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< Back Dancing Rabbits - A short story by John Campbell  

The brown donkey trotted along a wide, level dirt road, raising little dust in its wake. On its back, a pair of large baskets hung to either side of its neck, each so large and heavy it threatened to tip the small animal over were it not balanced on the opposite side by its equal. Behind the baskets sat a man in peasant garb and a wide-brimmed hat, riding without the benefit of a saddle, legs dangling free and bouncing, his feet nearly touching the roadway. The pair had set out from home before sunrise to make the ten mile journey nearly two hours ago, and they were now nearing their destination.

Soon the Tuscany sun, still low on the horizon at this early hour, would climb and grow in intensity, warming the fertile lands through which the donkey passed and requiring that cloaks and coats be cast aside in deference to its heat. For now, though, the crisp, early summer air held a chill, and the rider was grateful for his wool overcoat and scarf.

Keeping a steady pace, the donkey trotted over the crest of a hill and passed a small, roadside shrine with a statuette of Mary standing within an alcove, cut flowers dried from days in the sun heaped about the base. Mary-on-the-half-shell, the rider thought with a touch of guilty humor, quickly asking the sainted mother of Cuthbert for forgiveness for his blasphemy. Normally he would have stopped and dismounted, knelt in prayer for a few minutes and left a few coins, but today there was no time. Instead he offered a silent Hail Mary and continued on his way.

His name was Giacomo. A plump, hardy man in his fifties with strong arms and back, his face was browned and lined by the sun and a lifetime of outdoor labor, eyes crinkled with much good humor. A peasant, a simple man and a grape grower of some skill. Giacomo was one of several master vintners who tended to the Black Monk Winery’s vineyards ten miles back, his home. Since childhood he had labored in the hundreds of acres of vines, tending the trellises and the rich black soil, providing loving and skilled care for the fat, dark purple grapes bursting with juices, doing his part to help create a world-class wine. These were not his lands he labored upon, for such ownership was the privilege of great men, and he was but a commoner. He would never work his own lands. The Black Monk Winery was owned entirely by the Church, and Giacomo a servant to its purpose. It was an arrangement which suited him well. A man of simple tastes, the vintner enjoyed a spacious home filled with the scents of the fields, a life of hard but satisfying work, a large loving family now with grandchildren, and access to one of the finest wines in the Empire. It was all he would ever need.

Right now the baskets hanging on either side of his donkey were loaded with bottles from that very winery, each carefully wrapped in cloth to prevent breakage during the lengthy ride. Although considered a man of some importance (at least in the small world of the vineyard), it was necessary that he should make this delivery rather than send one of his sons. There was a visitor of some station in the great house, and this delivery required his personal attention. Giacomo didn’t mind. He loved the countryside in the early hours, and reveled in both its beauty and stillness. Every man needed time alone, and this was his time.

Overhead, Cuthbert had granted a cloudless morning with a cornflower blue sky. The donkey was starting a descent into the southern end of the Tuscan Valley, and Giacomo could see the great house below. Spreading off to his left were endless fields of tall summer wheat, slowly transitioning from green to brown, rippling in the morning breeze like he imagined waves would upon the sea. Beyond the house were more vineyards, but these were younger than those he worked, planted only five years ago and not yet ready to bear fruit of any quality. On the slopes behind the house were the olive groves, orderly rows of trees heavy with their bounty, and even at this early hour Giacomo could see the tiny shapes of workers moving into the groves to begin the day’s labor. Most of them would be children, he knew, their small, gentle hands well-suited to quick picking without bruising the olives. To the right of the road were the orchards, and they stretched for nearly a mile; cherries, apples, apricots and pears. Beyond them, out of sight, were acres of vegetables, mostly tomatoes, onions and peppers, and he knew that up closer to the house there were blackberry bushes and herb gardens.

A low wall of piled stones ringed the estate, and within it were the many outbuildings, quarters for workers and their families, storage for agricultural equipment, storehouses for the variety of fruits, vegetables and grains produced by these lands, stables and barracks for soldiers. Pepper trees shaded much of the area within the wall. The vintner guided his donkey off the main road and down a smaller path, no less level and smooth than the primary way, this one lined by wild growths of periwinkle. The small animal trotted towards a gate in the wall ahead, although gate was a loose term, for the opening was simply a stone archway.

At the center of it all stood the great house, a large, impressive villa of pale yellow stucco and red tiled roofs, wide open windows to encourage the entry of summer breezes, a place of porticos and shaded gardens, fountains and flowering trellises. A magnificent structure resting amid all the beauty Cuthbert had to offer this world.

As Giacomo neared the archway in the wall, several men stepped into the road. He counted only four (though he knew there were others, somewhere unseen) and gently pulled his donkey to a halt before them. The men were Soldare d’Patri, Church troops. They wore uniforms of red and white, with puffy, striped shoulders, pleated skirts, leggings (one red, one white), breastplates with a filigreed Cross of Cuthbert over the heart, and helmets bearing red and white plumes. Their officer, distinguished only by the way the other men acted around him and the fact that he wore a wide-brimmed, floppy plumed hat instead of a helmet, stepped forward.
“Bon journo,” said the officer.
“Bon journo, Commendatore,” Giacomo said, quickly removing his hat.
To one unfamiliar with these troops, they might appear slightly ridiculous in costumes which seemed more like what a noble’s liverymen might wear. Their razor-sharp halberds, sheathed rapiers and careful, watchful eyes told a different story. The Soldare were not toy soldiers, not ceremonial troops like the Shieldguard of the Basillica. These were hard men, hand picked for service and none with less than four years of combat experience in the Pass Wars. Their mere presence was enough to remind a simple peasant like Giacomo that he would be well advised to be on his best behavior. Not that he had ever raised a hand in anger in his life, not even to his own children.

The young officer, regularly assigned to the villa, recognized the vintner from previous visits but remained professionally wary. “What brings you to San Carlo this morning, Signore Bello?”
“A delivery for His Eminence. Two cases of vino, one Merlot and one Cabernet. Our finest in honor of the Archbishop’s guest.”

The officer nodded and directed one of his men to inspect the baskets, while another quickly and expertly patted Giacomo down for weapons. The vintner made no protest, and knew better than to bring so much as a paring knife onto these grounds.

“Commendatore,” Giacomo said, “at the winery there is much gossip about His Eminence’s guest, but no one knows for certain. I was wondering, could you tell me who it is?”
The officer’s eyes narrowed cautiously. “I cannot, Signore Bello. And you would do well to make no further inquiry.”

Giacomo bowed his head at the rebuke. “Pardoneme, Commendatore. I meant no disrespect.”
The officer grunted and waved him through. “To the house only, Signore, no stops, no chatting with the workers. Make your delivery and go home.” Then in a softer tone he added, “Today is not a good day to linger at the house… even for us Soldare.”

Giacomo nodded his thanks, put his hat back on and softly chucked at the donkey to get moving. Beyond the gates the road was cobbled with dusty red stones, and the animal’s hooves clicked over them briskly as the vintner followed a course which gently climbed and wound through the outbuildings and pepper trees. Despite the young officer’s warnings not to dally with conversation, Giacomo waved and exchanged brief pleasantries with workers risen early to the day’s labor. As they collected their tools and harnessed mules and prepared carts, he called greetings and asked about recent births and successful crops, for he knew most of the peasants who called San Carlo home. Florentians were a warm, friendly people, and instructing one not to engage in conversation with his neighbors was tantamount to trying to bail out the Inner Sea with a tea cup. His inquiries into the nature of the Archbishop’s visitor revealed that a magnificent coach had arrived late last night, accompanied by a dozen mounted Soldare and four of the frightening, hooded Inquitorious – the shock troops and torturers of the Holy Inquisition. The identity of the man in the coach, who must surely be a Grand Inquisitor, was unknown, but his status had been sufficiently high enough to cause the Archbishop’s Chief of Staff to immediately dispatch a rider to the Black Monk Winery with an urgent request for its finest vintage. The gossip further reported the guest had dined alone in his quarters last night, perhaps due to the late hour.

