Interlude XI: The Chosen of Ramiel
“Why does Father not come to see us?” Lilaru whined petulantly as she clung to Griselda’s hand. The pair of identical sisters trailed behind their mother, Lady Davina, as they walked down the golden marble halls of their palace home.
Davina turned, holding her youngest, Nesta, in one arm while her second youngest, Jericho, held her free hand tightly as he coughed into a handkerchief. Davina smiled down at her twin daughters patiently before offering the same answer she always gave, “The Pope has many responsibilities as Ramiel’s appointed.”
“But Mathias, Haskell, and Zoran get to see him every day. Why can’t we?”
“Because Holy Father is training our older brothers to see which of them will be Pope one day,” Griselda answered promptly, earning a nod of approval from their mother.
“Well, why can’t I train to be Pope?” Lilaru whined, her resentment unabated.
“Because you’re a girl,” Jericho muttered sharply as he wiped his lips and tucked the handkerchief into his robe pocket. “Now stop pestering Mother!”
“Jericho,” Davina hushed as she glanced between the trio worriedly, then smiled in relief as the boy’s tutor appeared around the corner of an intersecting hallway ahead of them. The noblemen bowed low as he greeted the holy family. “Lord Padnall, good morning.”
“Greetings, Divine Mother.” The noble responded as he lifted his head and fixed his gaze on Jericho. “I trust you are feeling better today, young Jericho?”
“I am,” Jericho affirmed, though the beads of sweat that glistened against his proud dark locks of hair did not go unnoticed.
“His fever still comes and goes,” Davina explained worriedly. “I only agreed to let Jericho continue his lessons today if he promises not to push himself too hard.”
“I will be sure to keep them brief,” Padnall replied somberly. “But young Jericho’s perseverance is to be commended.”
Lilaru scoffed and crossed her arms. “Why? It’s not like he has a chance at becoming Pope.”
“Lilaru!” Griselda hissed as Jericho’s pale cheeks flushed with anger.
“What? Why would Holy Father pick someone as sick as him over our other brothers—even if he is a boy?”
“Lady Lilaru,” Lord Pandall replied as he placed a comforting hand on his student’s trembling shoulder. “It is Ramiel who chooses the next Pope based on their devotion, humility, and passion. Our god often tests the weak and raises them above the strong to demonstrate his benevolence and love.”
“If that were true, then why does Holy Father not include Jericho in his—” Lilaru cut off as Jericho spun towards her.
“Be Silent!” Jericho snarled, “Why must you prattle on about things that have nothing to do with you?!” The malice and resentment in his words and gaze startled even their mother as Lilaru cowered behind Griselda.
“Lilaru, that is enough!” Davina announced authoritatively, even has her brows furrowed with concern. “I was going to take you out to the market today, but now I think it would be best if you remained behind to copy scriptures instead.”
“Mother!” Lilaru protested frantically.
“Jericho,” Davina turned towards her sickly son with a tender smile. “Go enjoy your lessons. Your sister will apologize to you properly later this afternoon after she’s had a few hours to reflect on her behavior.”
“Yes, Holy Mother,” Jericho replied with a mollified expression. “Ramiel’s blessing upon you all.” He paused and focused his attention on Nesta, who clung to their mother with wide turquoise-blue eyes their family all shared. “Have a good time in the market, little Nesta.”
“Jero!” Nesta responded with a beaming smile that quickly relaxed Jericho’s face as he hid a smile and turned to follow his tutor down a connecting hall.
“Why do I have to apologize for telling the truth!” Lilaru whined as Davina watched her son and Lord Pandall continue towards the classrooms.
“Because what you said was hurtful,” Griselda replied with a huff.
Lilaru turned a reproachful glare towards her twin sister before quickly bursting into tears. “But I wanted to go to the market! I want to eat sweet rolls! We never get to do anything. We don’t get to take lessons or learn to read anything except the Holy Scriptures! How are we ever going to see Father if we can’t even study like Jericho!”
“Holy Father,” Davina corrected but sighed as she lowered Nesta to the floor and knelt in front of her weeping daughter. “The daughters of a Pope do not need to study because the next Divine Heir is always chosen from the Pope’s sons.”
“But—” Lilaru wiped at her damp cheeks, “—the third Saint was a girl! So—Why can’t girls become the next Pope?”
Davina shook her head with a bemused smile as she pulled a white handkerchief from her pocket and dried Lilaru’s cheeks. “Ramiel makes that decision, my daughter. As for the selection of Pope, I believe it is easier for the Cardinals to follow a man of the Saint’s lineage than someone of the weaker sex.”
“How presumptions of the Cardinals to assume the daughters of the Pope are weak,” Griselda interrupted with an annoyed frown.
“How could the daughters of Ramiel be weak?” A soothing voice turned the holy family towards a man dressed in scarlet armor.
“Isaac?” Davina quickly picked up Nesta and stood. “What are you doing inside the inner palace?”
The man’s ice-blue eyes chilled Lilaru as he glanced over her and Griselda, then bowed to Davina before answering. “The Pope asked me to deliver these official missives to his office.”
