Everything was in order. His escape would be clean and easy, with time to spare before the rising tide of public opinion threw him out of office. Not that it had been difficult to discern the opinions of those around him; many, the weak and the powerful, the pious and the secular, wanted the Bishop of Rome gone from the Vatican, and quite possibly gone from the earth. He and the Emperor were rarely on good terms, but his was an authority the secular Emperor could neither deny nor supplant, no matter what the Hohenstaufen Frederick felt concerning him personally. It was yet another reason he found the position of supreme pontiff so fulfilling while at the same time darkly humorous. Oh, these human animals. What would they think of next?
Being evicted from the Holy See by a mob with torches and ax handles was mildly unsettling, but then again, the Pope had not concerned himself with any sort of positive referendum upon his assumption of the position, so to worry about the opinions of the public now seemed rather like shutting the stable doors after all the horses had gone. It was little matter to him, in any case. If the state of Holy Christendom in the world of the mortals was mucked up beyond repair, it was perhaps an unnecessary bonus in the bargain.
Duriel, Pope but not Vicar, pontiff who made no vows and held nothing sacred, made his way through the ostensible center of all faith on earth, walking slowly, with the air of one who has forgotten something, and cannot recall what it could have been.
All the preparations had been made discreetly through the previous week - even Peter had his place at Anagni already. With even that nuisance satisfied, what could he have forgotten? He had left Raziel in the upper galleries, ordering his journeymen about, King of his own castle. Raziel well understood his place was to keep abreast of the affairs in the palace as well as to hold their position in the Parliament. With Duriel occupied almost entirely with arranging things as per suggestion of the parliament, he had little time to trouble himself with attending the meetings in person. Raziel himself did not want to be bothered with leaving Rome, which he found quite comfortable, his meals delivered and his forbidden texts under his fingertips. When Duriel had left him, he had been almost idly waved off. Of course, if anyone denied the supremacy of the Christ's representative on earth, trust it to be Raziel.
No, it was not the librarian, and it was not the tiny art critic queen. There was something else.
He did not truly place it until he was walking through servant's sallyport, ready to embark upon his flight before he was more forcibly called to task by the irate citizenry. Caught on the threshold, Duriel halted. His troupe, waiting and horsed, looked on, concerned. The Pope's eyes narrowed, and then closed. A disgruntled sigh escaped, despite his best efforts to the contrary, as Duriel reentered the building and called a servant to him.
Obviously awed at such direct contact with the Holy Father, the woman fairly ran to complete her blessed errand. Such a strange request - just one girl from the servant's quarters - but then who was she to question the whims of God on earth?
The bells that rang to mark the passage of time, the sun that rose and the sun that set, these were the Gods of her world. Once she had dreamed, and once she had wondered that other Gods might govern her fate and destiny, but here, here where she was bound to live and to die in the dark recesses, the tunnels like rats' nests all around and through the Papal palace. Her world was the world in the shadows of St. Peter's Basillica. If the world turned on its axis around the Vatican, then she lived in the hollows of the world's spine: silent, solitary, and dutiful.
So the bells rang and they marked her life as they tolled, matins in the lower antechambers, scrubbing the stone near the entrance to the crypts, laudes dead on her feet and yearning for the chill pile of old straw that was her own. She slept away from the others. She always did. They didn't mourn her absence greatly. She was a strange animal. Her scent did not fit.
The bells were her routine. Her life was repetition. She knew her place here, now. All times were the same time. Things did not change. Change was to be feared. For most, change meant death.
So it was when Margaret Giallo found her, on her hands and knees, devoting herself to the lower tapestries of the stairwell that lead up to the scriptorium. It was a sharp tug at the hem of her dress which caught her attention, and caused her to scramble as if she might have been blocking the way for some more important personage. It was there, pressed back against the tapestries, bare wrists crossed over her lap, that she first knew.
"You're wanted," said Margaret Giallo.
So she went.
She had not seemed surprised to see him, but then, he certainly did his best not to notice her. She was not given a horse, it being a generally agreed upon assumption that she had no experience in riding. Instead, she was to ride with one of the escort guard, handed up not roughly but quite unceremoniously and told to hold on tightly lest she fall and break her crown. She did as she was told. There was rarely a need for repetition when dealing with that child.