The presence of the Inquisition explained the young officer’s nervous and guarded manner, for it was an organization with a bloody reputation of violence and little tolerance. It mattered little to these common folk or to Giacomo himself. The comings and goings of powerful figures at San Carlo was routine, and besides, the vintner had little to fear. He was a devout man and of no interest to the Church’s watchdogs.

Near the top of the hill, the donkey turned onto yet another course, leaving the cobbled road – which would soon turn into a great tiled piazza in front of the villa – and headed up a narrower dirt path which lead to the kitchens. Within minutes he had reached an open area of hard-packed clay next to a lower portion of the villa, where he dismounted and tethered his donkey to a hitching post next to a water trough. The small brown animal pushed its snout into the cool water and drank greedily as Giacomo began unpacking his cargo. A boy of fifteen in a white shirt, breeches and sandals, brown-skinned and with a thatch of dark hair, emerged from a doorway with a large basket. He greeted the vintner and stated he would take the wrapped bottles into the house. Giacomo thanked him and entered the villa through the same door from which the boy had emerged.

The kitchen of San Carlo was an immense room with a high, vaulted ceiling, and big open windows to allow breezes to cool the interior. The floor was dark red tile, and the rafters above stained black from centuries of smoke. The air was a riot of scents; Baked bread and slow-cooking sauces, roasted peppers and onions, the mouth-watering aroma of cooking beef and lamb, and the ever-present fragrance of garlic so common to kitchens across the Empire. The noise was tremendous as no less than seven women labored in drab dresses and aprons, hair pulled into severe buns, sweating from the heat of the ovens and cooking fires. Pots banged, cleavers thumped into wooden tables, a kettle whistled and women called out questions, responses and directions to one another in a volume which seemed as if each was trying to be louder than the other. Someone was singing a hearty version of the Ave Maria, and others were laughing. Organized, happy chaos.

“Giacomo!” cried a plump cook, a middle-aged woman who wiped her hands on her apron as she rushed to give the man a crushing embrace and kisses on the cheek.

A wide grin on his face, the vintner returned the kisses. “Isabella, so wonderful to see you.” She was his cousin by marriage. “You look like an angel.”

The cook shooed at him and patted her substantial midsection. “Some angel. Imagine the wings it would take to lift all this off the ground!” They exchanged several minutes of pleasantries as the other women bustled about them, and then she showed him to a small table and chair in a corner, out of the way of the frantic activity. Within moments she placed a small loaf of soft brown bread and a bowl of oil before him. A moment later he had a plate of roasted portobellos and a glass of dark red wine.

Giacomo thanked his cousin and dived into the impromptu feast enthusiastically, watching as Lorenzo, the boy who had met him in the courtyard and Isabella’s oldest grandson, ferried the vintner’s bottles in from outside and placed them on a sideboard. Minutes later, a tall, thin man appeared in the kitchen and inspected the bottles. This was Aldo Torrenci, the Head Servant and the Archbishop’s Chief of Staff for the estate and all who lived and worked there. Other than the Soldare, everyone answered to Aldo Torrenci. Satisfied with the vintage, the Head Servant nodded his approval to the vintner and departed with the wine.
Giacomo sighed contentedly and gave his full attention to the meal. His task for the day was finished.

* * * * *

His Eminence Innocente IX, Archbishop of Tuscany, moved along the corridor, wearing a long, plum-colored hassock with a row of gold buttons running from neck to knees. The hem whispered over the black and white marble tiles. He tried not to hurry, for it was not seemly for a man of his station to rush to meet a guest within his own house, and haste might convey a sense of urgency…or fear. Nonetheless, he moved more quickly than his usual, graceful stroll as he made his way from his personal chambers to his destination. He descended a wide staircase, where tall, slender windows on the landing let in shafts of amber morning light, and then walked swiftly down another corridor, this one wider than the one above, with high arched buttresses, and walls adorned with rich tapestries. His satin slippers made a quick, rasping sound on the polished floor.

A servant girl emerged from a doorway, arms loaded with freshly-laundered white bedding smelling of bleach, and she bowed her head and lowered her eyes, softly murmuring a “Good Morning, Eminence,” to her master. The priest took no notice of her as he breezed past, but his hurry did not go unnoticed by her. Within the hour the gossip would be across the estate that His Eminence was in quite a rush this morning.

Father Emilio D’Agostino, his given name before he took the formal name of Innocente IX, was a man in his late 60’s, rail thin and tall, with a narrow face and neatly-trimmed white hair. His skin was dark from the Tuscan sun, with a glassy shave performed each morning by Aldo. His teeth were straight and snowy white, testimony to the high quality of his daily life. Considered quite handsome, the years had been kind and left him with fewer lines and creases than other men his age, causing his features to belie his true age. His hands were smooth and soft, free from labor, and he had never worn armor or wielded a weapon…unless one counted the strap, of course. His had been a life of study and rhetoric and politics, not of war, and he was not a cleric. He had always considered the use of divine spellcraft and the practice of arms to be beneath him. He had people for all that.

The Archbishop passed through the length of the great dining hall (a shortcut to his destination), and barely acknowledged the half-dozen servants preparing the hall for a distinguished guest. Crisp white linens draped the long table, and fresh tapers were being placed in silver candelabra. Aldo himself attended to the exact placement of platinum cutlery as a serving girl carefully positioned pieces of crystal. The table was being set for two.
“Aldo, the wine?” the Archbishop called as he hurried through.

Aldo, who had loyally served the villa for over forty years, the last twenty-seven as Head Servant, was not surprised by the Archbishop’s haste. San Carlo received many visitors, but few with the potential to cause such an air of alarm as this one had. He imagined it was the same wherever the man went. “Si, Signore,” he replied, not looking up from his silver, “it has arrived and will be ready for the midday meal.”

Emilio simply nodded and passed through a doorway at the far end of the hall, his hassock flowing around his knees in the billow of a self-generated breeze. He turned right, away from a passage which led to the kitchens and pantries, and moved quickly along a corridor nearly twenty feet wide and tiled in a checkerboard marble pattern of white with blue veins and deep cerulean. Heavy cherry wood doors were set in the walls at even intervals, each intricately carved by master craftsmen and polished to a glossy sheen by the villa’s servants. Pedestals with the white marble busts of saints stood against the walls between the doors like sentries, and behind them hung massive, exquisite tapestries, all with a religious theme; Saint Dissius sitting in a garden and teaching a cluster of attentive young children; Saint Bartholomew lecturing to enraptured throngs of youths; Saint Elizabeth cradling the broken body of a child, sad eyes turned towards the heavens; Saint Joseph embracing a teenaged son whom had done wrong but was forgiven. The hall continued for some way before reaching a pair of double doors within an archway, tall windows to either side permitting indirect light to reach the hall.

The Archbishop slowed as he neared the doors, his brisk pace dropping off to a shuffle. He caught himself ringing his hands, forced himself to stop, then was unaware when those hands crept to the heavy gold crucifix suspended around his neck by an equally heavy gold chain, rubbing the smooth metal. He stopped near one of the side windows and was about to peek out when he realized he was sweating. Removing a lace kerchief from a pocket of his hassock, he dabbed his face, neck and forehead, forcibly slowing his breathing. He felt his face to see if it was flushed, a fact which would reveal itself to others with a pink hue to his cheeks. He needed a moment to compose himself, and took a deep breath.

This was preposterous. He was an Archbishop, for Heaven’s sake! And San Carlo was his home, the seat of his considerable power. And oh, what power he had. The Tuscany Archdiocese was one of the richest in the Empire, situated in the center of the Florentian boot, covering hundreds of miles of fertile growing lands, with close access to the sea, the sophistication of the capital, and the Basillica. The wealth the region generated was beyond imagining, and this was the premier posting for a priest outside the Basillica. Emilio was rich beyond counting, well-liked by both the Cardinal and the Nuncio, respected by his peers, a role model to his juniors and adored by the faithful. He spoke with everyone, enjoyed the favors of the nobility and the upper crust of the merchant consortium, even considered himself a personal friend of the Imperial Steward. He was a great man in the classic sense of the term. Why then should a surprise visit from a lowly monsignor fluster him so?
Because he is a Grand Inquisitor, his conscience explained calmly.

