Humankins, by their nature, are too weak for pain,” Sister Estha says. She has been in the church longer than Ketha, with spikes embedded up and down her long sensuous neck, and that gives her the right to question Ketha in private with only Our Lady as witness. “We of the thauri embrace pain, outlast it; we are strong and become stronger for our wounds. Humankins cry out at the smallest pinprick; they suffer loudly until the pain is gone. The humankins grow mad under Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds. Why do you welcome this one into our ranks when surely only madness awaits her?”

“Because I am curious,” Ketha replies. “Just because no humankin has ever survived does not mean no humankin ever will.”

“In many ways, you should have been a scientist,” Estha says.

“Isn’t science and religion much the same thing in Lamplight?” Ketha enquires.

The nuns waste no time. Hee-Jin is washed, scrubbed, rubbed, bandaged, re-bandaged and dressed. She wears the brown robe of initiates—she must work her way up to red—and they prepare her for pain.

There is a prayer. Hee-Jin has no use for prayer but when the Sisters of Pain beseech their goddess they cut themselves with little knives, and drop blood at Hee-Jin’s feet. Their blood falls like heated wax. With every drop drip plop Hee-Jin begins to feel the overwhelming sense of the divine and it burns.

The gods of Lamplight are never far away and the Lady of Perpetual Wounds practically towers inside Hee-Jin’s mind. Instantly, she realizes she’s made the wrong choice. To be stomped by a man, that is one thing. To be stomped by a goddess, that is another thing altogether.

A Sister of Pain stands before Hee-Jin. The Mother sits to one side.

“Your sin is running away,” the Mother says with her endlessly patient voice. “Your penance must match the sin. How else will you find salvation?”

Hee-Jin can’t concentrate on the words. Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds beats against her mind—whump whump whump—like a heartbeat, or a hammer. Hee-Jin chokes on divinity; she tries to swallow it down but it stays in her throat.

A Sister of Pain stands before her. The Sister’s eyes are sown shut, but when she looks at Hee-Jin she sees right through her soul. The nun might not see but she is far from blind.

The Sister holds a needle in her hand. “Bless the Goddess,” the Sister says, “For She will save you with torment.” She jabs the needle into Hee-Jin’s left foot.

Hee-Jin stifles her cries and her objections—shouldn’t there be more ceremony? Shouldn’t they wait for her acquiescence? But Hee-Jin has already agreed and there’s a goddess in her throat that keeps her silent.

The Sister holds up another needle. “Praise the Goddess, for she will hold you with bleeding arms.” She jabs the second needle into Hee-Jin’s left foot. Again, the goddess in Hee-Jin’s throat stifles her cry.

The Sister holds up one last needle. “Love the Goddess, for she will bring you nothing but pain.” The needle thrusts upwards into Hee-Jin’s foot and the Goddess spreads to her whole body.

Hee-Jin passes out.

Ketha remembers her own Initiation.

The Mother at the time had also been thauri, her face as still as stone.

“We of the thauri wait for the End of Time,” she said, “so we are very suited for a life of pain.”

Ketha’s First Wound was five needles to her right hand. She did not pass out, as the humankin did, but she remembers wanting to immediately tear out all the needles and leave the church forever.

“The trick is to wait for the pain to end,” her Mother had said—a thauri named Casta Kest’Rin.

“But the pain will never end,” Ketha had replied, confused. “It’s not supposed to ever end.”

“Exactly,” Casta had said.

And for a thauri, that was all the needed to be said. Ketha waited.

She is waiting still.

“The Goddess entered her,” Sister Estha notes. “Perhaps you chose well after all.”

“It is not my choice,” Ketha replies.

“Our Lady, then,” Sister Estha says.

“No, Sister,” Ketha says gently. And this is why Estha Mere’Rin never became Mother, despite being one of the oldest Sisters. She still doesn’t understand. “It is not my choice, or Our Lady’s. It is her choice: the humankin’s. She chose, as we always choose, as we make the choice anew each day.”

Pain is a choice, Ketha thinks. Like religion. Like mercy. Like all things that must be endured.

Hee-Jin wakes. Her foot throbs.

She shuffles herself into an awkward position of limbs. She lifts her left foot to inspect the work.

There is a small bump just at the bottom—the only indication that something’s wrong. It could be a pimple or a wart. It’s black on the faintest tint of red: blood revealed that will never fall.

