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The Edge of Temptation
By Megan Crane
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Megan Crane
All rights reserved.
The Western Highlands
The fox changed everything.
Maud never would have considered such sacrilege otherwise.
It had been ten years since her mother and uncle had traded her to a traveling priest for winter supplies for their patched-together caravan out on a lonely stretch of the Oklahoma coast. Ten years as a novice in the Great Lake Convent, where no one had ever asked Maud directly whether or not she'd like to become a faithful nun of the church, living purely to serve the needs of its priests as directed by the divine above, because it had been expected and assumed that she was overjoyed she'd been selected in the first place. All the other girls were beside themselves.
The priests chose only the most special girls for the honor of serving the church, Maud had been told almost every day of the past decade, in one form or another. There was something inside her that only they could see that called out to all men of god, apparently, and assured them she was destined for the holy life.
Personally, Maud believed the priests had been hearing things.
That happened a lot on the Oklahoma shores of the Mississippi Sea where she'd spent the first part of her life. The waves and the seabirds and the wind that always kicked up a ruckus in all those falling-down, leftover barns from the long-drowned farms — who could hear above all that racket? She had similar concerns in the Great Lake Convent where she'd been taken to live for her first ten years with the church, filled as it was with so many young girls and chanting nuns. The relentless din of a meal in the convent had made her own ears ache sometimes.
How could anyone ever hear a call from god over all that noise? And certainly not a call for Maud specifically, given that she'd found surrendering herself to the demands of her new life far more difficult than the other girls.
Impossible, actually, though she'd tried. She'd tried and tried and tried.
Maybe she hadn't actually been called at all. Maybe the priest who'd happened upon her family's caravan had been suffering a disruptive digestive ailment rather than heeding any sort of call from on high, thirteen-year-old smart-mouthed Maud had suggested to the deeply unimpressed and unamused senior nuns in one of her catechism classes one day.
That view had been strongly and energetically discouraged. It had also started a history of displeased discussions about Maud's behavioral issues with authority figures. Soon she'd been branded sly and defiant and disrespectful no matter what she did. Traits that had brought her to the specific attention of Bishop Seph, the much -celebrated head of the Great Lake Cathedral and second only to the grand high priest himself, though no one had seen him outside his distant mountain refuge in years.
You are a disgrace to this convent, Mother Felyz had thundered at Maud in the years before Bishop Seph had taken charge of her. Often. And always with such passion her dark brown chins had wobbled alarmingly when she spoke, as punctuation.
How can I be a disgrace? You keep telling me I was called, don't you? Maud had countered in her more spirited periods, when she'd still been a first-phase novice with her hair long and carefree, and she'd found the senior nuns and their harsh rules a kind of game.
Bishop Seph had freed her of that misconception, because it was hard to have much spirit around a humorless disciplinarian like him — not that it was wise to call him such things where anyone else could hear. He didn't care for spirit. Or backtalk of any sort or any whiff of disrespect or even the faintest hint of laughter. Worse, he was merciless when he punished these offenses and he had a very, very hard hand.
But Maud hadn't known that then, in all her merry years of shooting off her mouth to Mother Felyz. If she had, she might have kept it shut. Or at least she might have tried a bit harder to keep herself off the always-in -trouble list.
It was her twenty-first year now and nothing was all that amusing any longer. Her second phase of novice training, with her hair cut short to show off the church's brand at the nape of her neck plus all those long years learning how to perform her penances to the bishop's satisfaction, could only end one of two ways at the fast-approaching June solstice.
She could give herself to the church or she could be pronounced unworthy and cast out into the desert.
Maud had decided early into her second phase of training that she really, really didn't want to die out there in the inhospitable high desert that ringed the Great Lake Valley and extended out in all directions like a barrier, protecting the church from the rest of the western kings who held the higher ground of the Rocky Mountains. The misery that woke her at night sometimes, a heavy and wet panic in her chest, was nothing but her pointless rebellion, the bishop had told her when she'd confessed it. It was her sin, weighing her down and destroying her from the inside out.
Can't you feel it eating you alive, novice? he'd whispered in her ear as he'd administered his preferred version of the daily punishment everyone claimed would sanctify her somehow. Make her whole and holy, and all the better if she choked on it.
That she was never absolved of her sins no matter how many times she confessed them was a testament to her own stubborn willfulness, the bishop assured her. On this, everyone agreed, from her fellow novices to the senior nuns to all the priests in the Great Valley besides.
You must be doing it deliberately, her roommate Edyth had told her, averting her eyes lest Maud transmit her troublemaking ways through her gaze alone. Why else would even the bishop himself be unable to clean it out of you?