So? He has no influence over an archbishop. Indeed, the authority of his office is granted by the archbishop…me.
Very true. And yet…
And yet nothing, Emilio argued with himself. He is a man of considerably lower station, in my home, as my guest, here to show his respect and make his report on the happenings in Palomo. Nothing more.
You’re certain he has no warrants with him, are you?
Emilio swallowed. No… no warrants. Here out of respect…to make a report.
Not to ask questions? Uncomfortable questions?
He dare not, Emilio thought His station does not permit such an interrogation. There was no longer a flush to Emilio’s cheeks as the blood drained away. Impossible. I have been too careful. I would know if there was an investigation.
Careful? So many know… So many who might speak…
He shook his head. No, they will not speak against an archbishop. And others are…gone. He shook his head again. No, it is as I said. Nothing to be concerned about.
I’m certain you’re right.
Satisfied he had put his treacherous conscience in its place, Archbishop Innocente tucked away his kerchief, straightened his plum-colored skullcap, smoothed his hassock and stepped through the double doors onto a shaded portico which ringed the innermost section of the villa.
The gardens were beautiful. Located at the center of the great house, they were ringed on all four sides by shaded porticos with red tile roofs. Trellises of pink, red and white roses stood between the broad archways, their fragrance mingling with those of lilac bushes and hydrangea. The grounds were immaculate; dark green grass neatly clipped, terra cotta paving stones making symmetrical walkways through the pruned pepper trees and Castillian elms. Copper statuary of angelic figures, allowed to turn green, rose from beds of yellow roses, and in the center stood a fountain of milky blue granite quarried from the Pyr Range. Old water softly bubbled up in a three-foot gout before settling with a murmur into the basin. Matching granite benches were spaced along the walkway, and in one corner of the garden was a shaded patio with a small round table and comfortable chairs. From some unseen location in the shadows of the porticos, a string quartet played softly, adding to the restful nature of the place. The morning sun was not yet high enough to intrude upon the coolness of the garden, and the clear air remained comfortable.

Sitting alone at the patio table, His Most Reverend Monsignor Vittorio Sebastian, Prelate of Supernatural Affairs and Grand Inquisitor of the Tuscany Archdiocese, finished the last of a flaky pastry and sipped his tea before selecting a dark red cherry from a silver bowl of mixed fruit. He was 45 years old, with rapidly-thinning hair which was going iron-gray. He wore a trimmed mustache and goatee, similarly gray, and his face was creased and weathered with many years of service in the field. His dark eyes sat amid a nest of wrinkles caused from frequent squinting – not due to any deficiency in his eyesight, but rather from nearly two decades of staring into fire, both man-made and that created by the Dark One’s minions. Of medium build, he was both fit and fast, and other than a gaze which tended to make its target feel as if they were a butterfly pinned to a board, he appeared unremarkable.

Slowly enjoying the sweetness of the fruit, Sebastian lifted his badge of station, a heavy golden sunburst medallion set with a large ruby, hung from a thick gold chain, and brushed a few crumbs from the front of his red hassock as he took in the calm beauty of the gardens. A good night’s sleep in a feather bed, followed by a hot bath and a severe scrubbing earlier this morning had left him refreshed. When his coach had arrived at the villa last night (after making a brief stop elsewhere on the estate) it had been past midnight, and he had still been wearing his armor and an overlay stained by smoke, spatters of blood and even a partial, red handprint. He had been tired, didn’t smell very nice, and was in no mood for chit chat. A brief conversation with the Archbishop (who had appeared in a nightshirt and robe, alarmed at an unannounced, late night visitor) indicated that Sebastian wanted only a quick, private meal and lodgings, and that he would present himself properly to the Archbishop in the morning. The older man had of course agreed and directed his servants to prepare a room at once.

Sebastian picked out a handful of blackberries and chewed them thoughtfully. He believed he could still hear the screams, could still smell the coppery tang of blood and the sickly-sweet stench of roasting flesh. Images came to him of peasants lashed to burning stakes, cottages engulfed in flames, the roof of the parish church collapsing in an explosion of flame, the village priest chained to a wagon wheel by blessed, silver manacles, his black, forked tongue spitting obscenities in Latin as he surged against his restraints, and of Sebastian ordering his black heart cut out so that it could be immersed in holy water. He munched another berry. He had prayed for their lost souls, had done what was required by his office. He would think upon them no more.

Across the patio, standing in partial shadow near a rose trellis, a man in his thirties stood silently in the black and white cassock of a simple priest. Ostensibly an assistant to the Archbishop, the man, who had identified himself as Father Oliveri upon meeting the monsignor, might appear to be nothing more than a glorified servant to the untrained eye. To Sebastian he was clearly more. He had the black eyes of a crow, ever watchful and vaguely predatory, hands which were strong and calloused, and a pair of wicked-looking white scars running from his hairline, down his left cheek and terminating at his chin. Despite the bulky cassock, it was clear he had a powerful build. This was no mere priest. This was a fighting cleric, no doubt put here to keep an eye on the visitor.
Sebastian smiled as he popped another blackberry into his mouth. It was of little consequence, and he felt threatened in no way. He was well informed of Oliveri’s abilities. He himself was an experienced cleric, and had never been shy around violence. If his guardian was meant to intimidate, it was a failed effort. Besides, Sebastian was by no means alone. A pair of Inquitorious stood within the shadows of the portico behind the monsignor, a mere fifteen feet away, as motionless as statues in their black and red hooded cloaks, holding razor-sharp spears in gloved hands. Another pair was elsewhere nearby, their precise location unknown, but surely close enough to react to any unpleasantness. Not that he expected any. Well, that wasn’t quite right either. There would certainly be unpleasantness, but not the kind Sebastian would have to worry about. Dabbing a linen napkin to the corner of his mouth, the monsignor brushed the leather satchel resting beneath the table with one foot, as if to reassure himself it was safely where he had placed it.