The ride was not long, but it was certainly hard, peppered with a minimal number of stops for rest, and by the time they arrived in the mountainous town of their destination, the intense travel seemed to have exhausted the waif, Duriel noted as they approached the estate. At least the journey had been completed with a minimum of fuss. Here, there would be no running. The Pope might leave Rome, but he remained Pope. It was not to be considered a failure, then. Merely a relocation.
Upon dismounting, Duriel ordered that food be brought and his ministers brought for a cursory meeting. Stripping off his gloves, he glanced at the girl. He motioned her over, tossing the pair of leather riding gloves into her hands. She looked up at him, silent. Still for a moment, he stared.
Commanding, Duriel broke the moment. "Follow me."
Her head bobbed assent as it was not her place to speak, and she kept close at his heels.
Hands clasped behind his back, Duriel looked out over his city. His thoughts, however, rested on the girl behind him, who was standing quite as still as stone. Was she afraid? If she was, then he could not detect it. She seemed to be thoroughly nonplussed in the presence of the Almighty's left hand.
"You will serve here, now."
"Yes, Holy Father."
"You are the only servant brought from the palace. Do you feel nothing from this revelation?"
She kept her eyes low, as she had always been taught was right in such situations with superiors, although she had had rare occasion to be in the presence of such a superior.
"Capisco, I did not see any others, Holy Father. I can only thank you for this opportunity to continue in your service," suddenly she stopped and jumped slightly in her skin, looking up at him in a way she did not intend before shamefully focusing her attention on the stones again, "I am to continue in your service, aren't I, Holy Father? If I have done anything to displease you, I must humbly beg your forgiveness."
"No, you have not displeased me." Duriel noted the momentary loss of composure, wondering what it signified. "One should continue to seek forgiveness, however. We are all burdened with sin. Your work here, perhaps, will be a part of your penance."
She ducked her head slightly, the loose hair around her face falling into her eyes, "I pray daily for the absolution of all sinners, Holy Father. I shall pay my penance however you see fit."
"Of course. For now, that means going to the servants' quarters and beginning your duties."
She curtsied deeply, keeping her eyes on his feet, leather clad as they were in riding boots. Somehow this seemed strangely fitting, moreso than the full robes that swept the stone.
"As you would have it, Your Holiness."
As she turned to leave, Duriel said aloud, "Your name, before you go. So that I may check your progress easily in the future."
"Rachel, Signore," she said over her shoulder.
"Go with God, then."
As she left, Duriel began preparing himself for his forthcoming meeting. Regardless of how he tried to turn his thoughts, however, he could not stop wondering what it was about that girl that intrigued him. Rachel. Distractions were a problem, he reflected. Distractions needed to be dealt with, and he resolved to do so before the day ended.
She was not entirely clear on what to do with herself. Still, one did not stand idly chatting with the head of the Roman Catholic Church, no matter what uncertain predicament one found oneself in, certainly not after one has been given a direct command. She was not even sure in which direction the servants' quarters lay, or where to find who might be able to sort out her new duties. She was not even sure where she was, since she knew instinctively that this was not one of the seven Roman hills. She could only surmise they had gone south, since the low murmured conversations she caught in piecemeal fragments were not in a dialect of the vernacular that she was familiar with. She kept her head down and hurried, although where she hurried to, she still did not know. No one spoke to her, and she spoke to no one, and this, she supposed, was a safety.
There was some bustle of guardsmen and ministers, but she was ignored by soldiers and priests alike. There were servants dashing about everywhere, disappearing into small side doors, brushing past her down the corridors. They paid her no attention. She had no place here, and having no place, it was as if she did not exist. This sort of anonymity was as comforting as it was unsettling for a girl who'd never known any time that belonged to no one other than herself. Her life was a series of tasks completed for others, for lieges. She knew well her place.
But for a span of minutes, now, she was tasked to no one. She might quietly slip down a corridor and out into the gardens. She might climb a tree and be over the wall and out into the great wide world. She might, she might, and she might not. He was right. Sin rolled heavily down her back. She had yet more penance to pay.
Her fleeting and uncertain dash through the unfamiliar halls of the estate brought her suddenly and chillingly into the great hall, and there she stood, pressed against the wall, trembling in that open air expanse before the great tapestry seal of the family di Conti, which she as yet did not recognize. She stood there, silent in her worn kidskin shoes, and wondered again at how she had come to be in this place, how she had come to the attention of His Holiness Himself. She looked at her own shoes and again thought of his, thought of his riding gloves and jumped, startled again, because as she brought her hands cupped palmed in front of her face, she found that she was still carrying them. Trembling, she knit her fingers against the leather and squeezed as tightly as she could, drawing breath in hard and resolving not to cry, no matter how hard tears threatened in this strange place.