But Maud had never felt dirty, the way she knew she was supposed to.
How can I possibly recommend that you enter a holy life of service and worship when the only thing you hold dear is your sinful heart? Bishop Seph had asked her during their last marathon prayer session in the days before the March equinox that marked the end of her final winter as a novice.
His long, thin face, the color of the aspen trees Maud could see from her dormitory windows, had been drawn into a faint, quizzical frown. It had made her skin prickle in warning, because that frown always, always boded the kind of serious ill that would make it impossible for her to sit for days. He'd been lounging in his massive confessional chair the way he always did, stroking the strip of close-cut hair on his chin as he watched her abase herself before him on the cold stone floor, which despite five years of near daily prayer sessions with this man she still never quite managed to do to his satisfaction. No matter what she did or said or even felt inside, he saw only defiance.
How can you serve the church fully if you cannot surrender yourself completely? he'd asked.
I want to surrender, she'd told him. She'd said it before in an attempt to avoid the worst of the penance he doled out with that gleeful look in his dark brown eyes all the other novices claimed she was wicked to say she saw there.
But that day in March, she'd meant it.
She'd been desperate. Desperate to tip herself over into that great, glorious faith that seemed to bloom so easily and so wildly in all the other novices. Desperate to live past the June solstice, no matter how little she wanted the life of a nun if it meant more years like this, naked on a stone floor trying to explain herself to a man who already thought he knew her better than she ever could.
I want that more than anything, she'd said. I want to surrender more than I want to breathe.
Prove it, Bishop Seph had ordered her in his sonorous and terrible voice, and Maud had tried.
She'd tried then, yet again, in his confessional chamber where she spent most of her time. She'd tried when he'd assigned her yet another public shaming in the Great Lake Cathedral at the Equinox Mass, forcing her to confess her sins to the whole congregation while he wrote them on her skin in blood-red oils that had stained her with the hateful words for weeks. Liar. Sneak. Sinner. She'd tried everything she knew to prove herself, assuming deep down that she would fail as she always did, and yet somehow she'd managed it. Or she'd managed a reprieve, anyway. No one had been more surprised than Maud when the bishop had grudgingly permitted her to travel with the rest of the novices in their twenty-first year down to the temples in the red desert, where they were to spend their last three months before the solstice in the traditional contemplation and purification rituals.
Which meant Maud was bored out of her fucking mind and hot all the damned time, but she told herself what mattered was that she was still alive. For the moment, anyway. Sweaty and thirsty and tired of being trapped in her own thoughts that led nowhere good — but alive.
And then she saw the fox.
She was out on one of the long walks that she'd sweetly informed the watchful nuns were necessary to a greater understanding of the nature of obedience when she'd seen it. Foxes weren't anything new down in the hard, high desert. As far as anyone could tell, they'd weathered the Storms that had wrecked the planet well enough, and had even thrived in all the many years since. This one had the usual oversized ears and clever red face. There was nothing particularly interesting in that, no matter how cute the little creature was. What caught at her was that it didn't run when it saw her.
Maud had walked farther than she should have today, because her obedience was a fragile thing at best. A whole lot farther than was wise, if she wanted to maintain her perfect attendance record at the evening chant — and she knew very well she had no choice but complete and total perfection in these last weeks before the solstice. The shadows were long and she knew she'd have to run to make it back to the temple, which meant she'd risk seeming out of breath and thus not sufficiently serene, as befit a holy sister of the church in this last little bit of training before surrendering herself for good.
But she hadn't turned back yet, which possibly meant she really didn't want to surrender no matter what she told herself, and she followed what wasn't even a proper path at all down a red hill covered in sage bushes.
At the bottom sat the fox. And it didn't run when it saw her coming.
It sat up straighter and cocked its little head to one side, as if it were considering her approach. Judging her, perhaps, like everyone else did.
Maud felt something crack open inside of her at that. Emotion, panic. She couldn't tell the difference anymore.
"Not you, too," she said crossly.
In the middle of an empty red desert.
To a fox.
She didn't care that it was obviously unseemly for a novice to talk to an animal at all, much less one the church considered vermin. Unclean. Or that chatting with a fox in the first place likely meant she was totally insane. As if any of that mattered this close to either her death or her total disappearance into the church system, forever.
Nuns didn't leave the church. Nuns were obedient, always. Nuns did exactly as they were told for as long as they lived. They appeared in public in twos and fours and sixes, never alone and never without at least two armed priests. They wore the gleaming white cloaks and shiny metal headdresses that set them apart and marked them indelibly as what they were — church property. They served the priests until they were in their thirties and were deemed too old to perform their holy duties. Then if they weren't called to a different position inside the church — like the teaching of the novices in the convent — they served humanity the way all fertile women did, by having as many babies as possible in whatever sort of marriage the church deemed necessary.