The pain is not excruciating, Hee-Jin analyzes, but it is persistent. A dull ache, a minor irritation. She’s had much worse.

Gingerly, she stands. She can put weight on her left foot but it sends waves of pain through her body when she does so. She lifts her left foot and the pain abates.

“The First Wound is a small one,” a voice from Hee-Jin’s doorway says. “Small, but constant. In many ways, it is the worst. Many Initiates give up after the First Wound.”

The Sister is dressed in dark brown. She has large ears that look like they’ve been savaged by a dog and angelic wings protruding from her back. She has six slashes running down her face—three on each cheek—bleeding but not bleeding, as is the Sisters’ way.

“It’s a small pain,” Hee-Jin repeats.

“But Perpetual,” the angelkin counters. “That is what the others cannot bear. Up till now pain has been fleeting for you. Now you must learn to feel it everyday, every hour, every breath, and know that relief will never come. It takes a toll on the mind.”

“I will endure,” Hee-Jin says.

The angelkin smiles. “That’s what they all say. I am Sister Lireal. I will be your Souer, until you either move up in the ranks or quit. I am to show you where to dine. Are you hungry?”

Hee-Jin is always hungry. The Dragon Knight was a careless man and he didn’t always remember that humankin slaves need to eat.


“Then follow me.”

Readily available food seems too good to be true. Hee-Jin thinks that for regular food she is willing to endure pretty much anything.

Her foot screams with each step she takes but she walks with barely a limp.

The humankin adjusts surprisingly well. Ketha watches her. She knows she should not care for one Initiate more than any other but this is a sin worth bearing.

She has privately deemed the humankin her personal project. A daughter more than a Sister.

The humankin moves with the urgency only the slaves in Lamplight posses. She eats in huge mouthfuls and hard swallows, scurries instead of walks, performs her chores in equal hastiness and efficiency. It’s like she expects the whip to fall at any given moment.

We will whip you, child, Ketha wants to tell her. And when we do, it’s because you asked us to.

Sister Lireal was right. The First Wound is the hardest.

There were days in Hee-Jin’s childhood when she had to work with bruised body and broken bones. No one wastes doctoring or medicine on slaves.

Her earliest memory is of her umma slapping her in the face. “Stop crying,” she said. “Crying gets you killed.”

It was a mother’s love—a slave’s love. Toughen up or die. Work through beatings or die. Stand up broken or die.

Church life is not so different. Suffer the pain or die. Except it is different. Hee-Jin has a warm bed and warm food and clean clothes and a pain that never ends. Hee-Jin has comfort and a throbbing foot.

The needles are there. Some nights, Hee-Jin thinks she can feel each one individually. Some nights that’s all she feels.

Ketha no longer leads everyday church service. She only leads on the high holidays.

Instead, she sits to the side, positioned behind Sister Rebekah, as the other woman leads the ceremony. Sister Rebekah is at least part Dragonkin, for she is large and scaled but this does not show when she’s dressed in robes. Ketha wonders if the Sister is part humankin, but she never asked.

Rebekah’s eyes are shown shut, but the Goddess sees for her. It is commonly assumed that she will be Mother, after. But “after” is not something Ketha discusses with her Sisters.

Hee-Jin pays little attention to the other Sisters. It takes all her concentration just to endure.

When she can no longer remember a time when her foot did not ache, when she has accepted the three needles as if they were a sixth toe, then her eyes start to wander in meals, during church services. Then she notices the Sister with lake colored eyes. Her smile is a rapture; this woman wears prayer on her face.

Hee-Jin is too afraid to approach her, at first. The other Sister’s life seems like the constant clicking of rosary beads—there is never an appropriate time to interrupt her solemnity.

Curiosity eventually trumps reverence, and Hee-Jin walks up to the woman after evening prayers are completed.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the Sister says in greeting. “You made me wait for a very long time.”

“Sorry,” Hee-Jin mumbles.

“I am Sister Elena.”

“You’re humankin,” Hee-Jin blurts out.

Sister Elena smiles her prayer-like smile. “Yes, I am humankin, like you.”

“Sister Lireal—my Souer—she said no humankin Initiate has ever made it past Fourth Wounding.” Only after Fourth Wound could you wear the bloodred robes of a full Sister.

“Yes, this is true,” Sister Elena says.

Sister Elena wears bloodred robes.

“I don’t understand,” Hee-Jin says.