A moment later the Archbishop arrived, walking into the gardens at a stately pace, a friendly smile upon his face as he approached the patio. Sebastian rose from his chair and bowed respectfully.
“Monsignor Sebastian,” the Archbishop said warmly, extending his right hand.
Sebastian knelt, took the offered hand and kissed the large ruby ring upon it. “Your Eminence.” He stood and the two men briefly embraced. “I am grateful that you would receive me without prior notice, especially considering the late hour of my arrival.”
“Of course, Vittorio,” the older man said. “You are always welcome in this house, you know that. Was breakfast to your satisfaction?”
Sebastian indicated that it had been excellent.
“Then perhaps we could enjoy the garden for a time. Walk with me.” The monsignor nodded and fell in beside the older man, the two of them strolling at a leisurely pace along the path, hands clasped behind their backs.
“It grieved me to hear about your mother’s passing. I asked the congregation to pray for her soul during Mass.”
Sebastian lowered his head. “You are most kind, Eminence. She lived a long and pious life, and passed peacefully in her sleep.”
“May she rest with the angels. And your family? All is well, I hope?”
Sebastian nodded. “They are, Eminence, so good of you to ask.”
“Your sister… any grandchildren yet?”
“Not yet, Eminence. Her oldest, my niece, only recently married, but I trust it will not be long.” Sebastian’s sister was a stern woman who had raised her children with a firm hand, and all were devout followers of the faith. His niece had better start producing children, and plenty of them if she wished to escape her mother’s sharp tongue. Thou shalt be fruitful and multiply.
“And your brother, the silk merchant in Florenta, all is well with him?”
“Extremely. He recently acquired a lucrative contract with the Church, which will more than double the size of his business.”
The Archbishop patted Sebastian on the shoulder. “As I intended. 1420 will be a most prosperous year.”
Sebastian resisted the urge to curl his lip both at the man’s touch and his implication that he’d had anything to do with, much less personally arranged the church contract. What arrogance. The younger man kept his face impassive. There would be time for personal satisfaction later. As they walked, they made mundane conversation about the roses, recent successful crops, the skill of the artisans who had created the Archbishop’s statuary. After a time the older man said, “You know that San Maria burned.”
“Indeed. Half the city, right down to the sea.”
The Archbishop shook his head and made a tisking noise. “Such a tragedy. Such a sad loss of life.”
Sebastian shook his head. “On the contrary, Eminence. I see it as Cuthbert’s just retribution and punishment of the wicked. How sweetly ironic that they should perish in flames.”
The older man glanced at the younger with a look of surprise, disturbed by such a casual outlook on the deaths of so many. “They were still all Cuthbert’s children, Vittorio,” he chided.
The monsignor snorted. “Hardly. Vile sinners to the last.”
“Are we not all sinners, Vittorio?” He held up a finger. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Sebastian gave him a sideways look. “Castillians are heretics, Eminence, known to openly embrace and consort with those who practice witchcraft. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
“An ugly rumor started centuries ago to help justify war,” the Archbishop said, shaking his head. “Perpetuated by Constantine. He is a favored figure of your order, is he not, Vittorio?”
“In fact…” Sebastian continued, ignoring the barb. Constantine was Cardinal during the glory days of the Church’s war against the Heretics of the Blessed Virgin, and a hero to most Inquisitors. “…I have it on reliable authority that the blaze was started by the careless Fireball of a mage, a young female no less, over some matter of fornication and infidelity.” Sebastian chuckled. “Fitting that a city full of heretics should be put to the flame by one in service to Satan himself, don’t you agree, Eminence?”
The Archbishop said nothing.
Sebastian sighed contentedly and said, as if to himself, “Nothing clarifies like fire.”
They were silent for a time as they completed a circle of the gardens, returning eventually to the patio. Each took a seat at the table. More people had arrived while they were on their walk, Aldo, a serving girl with eyes cast down in deference, and an eleven-year-old boy in the robes of an acolyte, an altar boy. He was thin and tow-headed. The Archbishop rubbed his head affectionately as he passed by, and Sebastian could not help but notice the way the boy flinched at the older man’s touch. There was a haunted look in those young eyes.
“Wine?” asked the Archbishop.
“It is too early for me, Eminence. Perhaps later.”
The older man then proceeded to lecture on the fine qualities of Black Monk wine, and the monsignor sat patiently listening, his expressions neutral. Eventually the older man ran out of steam (there was only so much one could say about wine without actually drinking it,) and allowed a serious look to come over his face. “What news of Palomo, Vittorio?”

Sebastian crossed his legs as he reached into the silver fruit bowl and removed a small cluster of violet grapes, inspecting them as he spoke, not looking at the Archbishop. He had been dispatched to the mountain village deep in the Pyr Range a fortnight ago, following frantic reports that an exorcist of the Diocese, a strong-willed and devout priest named Danello Matoza, had encountered in the village a supernatural force of such evil and power that he alone could neither eliminate nor control it. Matoza could not say with certainty how many of the villagers had been afflicted or corrupted, but he feared for his own safety. When Sebastian, a squad of Inquitorious and a small column of Soldare had finally arrived, they found that Matoza had been crucified upside down on the wall of a barn, his entrails pulled out while he was still alive, and partially eaten. The mark of the Beast had been scrawled across the barn planking in Matoza’s own blood. The monsignor set to work at once.

“There was a Brooding within Palomo, Eminence,” he said, studying the grapes. “Thirteen, to be precise. Four originals, who murdered and assumed the physical appearances of their victims, and nine pure possessions. Many of the villagers had been seduced into the ways of the Dark One as well, for there was much debauchery… drinking, gaming, fornication, orgies, sacrifices, ignorance of the Sabbath…the parish priest was replaced by an original, the strongest of the Brood, and it was he who led his congregation into damnation.”
“The fate of these… originals?” the Archbishop asked.
Sebastian frowned and pulled three mildly bruised grapes off the bunch, still not looking at the older priest. “Destroyed,” he said casually. “I cast them back into the fiery pit from whence they came, along with the nine who had been irrevocably possessed.”
The other man paused for a moment. “And the others?”
“The villagers? I burned them.” His manner was business-like, matter-of-fact. “Every last one of them. Every man…” he dropped one of the bruised grapes back into the fruitbowl, where it landed with a hollow, metallic Thump. “…every woman…” he dropped another. Thump. “…and every child.” Thump. “All two-hundred-fifty-three of them.” He tossed the bunch in as well, then looked at the Archbishop, who had turned pale. “Then I fiered the church and burned the village to the ground. There waas, of course, no other way to ensure the salvation of the innocent. How many had been corrupted by those dark influences was impossible to say, and so I let the fire show them the way to our Lord. He will separate the wheat from the chaff.” Sebastian looked at his elder. “As I said, nothing clarifies like fire.”

Emilio tried to collect himself. “Surely there must have been some other way to preserve life.” His voice quavered as the full impact of what the Inquisitor had done struck home. “Surely some of those children could have been…”
Sebastian leaned forward. “Eminence, as you well know, after seminary and before I took the vows of an Inquisitor at twenty-eight, I was an exorcist in this very Archdiocese. I assure you that after so many years of dealing with the minions of the Prince of Darkness, I am well qualified to determine what may and may not be done with those under their influence, and with the treacherous deceptions they may perpetrate to conceal their presence. I dared not risk that one of these supposed innocents might indeed be an agent of Satan portraying itself as a harmless child, waiting only for the opportunity to escape the justice of the Church and live to spread evil another day. In all my years, I have never left the field in the hands of the enemy. I am not about to begin such bad habits within the very Archdiocese I serve.”

The Archbishop shook his head in sad disbelief. “Such evil, right here in Tuscany. A terrible, terrible thing. I will pray for the souls of Palomo.”
“Yes,” said Sebastian, wadding his linen napkin and dropping it onto the table before him. “Alas, Palomo is not the only evil afoot in Tuscany.” As the Archbishop’s eyebrows raised at this last comment, Sebastian pressed smoothly forward. “Eminence, I was wondering if you had made your decision on my request for reassignment?”
The Archbishop paused, then nearly hooted in glee at the question. So this was the true purpose of the monsignor’s visit! He suppressed the urge to grin and gasp with relief, and instead arranged his face into a small, sad smile. Suddenly there was nothing to fear from this man. It was as if his very presence had abruptly diminished as he revealed himself to be just like everyone else; self-absorbed and self-serving. The Archbishop felt as if his own strength had been reborn, and he felt the flush of his power and authority return. When he spoke, it was gentle, as if to a child.

“Vittorio…” He sat back in his chair and sighed, as if fatigued. “I have been so patient. Will you not learn? For nearly five years you have been formally requesting a transfer to the Chalice Archdiocese, and I have repeatedly denied your requests. As I do so again now. I have explained that you are far too valuable here in Tuscany to let you go, and the tragic events in Palomo are further proof of this.” The Archbishop smiled kindly. “I know you long for the glory of the battlefield, and it is a stirring image, is it not? Righteous paladins thundering on horseback into walls of enemy troops, fighting under the Church banner… stirring indeed.”

“It is not glory I seek, Eminence,” Sebastian said softly, his eyes almost pleading. “It is my calling. The earthly servants of Satan assault that sacred place daily, threatening to surge down into our beloved Empire and destroy all. The Chalice is the best place for a man of God, one who is committed to combating evil, to serve our Lord and the Holy Church.”

