When Grace’s candle was out, the others said that she was “asleep.” But it was nothing like sleep. Grace did not dream. When consciousness returned, she was not granted a groggy transition to the waking world; she had no active subconscious to blur and ease the hard edges of reality. In a leap that would have made Descartes proud, one moment Grace was not, and then she was.
It was dark—pre-dawn, she guessed, from the quality of the sounds coming through her drawn shutters. Grace blinked to clear her eyes; sometimes they didn’t quite close, and got dry and dusty.
“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to bring the room into focus.
Asanti said, “I wanted to ask you something.”
Grace immediately sat up, eyes finally confirming what her ears had told her. What is Asanti doing here? What have I missed this time? “What happened? Where’s Menchú?”
“Nothing’s happened. He’s fine,” said Asanti.
In a heartbeat, confusion and fear turned to irritation. “Is this an emergency?”
“Then ask me later.” Grace closed her eyes, reached back, and pinched out the candle flame that had brought her to life for no purpose other than Asanti’s curiosity.
She had time to think, Ten seconds gone, before there was nothing.
Grace had no sense of time when it passed without her, but she didn’t think more than a few seconds could have elapsed before she was once again looking up at Asanti’s concerned face. Asanti’s clothes hadn’t changed. The light, or lack thereof, from outside was the same. Her own eyes were still clear and moist. “I’m sorry,” Asanti said.
Grace sighed. Telling her to apologize later and put out the candle again would clearly be counterproductive, quicker just to hear her out. But the next time they were all in transit together . . . oh, the two of them would have words about using her time without permission.
“What do you want?” asked Grace.
“I’m sorry,” Asanti repeated. “I know your time is precious. But I need to ask you something, and I wanted to be sure that we could be alone.”
Grace raised an eyebrow.
“If you could live normally again, without the candle, would you still want to?”
“What kind of question is that? Do you think I would have chosen to tie my life to a candle?” Grace rose to her feet in outrage.
“No, but this is the life that you’ve been given. I’ve watched you over the years. You’ve become accustomed to living with it.” Asanti stopped just short of touching her with a placating hand. Good choice.
Grace felt sick to her stomach. She did not want to have this conversation. Roads not taken were better left unmapped. She wanted to put out her candle, end this now, but she had a feeling that was the kind of reaction Asanti was talking about. What normal person was so matter-of-fact about extinguishing their consciousness? “What are you talking about? I’m still— I’m still a person.”
Asanti spoke gently. “Of course you are. But you used to worry about getting hurt as if you had a normal body. You don’t anymore. Your situation is not ideal, but I didn’t want to assume that you would want to give it up.”
The feeling in Grace’s stomach shifted again, into an emotion she had not known in a very long time. “Is this a hypothetical question, or have you found something?”
“Not yet. But Angiuli’s approval to look for a way to fix the Orb opens the door for the Society to take a more proactive stance toward magic and magical phenomena in general.” Asanti’s eyes shone with the possibilities. “Now I can go on the offensive. I can look in earnest for a way to cure your condition, not just hope to stumble across a miracle as we do our job. But if you’d rather I didn’t, I won’t.”
Grace gestured to herself. “A magical mystery like this? You’d just leave it?”
“If you asked me to,” said Asanti.
And the thing was, Grace believed her. Which only made the original question more complex.
Asanti gathered herself and stood. “You don’t have to answer now. I don’t want to take up more of your time than I have to. But I wanted to ask.” She paused at the door. “Is there anything else you need that I can get for you? Books? Shoes?”
Grace shook her head. Asanti left.
Lost in thought, Grace barely noticed as the room gradually lightened with the rising sun.
Menchú was an early riser, and used to coming into the Archives before the rest of his team. Or occasionally—if Liam or Asanti had been drawn in by a particularly intriguing area of research—coming in before the other members of his team realized they had worked through the night. Still, at seven in the morning he usually had the corridors of the Vatican to himself.
Today Sansone waited for him outside the Archives.
“Buongiorno,” he said.
Sansone did not bother with pleasantries. “There’s a meeting of the selection committee tasked with choosing a permanent replacement for Cardinal Varano. You need to be there.”
Menchú sensed a trap. “Why? The committee is a formality. Once His Holiness confirms Monsignor...