“Our Lady is a paradox,” Sister Elena replies. “In time you will learn how two contradictory things can both be true.”

 [ Sister, © 2017 Eric Asaris ] Ketha moves slowly now. Thauri are a slow moving race, their long necks make running almost impossible. Ketha has not lost anything. Most days, she sits by her window and she waits. Her Sisters come to her, and the Initiates know better than to bother her.

“What do you see when you stare out the window?” Sister Estha asks.

“I see the Goddess,” Ketha replies. “Everywhere, I see Our Lady, and She is beautiful.”

Sister Estha lets out a breath. She stares out Ketha’s window. There is a tree directly below them. In that tree is a red only found in dying leaves and it grows like that all year long. Initiates walk past, as do the Sisters. Ketha can see the whole church walk by, if she sits long enough. And she always sits long enough.

“I wish I understood Our Lady as you do,” Sister Estha says. “Sometimes in my dreams I have a clarity so pure I finally understand divinity. And when I wake up, for a split second, I feel the Goddess inside me and I think I have retained that knowledge. But then it is gone, and the world is drab again. Mother, do you think I should have another Wound? I have been contemplating one for some time now.”

This is the purpose of Sister Estha’s visit. Estha has eight Wounds. A full Sister only needs four, and it is not unusual for many to stop after they obtain their bloodred robes.

Ketha remembers asking her own Mother for a Ninth Wound. Casta Kest’Rin had bestowed the Wound herself, a red X over Ketha’s heart that she bears still today. It had been an intimate Wounding, tender as it was painful. Afterwards, Casta took Ketha to her private chambers and disrobed in front of her, letting Ketha look upon her naked body, sharing with Ketha the secret to her divinity. It was then that Ketha knew one day she would be Mother.

“Pain brings clarity,” Ketha replies. “A kind of clarity even dreams do not know. But you should not mistake prayer for a solution. Remember, Our Lady asks us to endure our Wounds, but She does not ask us to suffer.”

Only the ignorant equate pain with suffering. Only heathens believe pain and penance go hand and hand. The Sisters of Perpetual Wounds know the difference between agony and endurance.

Sister Estha closes her eyes. “Thank you, Mother. I understand.”

“The pagans of Lamplight believe that pain is equal. That one agony is the same as another. But we know different, don’t we?”

When Sister Elena says it, Hee-Jin thinks she does know. There is a constant agony in her left foot, but it is not the same thing as a slave’s hunger, or a slave’s beating. It is not the same thing at all.

Sister Elena rolls up her robes, exposing her naked legs to Hee-Jin. Her legs are withered, twisted like malformed fruit that dropped from the branch not quite right. “I have a degenerative disorder,” Sister Elena explains, her voice succinct. “It is eating me from the inside out. I was born with it. There is no cure. It will kill me soon.”

“It is painful,” Hee-Jin ventures. She does not need to ask the question. She understands how Elena became a Sister without a Fourth Wound. Her body is a Wound.

“It is painful,” Sister Elena agrees. “The doctors could only offer to numb. That is not a cure.”

She speaks with certainty, but there are no absolutes in Lamplight.

“Other gods might have saved you,” Hee-Jin says. The gods of Lamplight are not benevolent gods. At least, not in Hee-Jin’s experience. But it’s been known to happen. The streets bleed miracles in Lamplight.

“Our Lady did save me,” Sister Elena smiles. “Everyone here is my Sister. Everyone here lives with the same pain that I do. What could be more saving than that?”

When it has been nine months since Ketha intervened between Dragon Knight and humankin, she calls the girl to stand by her window. She has not talked to the humankin since she asked her to make a choice. Today, she asks her to choose once more.

“It has been nine months since your First Wound, my child,” Ketha says. “It is time now to decide if you can bear a Second.”

Hee-Jin tugs her brown sleeve. “But I haven’t done anything. I thought Initiates had to prove themselves before accepting the Second.”

“You bore the First Wound. That is all you need to do to prove you can accept the Second.”

The humankin does not say anything. She wears mistrust on her face. She thinks she has been tricked somehow.

“Nine months ago, I told you that if you did not pick the church, I would give you back to Samson.”

“I remember,” Hee-Jin scowls.

“Nine months ago, that was true.” Hee-Jin snaps her head up. “It is no longer. If you do not want the Second Wound, you may leave the church. I will give you money to go anywhere you like. You need not fear the Seventh Dragon Knight or anyone else’s retribution.”