She had been called to task. It was not in her to refuse.
The hours had passed torturously. There had been no routine, of course there hadn't been. There could not be a routine. The house master had not known what to do with her, had had no place for her, did not require her in the kitchens, or in the downstairs chambers, or even in the upper reaches. They were quite well staffed, he had assured, and had no need of an interloper.
She supposed it was to be expected. The house master had not even believed her story, not until he'd double checked it with one of the Vatican guards. Yes, that was the girl His Holiness had brought. Yes, he believed she was in service at the Vatican. No, no others had been brought.
She had been given a broom and turned out of doors, to sweep the pavements outside, of all things. She tried not to be distracted by the green, for this would only mean further penance to pay. They told her she was in Anagni. They told her she had no place. They gave her a pallet. The house master decided to turn her over to the kitchen master, because, he reasoned, there was always room for another scullery maid. Besides, then she was no longer his problem. She kept her head ducked low and did not question those who decided things for her. She kept the gloves tucked into the apron of her skirt and resolved to return them at the end of her duties.
The bells rang, but she was not called in to dinner. She supposed they had forgotten her. She went inside quietly and put away the broom that had been loaned, and although she was very hungry, did not dare disturb the house master again with questions of where she might take her dinner.
With the last of the official duties discharged, Gregory made his way upstairs, to his bedroom and study. Endless debate over the weakness of his position and the implications for the faithful had shortened his temper, and Duriel was glad to be rid of them. Tomorrow he planned to release an edict reemphasizing his doctrinal leanings, while implying that the Supreme Pontiff would be taking an extended rest in his family seat.
Duriel took grim satisfaction at the thought of those suffering distantly under his orders. No matter where he slept, the innocent burned just the same.
As he opened the door to his apartments, his thoughts unwillingly turned from torment, and his black humor was threatened. Rachel. Of whom was he reminded? He seemed incapable of remembering, and yet . . .
After what amounted to a cursory pace around his chambers, he grew unsettled and moved to seat himself before the great, heavy desk. Drumming his fingers on the dark wood, his eyes narrowed, he began to reflect on just what the girl could be. Perhaps a deliberate distraction? His position earned him enemies both human and demonic. It was not impossible that he was being manipulated.
His mood darkened considerably at the thought. How would such a waif be a threat? To him? He shook his head. Unlikely.
Duriel walked to the door, determined to find out the truth.
"Yes, Holy Father."
"Send to the kitchens for my dinner and wine. Instruct them to send the new servant girl . . . Rachel, the one from the palace."
"Of course, Holy Father. At once."
Having made this decision, he settled with a degree of calm expectancy and closed the door to await his dinner. One way or another, he would find out why Rachel bothered him. And after all, if she bothered him overmuch, there was always a chance to have her confess her sins under torture.
One could never have enough heretics, after all.
She was sitting on the stone floor of the great hall staring at the crest of the family di Conti, her knees against her chest, her chin resting on them as she felt over the pebbly leather of the glove cuffs when she was summoned for the second time that day. This time it was one of the Vatican guards. She had seen them often enough when she had been sure of her place. Now she was still as a mouse as he passed, so still that he almost didn't see her, pressed against the wall as she was.
He was distracted, eyes raking over the floors and walls, as if whatever he sought might be hiding in the rafters. When his eyes finally passed over her he started and marched smartly up to her.
"You're the girl from Rome, Rachel?" he asked, but did not wait for her answer, "You were not in the kitchens," he observed, and she cringed. So she was to be disciplined already. Penance came early this night, and without being sought. Still, she was not sure why a soldier of the Vatican would be concerned with the behavior of the least of the servants. But then he continued, "You've been summoned by His Holiness."
This brought her to her feet all at once, her eyes wide, the gloves fisted tightly in her small hands.
"You must be mistaken, Signore," she began, her voice a stutter that she reigned under control, even as she ducked her head again, "I only saw His Holiness this morning. He can't mean me. He can't desire my presence again so soon. You must be looking for someone else. You must give me pardon for troubling you. I have only been here since this morning, so I do not know my way yet."
"You are Rachel," he insisted, taking her wrist as she seemed reluctant to move, "You are the one he has called for. Now come. He has already been waiting half an hour. It is not my place to say, but I do not think it is very wise to keep the Holy Father waiting. He is unused to it."