Nunwives were one of the church's foremost exports, the senior nuns had told the second-phase novices not long after they'd lost their long hair. Some men paid handsomely for a church-trained mate, especially older men who didn't wish to compete with all the young bucks every September for winter marriages with younger, more fertile women. These men liked the permanence of a solid mating instead, with a nunwife who knew how to serve even as she was bred. Not to mention, a nunwife purchased from the church couldn't declare the marriage over come the March equinox, the way regular women could with whatever winter marriage they'd agreed to back in September. Nunwives were forever, unless a man decided he wanted a trade-in, and then they were sent back to the church for an exchange.
Maud couldn't tell any longer what scared her more. That she might never experience any of that — no sex after all these years without it because novices owed their virginity to the church, no years of service to the priests once she was finally initiated, no purchased obedience to old men once her usefulness to the priests was done or her own fat, sweet babies someday to boost the population as all good people were called to do. That she might die out here in in the hot red dirt instead and do none of the things women were put on this drowned, ruined earth to do.
Or that she would experience all of those things, in exactly that order, no matter how she felt about any of it.
"You try being pure and good and obedient, then," Maud told the fox, and her voice sounded strange and thick in the dry air, down there in an arid red valley that seemed to buckle in the last of the day's heat. "It's easy for everyone, apparently. Except me."
The fox didn't respond.
Of course it didn't respond, because it was a fox.
Maud felt deeply and profoundly foolish for a moment. But only for a moment, because the creature still didn't turn and race off the way it should have. The way every other desert fox Maud had ever seen in this cracked-rock, barren place that might well become her funeral pyre had done at the faintest hint of a human's approach.
She wanted it to mean something.
A portent. A sign.
If she couldn't quite make herself believe in the church the way everyone around her did — and with such fervor it made her ache inside some days as she sat in their midst and tried her best to pretend — she wanted ... this. A clever fox that should have run before she'd registered it was there, but hadn't. A sign on a hot June afternoon only a scant few weeks before she was set to die, in one way or another.
In the church or because of it.
The fox's nose twitched. Its depthless black eyes seemed to glint in the harsh late afternoon sun as it burned its way toward the horizon. The fox yawned, showing sharp teeth and a remarkably pink tongue, then stared at Maud again.
If it was a sign, it was almost as incomprehensible as the priests had always been, Bishop Seph chief among them.
And that was when the creature turned and darted away, as if responding to a dangerous noise only it could hear. It lost itself in the sage and shadows, but then reappeared at the top of the next hill. Where it sat and began to clean its paws, as if it was entirely alone.
It might as well have been.
There weren't going to be any signs, Maud acknowledged then, her heart pounding for no good reason as she watched the clever little thing for a few more utterly pointless moments. There weren't suddenly going to be new choices to make. The choice had been made for Maud when she'd been eleven and the strange man dressed all in black with smooth dark skin had stood in a clearing and studied her as she'd tended the fire for her family's breakfast. She'd never seen a priest before. She'd been mesmerized by that strip of facial hair he wore, extending from his bottom lip to his chin. He'd promised her mother and uncle such riches they'd scoffed at him and turned him away, but had spent the days afterward eyeing Maud in a way that had made her skin feel itchy. When the man had returned with everything he'd promised and more, Maud's blood relatives had given her to his keeping while draped in furs, cozy and warm for the first time in their lives despite the crisp sea air.
Call me Father Tiero, the man had told her, holding tight to her wrist as he'd led her away. You belong to the church now.
And one thing Maud had learned was that the church kept what it claimed.
A fox was a fox, not a sign or a symbol of any kind. It was nothing but a wild, thoughtless animal that lived in these high red rocks where nothing else could. Its survival had nothing to do with her.
She felt a strange chill, then, even though the sun was still up and still blazing hot. The flowing sleeveless tunic and wide-legged trousers all the novices wore — in a faded shade of red Maud suspected was meant to remind them of the fate that awaited them if they were deemed unworthy at the solstice — were light and airy, the better to breathe in the arid air during the sizzling hot days. They offered little protection against the cold nights this time of year, when the novices were expected to sleep on the temple's chilly concrete floors beneath the ancient pipes and give themselves over to the discomfort for the glory of god.
Excerpted from The Edge of Temptation by Megan Crane. Copyright © 2016 Megan Crane. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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