The Archbishop steepled his fingers under his nose, his eyes twinkling with amusement. He was really enjoying this. “I had no idea you were such a romantic, Vittorio. Alas, your duties call for you to remain in Tuscany, and here you shall stay.” He allowed himself a sly smile as he saw the monsignor’s chin drop to his chest in disappointment and defeat. Ah, the fearsome Inquisitor, reduced to a pouting child who finds he cannot have his way. What in the world had he been so nervous about? This man was easy enough to manipulate and brush aside.

Reaching a hand across the table to gently pat the monsignor’s arm he said, “Cheer up, Vittorio. There is much for you to do here in the Archdiocese, and I warrant it is far less perilous than a mountain battlefield. As you said, there is other evil afoot in our lands.”
“Indeed I did,” Sebastian said softly, looking up at the older man from under his eyebrows and risking a small grin of his own.

The Archbishop missed the look, still enormously pleased with himself at cowing the Inquisitor. Mistaking Sebastian’s behavior for disappointment, he patted his arm again. “Fear not, my son. Your advancement within the ranks of the Church is assured. I will see to it personally.” His face brightened. “Now then, let us retire to my study, and you can tell me all about the many evils which plague us here in sleepy Tuscany.” He was buoyant now, cavalier. “Afterwards we will dine together. The staff has prepared a most excellent meal for us.”

They rose, Sebastian shouldering his satchel. “Will you hear my confession, Eminence?”
The Archbishop put a friendly arm around the younger man. “Of course, my son. I’m certain that Palomo has left you with a heavy soul. We shall unburden it together.” So very magnanimous. As they walked side by side towards the portico and the villa, the master of the house dismissed the servants and the young acolyte with a wave of his hand. Sebastian couldn’t help but notice how the boy practically fled the patio. He also saw the Archbishop give a knowing wink to Father Oliveri, who nodded almost imperceptibly and withdrew as they passed.
They entered the house through the same double doors from which the Archbishop had emerged, and as they walked down the wide corridor Sebastian admired the busts and tapestries of saintly works. “I see by the theme of your art that you greatly enjoy children, Eminence,” he said softly, smiling just the tiniest bit when he saw the older man pause briefly in his steps before recovering.

“Yes,” the Archbishop called over his shoulder as he moved to take the lead. “They are a delight, surely Cuthbert’s gift to us all.” He approached one of the cherry wood doors and went through. Sebastian followed him into the room, closing the door behind him. The Archbishop crossed quickly to his desk and took a seat in a large, red velvet chair.

The study was large, bright and airy, with tall, rounded windows lining the left wall, each mullioned pane with beveled edges. Heavy burgundy curtains were drawn aside from each window to allow the morning light to enter. Beyond could be seen a small, private courtyard filled with more roses, these of various purple varieties. The floor of the office was completely covered by a thick, soft burgundy rug which absorbed all sound of passing feet, and all the furniture – great, heavy carved pieces – was of cherry similar to the door. The Archbishop’s desk was massive and polished to a mirror sheen, and upon it was a gilded ink bottle and quill, a gold filigreed box which held parchment and sticks of wax, and a golden candelabra with five arms.

“Please, make yourself comfortable,” said the Archbishop, indicating a pair of wingback leather chairs in front of the desk as he produced a match from the gold box and lit the candles. Instead of sitting, Sebastian dropped his satchel into one of the chairs and approached a bookcase built into the wall beside a fireplace which was currently cold and unlit. On the mantle was a bust of the current Cardinal. A twin to this bookcase was set in the opposite side. Sebastian opened one of the glass doors and folded his arms behind him, examining the titles.
“You enjoy reading, Eminence?” he asked without looking at the man.
“The written word is to be treasured, my son,” came the response. “It is the ability to read and communicate through the written word which separates us from the beasts.”
“Hmmm….and all this time I thought it was our divine nature, granted to us by our most holy Lord as proclaimed by the scripture, which placed us as masters of the lesser species. How interesting.”
The Archbishop had no response to the vague rebuke, curious at the other man’s shift in demeanor.
Sebastian pulled a heavy tome from a shelf. “Galileo’s Treatise on Gravity as a Driving Force in the Cosmos,” he read, placing the book on a polished side table. His fingers walked across the leather spines of other books in the row. “You have several books by Galileo. How curious that a man of your station within the Church should be reading the works of a heretic.”

The Archbishop stiffened. “Monsignor, you forget your place.” He coughed. “Signore Galileo was never branded a heretic by the Holy Church, you should know that. And there is no sin in examining the writings of learned men.”
The monsignor added another book to the polished table, a work of astronomy, to his mind mere semantics away from outright witchcraft. “Never officially branded. Did you know that in 1215 Galileo wrote a series of letters to the Holy See in which he theorized that the state of celibacy was unnatural to mankind, and called for members of the priesthood to be permitted to marry?” He placed yet another book on the stack, this one some sort of rubbish on Density and Mass. “Signori Galileo may have avoided the fire in this world, Eminence, but I assure you he is basking in it in warmer climates as we speak.”

The Archbishop, comfortable here within his domain of authority, allowed his irritation to show. “Do you presume to chastise me about my reading selections, monsignor? They are of no concern to you. And were we not about to hear your confession?”
Sebastian ignored the question, and bent at the waist to examine the lowest row of books. These were all bound in bright-colored leather, placed low enough so that those with short legs and arms might easily reach them. He pulled one volume, this one bound in yellow with the image of a dancing rabbit tooled into its cover, and the gold leaf words “Thomas Luna’s Mud House & Other Tales” stamped beneath the image. He leafed through the pages. This was a fine book indeed, an original, not a reproduction, filled with artful illustrations. A collection of children’s stories over a hundred years old and well known throughout the Empire. Signore Luna, dead nearly seventy years now, was considered in most literary circles to be the premier author of children’s literature. Sebastian carried the yellow book back to the chairs in front of the desk, seating himself in the one not occupied by the satchel, still paging and not looking up.

“I see quite a number of children’s stories, Eminence. Galileo and Luna, quite a varied taste in literature.”
Emilio sat straight in his chair. “Not that it is of any consequence, monsignor, but I keep those collections for the children of the estate. I’m certain you are aware that San Carlo includes a first rate orphanage and school, properly administered by the Sisters of Mercy. The sisters frequently bring children to the villa where they give recitals and choir exhibitions. I am a firm believer in education and reading. I keep these books here for them.”
Sebastian looked up innocently from the pages. “Eminence, I was merely making an observation. No explanations are required.”

The Archbishop flushed and gritted his teeth, hands clasped tightly in his lap. “Nor are you entitled to one. I was merely enlightening you about the nature of my library.”
Sebastian closed the book. “I believe the young would be better served by reading the Scripture, or perhaps a text on the life of a saint, rather than this nonsense.” He held the book in one hand and rapped its cover with the knuckles of his other fist. “Stories about talking foxes and birds, juggling field mice, a humble pig and a clever spider… a lonely boy who’s sole companion is a stuffed bear which appears to be alive only to him.” He shook his head. “Fantasy is a doorway to superstition, and tales such as these,” he waved the book, “are a corrupting influence. The first step in a life of unreason and irrational beliefs.”
Then the monsignor turned slightly in his chair and pitched the book into the cold fireplace. It landed upon the iron log cradle with a clatter, popping open to an illustration of rabbits holding hands and dancing round a maypole in a meadow of wildflowers.

The Archbishop slapped his palms down upon the polished desk. Monsignor! How dare you!?”
Sebastian crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap, saying nothing.
“Such insolence!” he sputtered. “You are a guest in my home, and that book is part of my private collection! I know you are distraught with my refusal to transfer you, but that gives you no right to behave in this way!”
Sebastian tilted his head in deference. “Forgive me, Eminence. That was indeed rash and offensive. I admit at times I take my job too seriously. I mean no disrespect,” he shrugged and gestured at the children’s book, “ but it would be better burned than read.”