She stopped resisting his pull and shut her eyes tightly. There had been no mistake. She had been called again. She kept her head down and followed.
The door creaked slightly as Rachel pushed it open, and she noticed that her guard escort was not following to announce her presence. Drawing her lips into a line, she closed the door behind her, and beheld the Head of the Church of Rome sitting down to dinner.
"Your Holiness, I have come as you asked."
"And without my dinner. Where were you that the guards were unable to locate you before the passing of a full half-hour? They sent in my dinner to appease my impatience." Duriel looked at her, his attention far away from his virgin meal.
Sensing some form of punishment for actions not fully under her control, Rachel became nervous. "Your Holiness, I assure you that I was not aware that I was being looked for. If I had known-"
He waved a hand to cut her off. "Yes, I understand. Rachel, I have not called you here to discipline you. Here," Duriel stood. "Eat."
She took a half-step backward involuntarily and then stopped herself and let her attention creep softly to the table that was set with meat and wine. Her lip trembled, but then her stomach growled alarmingly, reminding her that she had not eaten since a bit of hard biscuit before dawn. There was meat on the table. Surely he did not intend her to have meat, and from his own table, even. Rachel sensed a test. This was a value determination. There was a game being played here and she did not yet understand what it was. She haltingly moved to the table and then stood quietly, hands folded in front of her, over the gloves that were still twisted up in her hands, and tried not to look as if she were too terribly hungry.
"You are too kind, Your Holiness."
"So I am told, but in this instance I believe that feeding a hungry servant falls within the purview of my duties as Supreme Pontiff. I seem to recall something in the scriptures to that effect," he finished dryly. He motioned to the chair. "Eat, Rachel. Consider it a grace from the God who sees all."
She sat as she was told, pointing her toes inward even as her shoulders slumped the barest bit. She looked up at him again, as if to make for certain that she had clearance to take a bit of food, then chose the smallest morsel of cheese on the plate and nibbled at it, her eyes large and deep.
"That is what I shall do, then."
Duriel looked on, amused. Could this girl be bait for anything? Could she work for anyone? He thought not. Why, then, her presence in his thoughts? She did remind him of someone, and as he watched her closely, he remembered. Mother of his wife, wife of his master. Jabriel. Uncertain what to do with this realization, he stood momentarily silent, watching the girl eat the smallest portions of his meal.
After a moment of reflection, Duriel made his choice.
"Rachel," he queried gravely, "have you taken communion recently?"
The question caused her to drop the cheese into her lap. Not wanting to seem as unwashed as she knew she truly was at this moment, she picked up the cheese again and admitted, "No, Holy Father. Not since coming to Rome. Not since leaving my family."
Adopting, if possible, an even graver expression, Duriel looked down. "Rachel, I am afraid that this is unacceptable. Please move to the other side of the table, and kneel."
It was not something she could refuse, given the circumstances, not after having eaten at his table, not when the man who stood before her was master of this house. Disregarding further complications of salvation and damnation, of hell and purgatory, she again bowed her head and did as she was told.
Duriel stood at the side of the heavy table, closed his eyes, and crossed himself as he intoned, "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
He did not wait long for a response. "Amen."
"Confess your sins unto me, child."
"I," she began haltingly, as if she had some other place to go, as if she could refuse, as if there were recourse. She closed her eyes, "I have often avoided my duties despite knowing better than to do so. I do not love my masters as well as I should. I have been ungrateful of the charity given to me, father. I," here her voice trembled again and she steadied it, "I have had thoughts, father. They have not been virtuous thoughts."
"The thoughts of man are seldom virtuous, Rachel. Tell me your thoughts, and you shall be forgiven." Here, Duriel leaned down and lifted Rachel's head, so her eyes would meet his own. "Grace awaits you, Rachel. Confess, and be absolved."
She breathed unsteadily for some time, eyes shut as tightly as she could force them, listening to the blood pound in her ears and thought of the meaning of that word: absolution. She almost could not find her voice -- she could not, but then she found it and she forced it out, soft, strained, hushed, "I have thought," she choked and then swallowed, "I have thought of you, Holy Father," she had hoped at first that this would be enough, that this could edge the ring of fire that was her confession, but even as she staggered through it, she knew it was not enough. I could never be enough, "I have thought of you father, but not as the church," she was exhausted now, almost limp from the strain of it, "I have thought of you as a man."