“Surely he has other servants who can perform such a simple task,” Davina replied tensely.
Isaac’s smile dimmed as he adjusted the rolled scrolls under his arms and straightened as his cold eyes surveyed the empty halls around them. “Well, as there are no other servants about who have the Pope’s trust, I can only fulfill the Pope’s request as ordered, Divine Mother.”
The condescending tone in his voice made Lilaru’s chest constrict in anger. ‘How dare this half-witch speak that way to my mother!’
The witch hunter smiled as he stepped to the side to move past them, only to stop short as Davina held out her arm.
“The inner palace is my domain!” Davina said authoritatively and then held out her hand. “You may deliver those documents to me. Surely the Pope trusts his wife more than a mere hound?”
Isaac stared down at her outstretched hand for a moment as a nerve in his jaw twitched. His ice-blue eyes trailed up Davina’s arm towards the woman’s face. Nesta let out a frightened, ear-splitting shriek as Davina recoiled.
A wave of ice-cold magic enveloped Lilaru as the air turned so frigid it felt as if her lungs would burst. Griselda’s hand tightened around her own as the twin clasped her chest with a startled wheeze.
“How dare you!” Davina’s voice raised in fury as her hand cracked across the witch hunter’s cheek. “How dare you use that foul magic against my children! I will have your head for this, Isaac! No, I will see you burned!”
Davina spun around quickly and grabbed Lilaru’s hand, pulling her daughters rapidly towards the inner safety of their palace. Lilaru opened her mouth to ask about their trip to the marketplace, but a glimpse of her mother’s face revealed an expression that Lilaru had never seen before.
‘Why is Mother afraid of one of Father’s hounds?’
Lilaru glanced back over her shoulder to where Isaac stood in the hallway, his arms crossed over the missives pressed against his chest while his ice-blue eyes bore into them. The expression they held was that of a beast fighting to suppress its rage.
The witch hunter’s gaze shifted towards Lilaru as he offered a slow, strained smile. Lilaru stuck out her tongue in response but quickly whipped her gaze back around while her heart thudded painfully inside her chest with an unfamiliar feeling of dread.
Lilaru opened her eyes and stared at the white sails that rippled above her through the grate of a ship’s deck. She rolled over in her hammock and took in the narrow walls of a ship’s hold. Saul rested beside her on a makeshift bed of crates and bags of grain, his face haggard and eyes closed in exhausted sleep.
“Saul?” Lilaru croaked out, her throat tight and parched. “Griselda?” She turned to search the narrow space of the ship’s lower deck for her older twin sister. “Sedric—” her voice caught as memory stirred like a bolt of lightning behind her eyes. Lilaru coughed and clutched her chest as her lungs seemed to sputter and seize in panic.
Saul jerked suddenly awake and blinked up at her with a mixed expression of surprise, relief, and trepidation. “Lilaru?” He rubbed his neck gingerly as he sat up slowly. “You—you must be thirsty.” Lilaru watched as the water witch found his feet and headed towards a barrel of water set against the opposite wall. “Here, it’s the freshest water we have until we dock.”
“T-thank you,” Lilaru mumbled wearily as she accepted the wooden cup he brought over and quenched her thirst. “Where is Griselda? And where are we going?”
Saul hesitated as he watched her drink, his right hand nervously rubbing the stubble along his chin and neck as he studied her. “We’re roughly a few hours away from Zarus and the Holy City.”
“The Holy C—” The cup trembled in Lilaru’s hand as she stared at her chaotic reflection caught upon its surface.
Griselda stared back with a sad but loving smile as she whispered, “I will protect you.”
The cup toppled from Lilaru’s numb fingers as she gripped the side of the hammock, which rocked unsteadily beneath her. “Where is Griselda?” she whispered, hysteria creeping up the back of her throat. “Why are we going to Jericho?”
Saul caught her shoulders as the hammock almost capsized. “Don’t you remember? Lafearian witches attacked us not far up the Serpentine River,” he explained slowly. “You and Griselda called down Ramiel’s thunder. I found you in the waves after the ship was destroyed, the witches along with it.” He shook his head slowly. “But I—couldn’t find Griselda, Sedric, or Harold. I’m afraid they were all killed by either the witches or Ramiel’s wrath.”
“Liar!” Lilaru snarled as she slapped his hand away. “My sister wouldn’t leave me!”
“I saw her push you from the ship just before Ramiel’s thunder hit the deck,” Saul replied firmly. “If she hadn’t pushed you into the water—you would have died with her.”
Another painful flash of memory stirred behind Lilaru’s blinking eyes. The waves washed over her once more, blurring the image of Griselda as night became day.
“No, no. To invoke such a spell requires sacrifice—we both—” Lilaru sucked in her lower lip and pushed aside the hammock blanket as she swung her legs over the edge. “Griselda can’t leave me behind. We—we have to go to Ventrayna to kill the Witch Kings. We—” her legs buckled before she could even put her full weight on them.
Saul caught her quickly and held onto her arms. “I’m sorry, Lilaru. But your sister is dead. She took those bastards with her and protected you,” he hesitated as Lilaru’s face contorted in grief and anger, “Griselda wanted you to live, Lilaru.”