The Archbishop’s cheeks bloomed red, and he could not tell whether he was off balance due to the audacity of the younger man – to dare to cast one of his books into the fireplace - or by his sudden, disrespectful attitude, so different from the way he had been in the garden. It unsettled him. He blustered, “Monsignor Sebastian, I am an incredibly busy man, and I have not only cleared my appointments for you, but have welcomed you into my home. I deeply appreciate the service you perform for the Archdiocese and for the Church, and that madness in Palomo was a great deal for one man to bear. I shall assume the stress of these past days has caused you to temporarily lose your capacity for good judgment.” Trying to recover, he went on. “I will forgive you your impertinence and rude conduct based upon that, but I suggest you mark this day and remember it well. I also suggest you pray for the humility which a man of your lesser station is required to observe.”
Sebastian, eyes cast down, nodded and murmured his thanks.
The Archbishop huffed and stood. “I am very disappointed in you, Vittorio, in your disrespect and impudence. I intended to hear your confession, as you requested, but since that is clearly not the case, then I will leave you to attend to your lunch, which I graciously arranged in your honor. You will dine alone, however. I fear I am far too upset to eat just now. If you will excuse me?”

Sebastian looked up, his face the epitome of chastisement. “I am indebted to you for your forbearance, Eminence. I regret being the cause for your loss of appetite. As for my confession…?”
The Archbishop huffed, not quite sure what to say as his indignation wrestled with a vague, internal alarm. “Perhaps later.” Still standing behind his desk, he motioned for Sebastian to precede him to the door.
Sebastian remained seated, and stared at the Archbishop, his dark eyes gleaming with a mixture of delight and menace. “I must confess, Eminence. I confess…that I killed a nun. Last night at the orphanage.”
The Archbishop stood as if he had been turned to stone, mouth agape.
Sebastian nodded. “Before I presented myself to your house, I made a brief stop at the orphanage, to speak with Sister Margaret…”
“The…the Mother Superior..?”
“The very one. I showed her the warrant for her arrest, complete with charges, and she slapped me, spit on me and cursed my late, sainted mother’s womb. Can you imagine? Such behavior from a nun! Of course it was instantly clear to me that the Devil had taken hold of her tongue, and so I backhanded her quite forcefully, in order to drive Satan from her lips.” He held a fist in front of his mouth and giggled. “Well, the old bird’s neck snapped just like a dry twig!”

The Archbishop, rooted to the spot, simply stared in horror.
“You see,” another giggle, “I forgot that I was still wearing my armored gauntlet. So much damage from a single blow! I left some Soldare to secure the orphanage so no one was permitted to leave and inform you of her death.” He smiled. “I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Anyway, her abrupt departure saves me the kindling for her pyre. So I confess that I let my temper get the better of me. Give me absolution, Eminence. You of all people know very well what it means to lack self-control.”
The older man was shaking his head slowly, in disbelief. “You killed…you…the Mother Superior…what charges? What warrant?”
“Why, her complicity in your own predations, Archbishop, what else? And while we are on that topic,” Sebastian pulled on his goatee as if thinking, “I was wondering if you could tell me where you hide your barber strap?”
Emilio felt his knees threaten to give way, and the room swam out of focus for an instant. He gripped the edge of his desk to keep himself from falling. “My…my what…?

The Inquisitor folded his hands in his lap, and said pleasantly, “Your barber strap, the one you use to beat young boys. I dare say that device has kissed nearly as much young flesh as you. Is it here in the study, or under your bed in your chambers? Perhaps hidden beneath some loose stone in the wine cellar along with your collection of distasteful illustrations? You know the ones I mean.”
Emilio felt like vomiting, and he sagged against the desk. “I…I don’t…”
A chuckle from the Inquisitor. “Please, sit with me a bit longer, Emilio.” Not Eminence, not Archbishop, simply Emilio. Gone was all pretense of respect.
“I have to go, I have…to…” He started around the desk, still holding on with one hand, feet shuffling as he looked to the door of the study.
Sebastian smiled. “What you have to do is sit down and chat with me a while. If you leave this office, I will run you down in the corridor and drag you back by your ankles through your own home, screaming and kicking like a child throwing a tantrum. Now sit down.”
These last two words were spoken forcefully, accompanied by a slight gesture of the monsignor’s index finger. The command spell did as it was designed, and as if he was not in control of his own body, the Archbishop’s legs carried him stiffly back to his chair behind the desk, where he sat slowly. He tried to resist, but could not. His mind was racing, trying to free itself of the cloud of panic which had so quickly enveloped it, and his will crumpled like a metal can under the pressure of deep water.

Think, damn you! His mind screamed. You are an Archbishop, he is but a monsignor! He has no authority! Save yourself!
“You…you dare not say such things, monsignor,” he said, his voice high and shaking. “This is my Archdiocese. You report to me. Your station does not permit you to make such wild and untrue accusations. I deny all charges.”
“Emilio, Emilio,” Sebastian said, his voice slow and warm, as if he was now speaking to a child. “One thing at a time. To answer your protestations, first,” he held up a finger, “I do dare say such things, and I will say other things before we part company. Second,” another finger, “this is indeed your Archdiocese, and I do report to you, and that will soon be changing. Third, my station does indeed permit me to investigate and root out evil, corruption and the work of the Devil, along with those earthly servants who assist him in his vile work, wherever and whenever I see fit. And there is nothing wild or untrue about my accusations. In fact, the full depth of your wickedness is so repulsive that I am only spared physical illness by Cuthbert’s merciful graces. As to charges, I have no warrant with your name on it.”

The Archbishop was confused. No warrant? “You claim that I have misused innocents?” He pressed himself back into his chair as if the response would be a physical blow.
“Oh, Archbishop, let us speak plainly. You are a pederast, a buggerer of boys, a sodomite. You are a seductor and predator, one who uses his position within the Church to stake out a hunting ground for defenseless game. On occasion you have been a killer of children, using their bodies so violently that the Blessed Mother herself has tenderly taken their souls to a place without pain or shame. You employ a succubus like Mother Superior Margaret to deliver the innocent flesh unto you, lambs unto the wolf, and a Satanic hound like Father Oliveri to dispose of the bodies and cover your tracks.”

“Father Oliveri,” he whispered, stiffening and looking wildly at the study door. “Father Oliveri!” he cried.
Sebastian smiled. “The Inquitorious fell upon the good father the moment we left the garden. Even now he has been incapacitated and discretely removed to an enclosed wagon, where he waits fully gagged and in irons. No one will know where he has gone. The household will be told that he left with me on a mission of great secrecy and importance. Naturally he will be purified at a time and place of my choosing. He would have been joined by Sister Margaret, but…” he snapped his fingers sharply, and chuckled.
“And…and me?” the Archbishop asked, temporarily forgetting to deny the accusations.
“As I said, Emilio, I have no warrant for you, no formal charges.”

The Archbishop, pale, was wringing his hands again. “I deny your unspeakable accusations, monsignor. I deny them all. You have no proof, no authority over an Archbishop. You can do nothing to me.”
Sebastian smiled. “Living way out here in this beautiful countryside truly does make a man forget reality. Your denials matter little. It is true that your station denies me the opportunity to clap you in irons and set you upon the wrack, prohibits me from applying the flames you so richly deserve.” He reached across to the other chair and pulled the satchel into his lap. Unbuckling the flap, he removed a leather-bound journal, a thick collection of parchment pages, and tossed it onto the Archbishop’s desk. “But that is far from the end of the matter.”
At this moment the study door opened, and Aldo Torrenci entered bearing a silver tray with a single cut crystal wine glass and an uncorked bottle of Black Monk, a white linen napkin wrapped tightly about the bottle’s neck to prevent dripping. The Archbishop looked at him as if he was an apparition, and the monsignor did not even turn towards the doorway to watch him enter. “I think I will have some wine, after all,” he said, smiling.
Aldo approached the desk, placed the tray upon the glossy cherry surface and handed Sebastian the glass, pouring a small measure of dark purple. The Inquisitor sniffed, swirled and sipped, then nodded and held out the glass. “Excellent, Aldo.”
“Gratzi, Signore Sebastian,” Aldo said, expertly pouring without a single drip, then setting the bottle back on the tray. “I am at your service.” He then knelt and lifted the hem of the monsignor’s robe, kissing it. At no point did he even look at the Archbishop, who sat slumped and staring at his Chief of Staff, mouth hanging open just the slightest bit in disbelief.

