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As he approached the ground floor workshop of the blacksmith he was greeted by an off duty soldier. By the markings on his uniform he was a member of the Astoria Lighthorse. "Greetings" the friar said with a warm baritone quality. "Friar." The soldier responded with a mock salute. Friar Cenzi stopped to wipe the accumulation of mud from his boots before crossing the threshold. A call of greetings came to him from the expansive workshop of the undercroft. One of the blacksmith's men pointed to the stairs with a jabbing motion and called out "They are expecting you." The friar shifted his girth and hoisted his robes to keep from stepping on the hem as he climbed the stairs to the living quarters.

The friar entered the room and greeted the family. He had performed this task many times and it was somewhat autonomous for him. As he started the ceremony his mind drifted. He couldn't get the image of the emaciated staff sergeant out of his head. He had done all he could to aid the young man through his trial and subsequent confinement. It wasn't the shriveled state of the soldier that was the most troubling, he had witness that before. It was the look in his eyes that was most disturbing. He had pondered that look for nearly three days without clearly understanding the meaning. He had seen the look of vengeance but that was not the look he saw. Nor was it hate, for that would be something born of men without faculty for reason. No, the look was that of a man who possessed a secret. Yes! that was it, he had a knowing way about him. Though the malice he bore the Monsignor was evident too. It was the near smirk that had confused him these past days.

The friar completed the ceremony and handed the baby to the father. He concluded his activities and bid his farewells. He proceeded down the stairs and out the barn-style door to the street. He lifted his gaze, still pondering his conclusion when he nearly walked into someone standing before him. He reflexively excused his inattentiveness expecting to continue on his way when he took notice of whom he had nearly run down. "Lady D'Errico!?" he exclaimed with a small measure of surprise in his voice. "Forgive me I was lost in my own thoughts and did not see you." The young paladin stood before him dressed in layers of protective leather wrapped in a heavy cloak with her sword at her hip. She was not wearing the heavy battle dress that he was accustomed to seeing her in during the fall campaign. She was a beautiful young woman with dark brown hair that seemed to have the luster of lacquered hardwood. She wore it rolled and braided in two buns on either side of her head with the excess trailing down to her shoulders in braids. She must have magnificently long hair for it to braid and wrap in this fashion.

 

His analysis abated as she spoke. "Friar, I have need of your counsel on a matter that has troubled me these last few months." "By all means" he said in his usual jovial manner. "Walk with me and let us talk a while sister" he exclaimed with fatherly aplomb.

"What's on your mind?" She cast her eyes downward at the mix of snow, mud and straw at their feet as she spoke evenly. "I have been troubled by the events of last October." She paused briefly and he did not interject. In his position it was important to lend proper time to listening, before proffering advice. She continued. "I have tried to accept the findings of the inquest at face value, but I am conflicted." The two of them passed by Gallo's and she diverted her attention to the structure while she continued to talk. "Celeste was to my thinking, incorruptible. She was without vice and unwavering in her conviction. How is it possible that she succumbed to sins of the flesh of her own volition? If --, if it is possible for her to fall what hope is there for those of us without her link to divinity. Is it possible that the saints have abandoned us? Have we gone astray?" Seeing the need to interject his thoughts he strode ahead of her and turned to face her. "Lady D'Errico, we all have opportunity and motive to misstep and err. Celeste has borne a gift since she was very young. We may not understand the nature of this gift or perhaps the great effort it takes to be unwavering in ones convictions. She may seem to have fallen, but I believe this is the real test of her mettle. She has known little in her life of depravity and scorn. These are hard lessons and character defining, if properly rebuked. My dear, I am a fair judge of character and I would wager the fate of the crusade against her reclamation of grace." The young paladin looked at him with a spark that he was accustomed to seeing when he gave motivation to those that seemed to need buttressing of their faith. She appeared to be satisfied at first, but he could still see doubt in her eyes. The storm of confusion was evident in her honey colored eyes.

"Friar, there is something else". She paused, seeming to reflect on the presentation of her words. She continued looking direct into his eyes and speaking with directness and clarity. "A few months ago I was traveling out to the wintering cabins and encountered something that I have been unable to clarify in my meditations. I was absorbed in my thoughts as I rode to the winter camps. My gaze inadvertently moved to the gibbet near the crossroads. A number of scavenger birds were perched atop the structure. It seemed to me at the time that one of them had fixed on me what amounted to a