Lilaru swallowed down a scream of rage as she shook her head furiously. His words rang with unyielding truth matched by the memories she wished more than anything to tear from her mind. “That was not her choice to make.” Her voice cracked with pain and weakness. Lilaru pushed Saul away and leaned against the hammock beam for support. “Nor was it your choice to take me back to Jericho!”
“I’m afraid that I was the one who made that decision,” a woman’s voice replied as Saul turned and quickly bowed his head to their Mistress. Madam Maylea was of average height, with braided white hair tucked behind a veil that hid all but her strange white eyes. They were not the clouded eyes of a blind person but possessed a dim gray hue like the morning light through a windowpane.
‘Ghost eyes,’ Lilaru thought as she always did when peering into the woman’s all-knowing gaze.
“Madam Maylea,” Saul murmured respectfully.
“You should rest, Lilaru,” Maylea said neutrally in a tone that suggested this was not a request. “I will have a meal sent down now that you are awake.”
“Why are we going to Zarus?” Lilaru demanded as Saul obediently lifted and carried her back to the hammock.
“Because I have business with your brother, the Pope, and you need taking care of now that Griselda has gone,” Maylea replied dismissively as she leaned down to pick up the wooden cup that had fallen from Lilaru’s hand and rolled across the floor.
“I don’t need looking after—I still have to return to Ventrayna!”
“If you want to die on a suicidal mission, so be it,” Maylea replied. “But not before you’ve met with your brother.”
“Why?” Lilaru snapped as she sat up in the hammock and shoved Saul’s restraining arm away. “What do you want from my brother?”
Maylea dipped the cup into the barrel of water and carried it over to Lilaru, “What makes you think I want something from the Pope?”
“Well—if not the Pope—then who?” Lilaru grumbled as she accepted the wood cup but didn’t drink. “You always want something.”
Maylea’s ghost eyes squinted as her gaze remained focused on Lilaru. “Perhaps I am interfering in hopes of reuniting what little remains of the Pope’s bloodline.”
The cup in Lilaru’s hand trembled once more as the face of her father, mother, older brothers, Griselda, and Nesta all flashed before her eyes. ‘They’re all dead. The only family I have left now—is Jericho.’
Maylea wrapped her hands around Lilaru’s and steadied the cup. “I know you and your brother have been estranged since—well, there’s no need to get into that—but you must realize that you cannot achieve revenge all on your own, Lilaru. Your brother can help you. He is the Pope and your family.”
“Jericho should have never become Pope,” Lilaru hissed angrily. “Any of us would have been a better choice than that spineless coward!”
Maylea released Lilaru’s hand and grabbed the younger woman’s chin firmly. “Your brother is exactly where he is meant to be.” The woman’s pale white eyes glowed ominously, even as the weight of her words settled into Lilaru’s mind with a sense of inescapable doom. “And now you will return to deliver news of Griselda’s death because that is exactly what you are meant to do.”
Lilaru took in a ragged breath as her body fell numb beneath Maylea’s gaze. “Why? Jericho never cared about us before—why should he be bothered at all that Griselda is—that she’s—” One broken sob after another shook through her as tears poured free. Maylea released her chin and passed the cup of water over to Saul.
“Some fates are unavoidable, my dear,” Maylea murmured soothingly as she embraced Lilaru lightly. “Griselda’s fate was inescapable, but she spent her last moments ensuring your survival. Would you now throw away her courage and self-less love?” The spymaster smoothed the tears from Lilaru’s face and sighed. “I should not have assigned this task to you. Griselda’s death—is my fault.”
“N-no,” Lilaru protested between tears. “Griselda—we both wanted to kill him—for what he did to Nesta.”
“But if I had waited—if I had chosen one of my other girls,” Maylea murmured sorrowfully. “You and Griselda would both be here to hear my good news.”
Lilaru blinked in confusion. “What good news?”
Maylea smiled as she folded Lilaru’s hand around the damp handkerchief. “I found Nesta, your little sister. She is still alive, Lilaru.”
Lilaru stared in dumbfound confusion at the spymaster’s face. “Alive?”
“And hiding inside Lafeara’s palace,” Maylea confirmed. “You may have even seen her during your mission.”
“W-what?” Lilaru’s voice rose incredulously.
“That is why I am taking you to Jericho.” Maylea smiled as she straightened and adjusted her robes. “The Pope will be traveling to Lafeara soon enough for the crown prince’s coronation. It would be for the best if you traveled with him. Rescue Nesta from the den of wolves—before they realize just who they are harboring.”
“Little Nesta—is alive. After all this time….” Lilaru’s voice faded as her eyes stared off into the distance, lost in a memory from another life before cruelty, madness, and anger had twisted her mind into a weapon of malice and grief. “Of course, I will save her. That is what Griselda would do if she were here.”
“You must bring Nesta back to Zarus, no matter who stands in your way,” Maylea murmured as her pale white eyes glowed once more.
Lilaru smiled as her turquoise-blue eyes remained focused on a vision only she could see. “Yes,” she murmured calmly. “No matter who stands in our way.”