Duriel did his utmost not to react, and succeeded, but only barely, seeming to show displeasure at the thought. "The Lord thanks you for your honesty, child." Standing straight again, Duriel raised his hand and spoke, "Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam æternam. Amen." He paused, looking at the penitent maid before him. Miserateur, indeed. "Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum tuorum tribuat tibi omnipotens et misericors Dominus. Amen." Pausing again, Duriel crossed himself, solemnly, three times, and continued, "Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat: et ego auctoritate ipsìus te absolvo ab omni vinculo excommunicationis, et interdicti, in quantum possum, et tu indiges. Deinde ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
The ceremony completed, Duriel watched Rachel. As he blessed the wine and bread, he wondered at her. No small wonder she had caught his eye; she looked just like her. Tonight, then, he thought as he gave Rachel the host, tonight I will place the past, place her behind me.
"Sanguinem Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen." He brought the cup of wine - or was it blood? - to the girl's lips.
It was done, for good or ill, and she had given what had been asked. Today had not been an easy day, not by anyone's reckoning. She drank and tried to believe that she had been absolved, that that part of her was gone, quick-killed by the touch of the divine.
Duriel watched the play of emotion over her features. He smiled, openly, and drank the Blood of the Savior. "Rise, Rachel. I am well pleased with your piety. You should be too. Remember, though," and here he once again caught her eyes, "a virtuous mind is difficult to maintain."
Duriel held her hand, squeezed it tightly. "We are all of us, sinners. Remember that, Rachel. All of us."
It was perhaps true, although to a far greater degree than she then suspected. The night was still and quiet despite the passing, and as it fell sharply around her, she found that her place was not the one she had been given by the house master. It was a path she found she walked easily enough.
The edict was winging its way across the continent, the ministers were satisfied, and the city was secure. A hard day's work, but Duriel felt fulfilled, particularly after the previous evening's entertainment. Of course, pliable as she was, she had surely gone. He had given orders that she have free run of the grounds, and that no one was to interfere with her in any way. She undoubtedly attributed her easy escape to Providence, he thought amusedly.
Duriel entered his apartments leisurely, but stiffened when he felt another in the room. She was sitting by the window in the same chair she'd been ordered into the previous evening, leaning with her elbows on the sill, her forehead against the stone frame. When she heard him behind her she stood and curtsied as she had done previously, so that the hem of her dress swept the floor lightly.
"You will forgive me for spending the day idle, Holiness," she spoke quietly, but the tremble was gone from her voice, it had steadied into a full sort of comfort taken before it was given, "But I could not induce anyone to tell me what my duties were to be today." She paused and then cocked her head to the side as the barest nuance of a smile played over her mouth, "In fact, I could not induce them to talk to me at all, really."
Barely managing to maintain his calm countenance, Duriel responded "That is unfortunate, Rachel." Moving closer, he eyed her cautiously. "For today, your first duty is to call me by something less formal. Master will do."
"Capisco," she nodded again, thoughtful, "Master, Signore. No, 'signore' is not right, is it? Only in the vulgar. You must forgive me for being vulgar."
"The word you are looking for is dominus," he corrected.
"Dominus," she repeated, and this seemed to settle her. "Signore. Master. Dominus."
Duriel smiled thinly, "That will do quite well, Rachel. Your second task is to instruct the guard to have a servant bring wine and dinner."
"Yes, dominus." As she moved to comply, Duriel halted her.
"Order service for two, Rachel."
"Yes, dominus." She flushed slightly at the easy repetition. Upon returning from her errand, she noticed the Pope, seated before his desk, looking at her.
"Rachel, you are free to do as you will here. None will hinder you; none will question you. You are a servant no longer." His gaze was heavy, as if waiting for a particular reaction.
She was uncertain again, and paused at the door, "Grazie, dominus. I do not deserve such generosity," and her mouth trembled again slightly, "But then, where will my place be? We must all have our places. If we do not have our places, then we do not have ourselves."
Duriel stood, arms open as though gesturing upward, "Rachel, take heed. We are all servants of God." He looked at her, sharply and decisively, as he dropped his hands to his sides. "All of us, without exception, forever."
With three fingers spread against the lintel of the door, she considered this carefully, "Forgive me, dominus. I forget myself. I shall be as I shall be and shall serve God as he has determined I should."
"As shall we all, Rachel. Deus vult."