“I don’t understand,” the humankin says warily.

“The Second Wound is a choice, a true choice. If you wish to stay in the church, it cannot be because you feared your other options. If you accept the Second Wound, it is because this is the place you want to be, and nowhere else.”

The humankin most likely never had a choice before. It is very important that she understands her options now.

“You could leave the city,” Ketha says. “Or you could set yourself up with one of the Lamplight courts, or another church. You are smart and hardworking. There are many things you could do.”

“Do you offer every Initiate this opportunity?” Hee-Jin challenges.

Ketha smiles. “No. If an Initiate chooses to leave the sanctuary of our church before Second Wounding, they may do so. But they usually receive no more aid.”

“Then why offer it to me?” she asks.

She is smart. And hard-working. And she can bear a tremendous amount of pain. Ketha has no doubt this humankin could do great things in Lamplight, if given the chance.

“I have my reasons,” Ketha says, “and they are my own. If you wish to know them, you must stay a little longer with Our Lady.”

“Tell me about your First Wound,” Sister Elena says.

“You know my Wound,” Hee-Jin says. All the Sisters know her story. Hee-Jin hurries about the church and the eyes of the Sisters follow her every limping move.

“Not what it is. Why it is. The First Wound always reflects your greatest sin.” Sister Elena removes her habit and reveals a bald head, with one bleeding cross cut into her scalp.

“The drugs that might have abated my sickness would have removed my hair, and in my vanity as a child I refused them. For my First Wound, the Sisters took my hair and left me this.”

Hee-Jin touches her left foot. It is amazing what you can accept as yourself. The needles are a part of her now. The ache and the throb are no different than the bones and blood which form the body that is “Hee-Jin.”

“The Dragon Knight who was my master had a bet with the Whitecross Duke. They each unlocked their slaves for a night and left the door open. They told their slaves that if anyone tried to run away, five slave lives would be the forfeit. They bet each other that their slaves would not run. But I ran. Sir Samson had to give the Whitecross Duke five of his slaves in recompense. The Whitecross Duke killed them all in front of us and drank their blood.”

“You did not know he would do that,” Sister Elena says gently.

“No. I knew. I still ran. And I was caught. The five other slaves were my friends.”

Hee-Jin has not told this story to anyone. Not even Sister Lireal, her Souer. But there is no judgment in Sister Elena’s face. Her smile is full of psalms and Hee-Jin feels redeemed just looking at her.

“You wished to be free and I wished to be beautiful. Your desire was purer but your sin was greater. It is no wonder why Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds loves you so.”

“Does she?” Hee-Jin startles.

“Oh yes. I could tell that right away. Our Goddess has favorites, no one can doubt that. You are one of them. Mother knows this, I think. That is why she tests you.”

“Tests me?” Hee-Jin repeats. She’s still thinking about “love.”

“She would not entice you to leave if she did not wish for you to stay.”

The love of a goddess seems very similar to the love of an enslaved mother. A hit in the face to stop life-threatening tears.

“Sister Lireal says the First Wound is the worst.”

“Not at all. The Second Wound is the worst. But I have never made it past the Third Wound, so you do not need to take my word for it.” Sister Elena puts her habit back on. She kisses Hee-Jin on the cheek. Hee-Jin smells patchouli and blood and feels the love of a goddess beat against her heart.

“I haven’t said I’ll accept the Second Wound,” Hee-Jin says.

“You will,” Sister Elena smiles. “I have faith.”

Ketha does not know what the humankin will choose. She thinks to offer more temptations to get her to leave Lamplight. But she does not understand earthly desires anymore, and thus does not know what could be sufficiently enticing for the girl. What more could she want beyond freedom, wealth, or power?

“You watch her,” Sister Rebekah accuses, “Like you never watched me.”

Ketha looks away from her window to face the glaring anger emanating from eyes sown shut.

“What are your desires, Sister Rebekah?” Ketha asks, ignoring the accusations.

“I want to be Mother,” Sister Rebekah says. “You have always led me to believe one day I would be Mother.”

“Because you lead services in my place and rule over your Sisters? Yes, I can see why you would think that.”

She loves Sister Rebekah and also loathes her. It is awfully tiring to face someone who waits impatiently for her to die.

“Then why do you watch the humankin?”

Thauris hate impatience. It is the least respectable of all sins.

“Our Lady grants you great vision, Sister,” Ketha says, “Do not deliberately blind that gift with jealousy.”