Sebastian placed a gentle hand on the servant’s head. “And your service shall be rewarded, in this life and the next, my son. As scripture tells us, Aldo, ‘It is a good servant who readies the house for his master’s return, not knowing the day or the hour, but prepared to open the door upon his knock.’ Go in peace.” Sebastian sipped the dark wine. Truly, it was a magnificent vintage.

The Archbishop watched Aldo, faithful Aldo, treacherous Aldo, until he had left the study and closed the door, then stared blankly at the monsignor. “How long?” he whispered.
“Five years,” Sebastian responded, then pointed at the ledger on the table. His tone became brisk, business-like. “Emilio, in there you will find witness statements which testify to your ongoing sin and fall from Grace, seventy-four to be exact, collected over the past several years. All were taken under the most proper of circumstances, duly signed, all interviews conducted within a Zone of Truth or under a Candle of Truth or some such similar divination. Their authenticity and veracity is without question. You will find statements from thirty-six boys who at one time or another came under your influence in this very villa, either as visitors from the school or as acolytes. Many of their stories did not come to light until they had reached the seminary or even beyond.
“There are another sixteen statements from members of the clergy who have served within the estate over the years; nuns, monks, even a few priests, all whom were scattered to new assignments, some in coincidentally remote locations. There are seventeen statements from servants. Amazing how well these simple, unseen people know the happenings within their own house. Unfortunately there are many others who simply could not be found. It is as if they…disappeared. I suppose Father Oliveri remembers where he put them. Finally, there are five statements from Aldo Torrenci, taken at different times over the last three years. It is quite an impressive collection, and may take some time to read.”

The Archbishop did not reach for the ledger, only glared at it as if it were a poisonous snake coiled upon the surface of his desk. Sebastian took another sip of wine, and pulled a black leather portfolio from his satchel, tossing it onto the desk atop the witness statements.
“What is that?” Emilio whispered, suddenly feeling every one of his sixty-eight years.
“That,” Sebastian said, leaning forward and pushing the Archbishop’s quill and ink bottle closer to him, “contains the following. First is a letter of commendation made out in my name, which will soon be signed by you. It carries on a bit about my steadfast service to the Archdiocese, my reliable execution of my office, the usual. The next document is an official transfer to the Chalice Diocese in the Passes, with a posting as Grand Inquisitor, stationed at St. Michaels, reporting directly to Bishop Portacio. You’ll need to sign that as well.”
The Archbishop’s gaze turned from lost to confused.
“I know you’ll be only too happy to rid yourself of me,” Sebastian continued. “Under that is a personal letter from you to his Holiness the Cardinal. It is your endorsement that when Bishop Portacio passes or retires, I am to be named Bishop as his successor.”
Emilio shook his head. “Impossible, all impossible. I have no place to say who will or will not be elevated to Bishop in another Archdiocese. This is all madness!”
Sebastian waggled a cautioning finger. “Ah, Emilio, you are mistaken. Perhaps it would have been better for you to study Canon Law as I have, rather than whisper bedtime stories to your victims about talkative cows, flying sheep and dancing rabbits. You know very well that any Archbishop is obligated by tradition to honor such a request from an equal, when made to the Cardinal. You need not trouble yourself about that.”
“Extortion,” the Archbishop croaked, “is that was this is all about? A transfer? A letter of commendation to ensure your passage and elevate your status?” He choked out a laugh, a short, hysterical bark. “Leveraging me so you may become bishop? These things as payment for your silence?” Again, a short, crazed laugh. “Why not? No demands for gold or lands? It seems a paltry price you place on forsaking your sacred vows of office.” The hysterical laugh came louder. “Vittorio, you make yourself as much a scoundrel as I.” He covered his face with his hands, unsure of whether to weep or laugh or simply be sick.
Sebastian did not comment, only sipped his wine.
“And if I refuse? You must know I have highly-placed friends, and the very Canon Law which you so proudly spew specifically restricts a Grand Inquisitor from bringing formal charges against an Archbishop. That is why you have no warrant!” A choked giggle. “Only the Cardinal can do that, and I doubt if he is much inclined to bring such public shame and scandal down upon his Church. Certainly not when our Empire is in a war for our very survival against the goblinoids.” Emilio sat up in his chair, and to Sebastian’s delight, actually leaned forward a bit. “I fear you have overplayed your hand, my young Vittorio.” Now there were indeed tears streaming down the older man’s cheeks, as he strained to keep from coming apart.
The Inquisitor drained his glass in a long pull and set it upon the silver tray. As if the other man had said nothing of importance, Sebastian quietly said, “You will sign these documents as I have instructed, Emilio, and then you will seal them and apply your official stamp.”
The Archbishop crossed his arms, his eyes wet and rolling wildly like a terrified horse, his voice shrill. “I will do nothing of the kind.”
Sebastian smiled, and spoke slowly, evenly. “You have misunderstood my intentions, Archbishop. You believe I will barter my vows and my belief for minor privileges, that I will let a villain who has so sinned against Cuthbert and the Church go free, in exchange for personal gain. I can see your confusion, and I will do my best to help you understand.

“Several days from now I have an appointment with the Papal Nuncio. He vaguely understands that our meeting is to discuss supernatural events within the Archdiocese. During that meeting I will do one of two things. If you are compliant with my wishes, he and I will simply discuss Palomo, and my upcoming journey to the Chalice. If you are not, I will make references – unofficial references, mind you, more like personal concerns – about reports of misconduct and claims of Satanically-induced activity. This will compel the Nuncio to order a papal inquiry, which will result in my formal interview. I will be forced to present the evidence I have collected, and its authenticity will be verified. I will receive a minor chastisement for overstepping my authority, but nonetheless you will be summoned before a secret conclave of bishops and questioned by the Nuncio himself. The full truth of your evil ways will be uncovered, every filthy little detail. Those stern, rigid old men will cluck and shake their heads in disgust and pass judgment on you as they pull each of your dirty secrets out into the daylight. You will disgraced, and quietly but forcibly retired. You will lose all this,” he waved at the opulent surroundings, “and will be placed in some remote abbey where people may conveniently forget about you while you pray for forgiveness which you shall never receive. It will be cold and isolated and Spartan, and you will live under a vow of silence, shunned and avoided by all other residents. All this accomplished without the aid of an Inquisitorial Warrant.”

The Inquisitor leaned forward. “You believe, Emilio, that you will be spared the wrath of the Inquisition. You believe your station and many years of service will shield you from the rack and the coals. Let me assure you…” his voice dropped to a deadly whisper, “…once you have been forgotten by the Basillica, I will come in the night and take you away in irons, and you shall experience all the tender delights I have at my disposal. I will ensure you live through it, too, surviving and healing to face it all again and again. I need not remind you that there is little of pain with which I am unfamiliar, and I am more than comfortable ordering...exercises…which will bring it about.”

The Archbishop was pressed as far into his chair as he could be, one foot braced against a leg of the desk, knuckles white on the arms of his chair as he looked into Sebastian’s black eyes. He felt as if he was staring into the Abyss itself.

The Inquisitor abruptly sat back and poured himself another glass of wine, his manner once more conversational. “That, my dear Archbishop, is what will happen if you refuse. And if you think your powerful friends will step in to save you, sacrificing their own standing and risking reputation to come to the aid of a pedophile, you are deeply mistaken. They will flee from you as a plague victim. Even your beloved Nuncio will forsake you. If you and he are such good friends, then you should know full well his feelings and particular mercilessness towards pederasty.” He shook his head. “No, Emilio, I would not put my faith in any of them. Only I hold the keys to your future.”