If Sister Rebekah intends to say anything she loses her chance. Ketha turns back to her window. Hee-Jin sits outside with Sister Elena, under the undying tree. Ketha thinks about temptation. Freedom, wealth and power might appeal to a citizen of Lamplight, but not to a Sister. Now it’s only a matter of waiting to see if Hee-Jin is humankin or a nun.

Hee-Jin’s Second Wound is a diagonal cut across her right arm. And it is worse.

Almost immediately she wants to take it back. “Heal me, and send me on way. I want to explore the world outside of Lamplight.”

She keeps silent. She’s still not sure why. Except that sometimes when she closes her eyes she can see the goddess with Her hands around Hee-Jin’s neck, and she thinks if she speaks out now Our Lady might strangle the words and blasphemy out of her.

She nurses her arm instead. The Sisters allow her three days rest and Hee-Jin spends the entire time in bed, clutching her right arm tightly to her breast.

The Wound gapes. Unlike the three needles in her foot, the Second Wound confronts Hee-Jin every time she looks down at her arm. The large gash looks foreign and unnatural. The blood that comes out but does not leave her body is an ugly, gaping reminder that Hee-Jin’s body is not her own. She wants to wrap bandages around her arm—hide away the mark and have some illusion that it will heal—but such a thing is forbidden.

It’s not like bandages would repair anything.

When she grows accustomed to this new pain she feels irritation. Why her right arm? The cut might not gush with blood and the Sister’s power might keep it from infection, but it is still damage. Her fingers can still move, but it’s harder. They’ve lost their nimble maneuverings and she can’t grip her fist as tightly as she could before. Everyday chores that were once so simple now take twice as long and anytime she must use her right arm (which is often) waves of pain flare as if ripping the flesh anew.

“This is stupid,” Hee-Jin snarls, throwing a pile of laundry down after she fumbled a fifth time in the folding.

Sister Lireal does not look impressed. She continues to fold as if Hee-Jin never spoke.

“If I must suffer, why the right arm?” Hee-Jin continues. “Why make it so I can’t function?”

“Why not?” Sister Lireal mocks. “Why do you think pain should be convenient?”

Hee-Jin scowls. “I should have left this city when I had the chance.”

“Oh yes,” Lireal says, “I’m sure the outside world never makes you suffer except in useful ways.”

Hee-Jin throws the laundry at her Souer’s head. She uses her left arm and so the dirty cloth falls no where near Sister Lireal.

Sister Elena’s body is found one morning, rigid in her bed. There is benediction frozen on her face.

Death is not stranger to this church. Wounds are Perpetual and that kind of strain wears the body down.

Sister Elena had no Wounds but she knew her fate regardless. She entered the church with that fate written in her blood and bones.

Ketha will mourn her, because she was a Sister. But she also knows Sister Elena was closer to divinity that anyone else in the church save the Mother, and so her death is not a tragedy but a homecoming.

The humankin Initiate sobs. Her grief is loud and inconsolable. She has met death before—who in Lamplight has not? And a slave in Lamplight is surely an intimate friend to Lady Death. But this is the first Sister she has lost, and that pain is always the hardest to bear.

The other Sisters surround the grieving girl, but Ketha signals for them to leave her alone. Ketha approaches the hunched over Initiate. Her body is no longer brittle, but it is still thin and inherently breakable.

She stands over the girl until the sobbing stops. Hee-Jin still does not stand.

Thauris can wait forever. Eventually, the girl rights herself and stares at Ketha with bloodshot eyes.

“Come with me,” Ketha commands, and she turns around without waiting to see if she will be obeyed. She knows she will be obeyed.

No Wound could prepare Hee-Jin for the pain inside.

She thought she knew death. She watched the Whitecross Duke slit the throats of her five friends without flinching. She watched Samson sell her mother, never to be seen again, and didn’t shed a tear. Slaves, as a rule, do not have the luxury of grief.

But the loss of Sister Elena festers and she does not understand why. She didn’t know her long, they didn’t talk often; they shared no special connection. But Hee-Jin feels a gaping chasm inside her heart and she hates it.

“When you think back to this later, you will remember this as your Third Wound, and not whatever ceremonial Wound comes next,” the Mother says, settling down in her seat by her window.

Hee-Jin stares at her dully. Her Third Wound is the last thing on her mind. Her place in the church seems unimportant. Everything seems unimportant.

“Grief is a pain that never ends. It was the Original Perpetual Wound. You will endure this as you endured your other Wounds, because that is what we do.”

“This grief will never go away,” Hee-Jin says. She closes her eyes. “Good.” Accepting that it will always hurt makes it bearable. Waiting for her grief to end would have killed her.

She does not see the Mother smile, but she can hear it in her voice. “You are a Sister. No matter what else occurs, this church is etched onto your bones.”

Ketha leads the burial service personally, instead of Sister Rebekah. She does not do this for every Sister, but Elena had been special.

“Let me tell you the story of how Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds came to be. Our Lady of Dust and Smoke met one day Her brother, Our Lord of Insanity and Ecstasy. Lady Death and Lord Love came together and in Their Union She birthed a child, the golden-eyed princess She named Hope.

“Hope, the daughter of Love and Death, could only ever have but one fate: to lose Her life when She lost Her heart. Lady Death, knowing this, imprisoned Her daughter in the moon where She could meet no one to give Her heart.

“But from Her place on the moon, Hope could see all mortalkin, and She loved all She saw. And so the golden-eyed princess broke Her body into a million pieces so each mortalkin could consume a bite of Her flesh.

“Hope lives in mortalkin, but Lady Death raged at this loss. From Her rage She birthed a second daughter, twin to Hope, daughter of Love and Death. This was Our Lady of Perpetual Wounds.

“You grieve, Our Lady told Her Mother, because of love and because of death. Let this grief be eternal. Let every mortalkin know that grief never ends. Let this be a Wound that lives forever, so that everyone who ate my sister Hope knows that some pain will never go away.”

Ketha stands over the body of Sister Elena, her Sisters an endless sea of bloodred.

“This is a pain that never ends,” she says.

“Let it never end,” the Sisters intone automatically.

“We bear our Wounds forever so that Hope can live in each mortalkin,” Ketha says. “Because we love, so must we hurt. Because all must die, so must we hurt. Because we have hope, so must we hurt. This is what is right and just.”

“Let it never end,” the Sisters thunder in one voice.

The Sisters let Hee-Jin choose her own Third Wound and so she picks a cross cut into her scalp, so that when she thinks of her Third Wounding she will always remember Sister Elena’s loss.

Other Sisters die, but Sister Elena is a pain that will last forever.

One night, after evening prayers, Hee-Jin is called to the Mother. They do not meet in front of her window, as is often the case, but instead in the Mother’s own private chambers.

“Three Wounds,” the Mother says, with little preamble. “Have you given thought to your Fourth?”

“Only that it is something I desire,” Hee-Jin replies.

“And how are you, these days?”

Hee-Jin can’t pretend she doesn’t know what she means.

Throbbing in her foot, a near-useless arm, a pain across her scalp like fire. Some days Hee-Jin wants to throw herself off the church’s highest tower.

“I want my Fourth Wound,” Hee-Jin repeats. She wants to be a Sister.

“You could die,” the Mother says.

“I most likely will.”

Ketha nods. It’s the right answer. It’s a Sister’s answer. Slowly she begins to disrobe. Hee-Jin watches the Mother remove her clothes in passive silence. She isn’t confused at the sudden nakedness, only trusts that Ketha Keth’Rin has a plan.

When the last robe is gone, Hee-Jin stares.

“Behold,” Ketha says. “This is what it means to be Mother.”

Her body is a Wound. A thousand cuts, a thousand holes; she’s unskinned in some places, at her elbow Hee-Jin can see the protrusion of bone. Blood and muscle gape, caught unhealed. Her insides and her outsides hold little difference. Her toes are broken and purple, gnarled inwards. Little cuts on each finger, bruises all along the little unbroken skin left on her body.

“Every wound a Wound,” Ketha says softly. “I lost the ability to heal anything when I took up the Mother’s mantle.”

“Every wound a Wound,” Hee-Jin repeats in awe. What would it be like if every little injury never healed? How could anyone remain sane?

Ketha chuckles. “Do you really want to know?”

Hee-Jin didn’t realize she’d asked that last question out loud. She nods, temporarily speechless in face of the wreckage which is Ketha Keth’Rin’s body.

“I have faith the pain will someday end.”

Hee-Jin frowns. “But the pain won’t end. That’s the whole point.”

Ketha smiles and nods. “Exactly.”

© 2017 Michelle Denham

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