The Archbishop sat motionless for a moment, then in a hoarse voice said, “If I sign these documents, you will simply go away and keep this confidence? Be satisfied with murdering poor Sister Margaret and burning Father Oliveri? How am I to believe that? And how can you claim to be so righteous if you will bargain your vows in exchange for a bishopry?”
Sebastian chuckled. “Ah, here is what you misunderstood previously, my good Archbishop. You think me a mercenary, a scoundrel as you put it. No, Emilio, I do not sell my vows or integrity or righteous office. The Devil is at work within you, and I will see justice done. I will have you removed from your position, removed from further opportunity to prey upon and corrupt innocents, removed from the chance to further despoil the Holy Church. It is simply a matter or whether you go in shameful disgrace and end up upon the rack years from now, or you leave with some semblance of honor. I have no desire to expose the Church to scandal, for I can accomplish my task without it. But make no mistake, I am not a timid man, and if scandal is required, I will speak the truth, though the Heavens fall. So you see, dear Father, not only do I not betray my sacred office, I work humbly to execute the will of our Lord. As to my advancement to Bishop, is it not obvious that as such I might do so much greater work? Save so many more souls from the Dark One? Truly, my becoming a bishop is Cuthbert’s will.”
The Archbishop shook his head slowly. All trace of resistance was gone, and he had the lost look of a condemned man who realizes the gallows are before him and there will be no reprieve. In a whisper he said, “Is that how you justify your blackmail?”
“Blackmail!?” Sebastian laughed, genuinely amused. “Oh, no, far from it. The letter of commendation simply eases the transfer, and the transfer places me in a better position to serve Cuthbert. I am simply…how did you put it…leveraging you, so that I do not have to repeat this tedious process with your replacement. It is not Cuthbert’s desire that I delay my work at the Chalice one day longer than necessary. This is simply a matter of expediency.”
The Inquisitor removed one last item from his satchel and placed it on the desk before the Archbishop. It was a small glass ampoule containing a thin blackish liquid with a silvery gleam. The older priest eyed the tiny glass vial, feeling a chill crawl up his arms and spine.

“Black Lotus,” the monsignor explained. “You will sign my documents and I will depart. You will claim fatigue and dismiss the staff early. Later tonight you will fix yourself a cup of tea, pour the contents of this vial into it, drink to the bottom of the cup and retire to bed. That’s not such a bad way to go, Emilio.”
The older man stared in sudden horror. “Suicide? You wish me to take my own life? But…but suicide is a mortal sin. I will ensure my damnation with it. Why would I do such a thing?”
“Emilio, you simply haven’t thought this through. Your soul is damned right now. There is nothing…nothing you can do to change that. There is no absolution, no forgiveness for the things you have done. Whether you leave this world tonight, or expire a decade from now, your ultimate destination is determined, and to think otherwise is to lie to yourself. You will do it, because if you don’t, you will be exposed and disgraced, enduring the harshness of scandal and inquest, stripped of your wealth and status, exiled to a cold fate, and ultimately into my hands, where I assure you, you will find neither peace nor comfort. Either way you are Hellbound, and my holy vows are fulfilled. I sleep with a clear conscience. I simply offer you the chance to avoid the pains which will await you in the mortal world. I can do nothing to shield you from what comes next.”
The Archbishop eyed the small bottle as if hypnotized. Black Lotus was the quickest and most final of all poisons, virtually undetectable as anything more than heart failure. He couldn’t imagine the shadowy persons Sebastian had met with in order to obtain such a deadly toxin.
“And in the event you have second thoughts after I depart, realize that one of my Inquitorious remains on the estate, concealed as a member of your household staff as he has been for the last six months. He will report immediately if you do not meet the terms of our agreement. He will also ensure you do not decide to have one last…shall we say, adventure…with that young acolyte from the garden.”

And now a soft tug on the hook, to ensure the fish has firmly taken the bait. Sebastian softened his tone. “Who can say, Emilio. You served the Church faithfully for many years before losing your grace. Perhaps Cuthbert Himself will take mercy upon you and embrace you after all, sparing you from damnation.” The old man glanced up at this with a glimmer of hope, that of a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood which is far too small, and Sebastian suppressed a smile. Yes, cling to that, you filthy creature. By midnight you will be roasting over the open firepit of something with an appetite for wicked souls. It will dine on your flesh…over and over.
Emilio sat for a long while searching the monsignor’s eyes for some sign that what he said was true, that he might indeed receive Cuthbert’s personal intervention. He began to truly cry now, tears running down old cheeks, and he hitched for breath as he sobbed. Sebastian was gentle now, his eyes softened and understanding. “I know, Emilio…I know… all will be well, you will see. It’s much better this way. You don’t want the humiliation, the pointed questions. You don’t want to read those statements. You are much too old to endure the hardships which would come with your refusal.” He pushed the black portfolio towards the man and indicated the quill and ink. “It is time for you to do the right thing at last, Eminence.” These last words were delivered softly, respectfully, oh so gently.

With shaking hands, the Archbishop opened the black portfolio and slowly signed each document as directed. When he came to his endorsement for Sebastian’s promotion upon Portacio’s passing, he felt a chill and looked at the vial of Black Lotus. Bishop Portacio…how would he fare against the fury of the monsignor’s rabid zeal? He was an old man, grown passive with the years, and would be easy to manipulate. The mountains were a hard place, and the venerated priest might not have many days left on this earth. But what if he did not quietly pass according to Sebastian’s personal schedule? Was there such a vial in his future as well? He shivered, then carefully folded the documents before sealing each with red wax and his personal signet. Sebastian tucked both the portfolio with the signed documents and the ledger of statements back into his satchel.
He rose to go. The Archbishop remained sitting, and Sebastian placed both palms upon the desk, looming over him. Gone was the gentle, coaxing tone of a moment ago. His voice was hard, edged like a steel blade. “You will abide by our agreement and follow my instructions, Emilio. If you do not, I will know at once, and you will pay. You will pay in ways you cannot conceive. And if by chance there is an attempt to raise you from the dead, you will refuse the return. You may believe that whatever this world holds for you cannot be as bad as the next, but I assure you that is incorrect. I can be as creative with your suffering as anything on the other side. I have long studied their ways. Do you understand?”
The old man nodded, still staring at the poison.
Sebastian smiled thinly, drained his second glass of wine in one long swallow, and left the study without another word.

Just after midnight that evening, Archbishop Innocente IX prepared his own tea. In the morning, few members of the house wept at his passing.

Miles away, as the Archbishop was stirring his final brew, Monsignor Sebastian sat upon a stump beside a rural road, the campfires of his men dotting the darkness. He chewed thoughtfully on a cold, long-stem pipe, feeling the withering heat of the pyre rolling over him in waves, upwind and mercifully spared the stench of roasting meat. The night was awash in the red-orange glow of a burning stake, a charred figure still held upright against it by chains, the vestments and screams long burned away. A mild breeze carried the reek and the smoke to the south, so Sebastian was free to enjoy the crackle and blasting warmth of the fire itself.

He looked at the carcass, rapidly becoming bones and charcoal, and shook his head in amazement. Father Oliveri had been a cleric, and he prayed for divine spells just as Sebastian did. How was it possible that Cuthbert, in all his majesty, would tolerate the evil which lived within the man? How could he answer the prayers of one who mocked his holy Word? Sebastian’s teaching and discipline slammed abruptly down like an iron portcullis. Who are you to question the mystery of our Lord? He quickly asked for forgiveness. It occurred to him that Cuthbert had not, in the end, permitted the evil to flourish. Sebastian was His instrument, and He had sent the Inquisitor to do His work and bring justice to the wicked. Of course! The monsignor silently thanked his god for enlightenment.

His thoughts turned beyond the burning cleric, to a high mountain pass of cold winds and war, a place where darkness challenged the forces of light. The Chalice. He smiled around his pipe. Such a place of sin and evil needed someone to defend the faith. He couldn’t wait to get there. A knot popped in the pyre with an explosion of fiery cinders, and Sebastian closed his eyes and relished the searing heat on his face.
Nothing clarified like fire.