As the night quickly approached, Harold had his hands full, observing the various functions of the servants, chefs, and maids. Odium’s decision to gather the lords and his sycophants was something he had already been warned about, however that did not alleviate any pressure from him.
As he rushed by, the superintendent was careless enough to trip over a bucket, which one of the maids was using to clean the floor, and managed to spill its contents all over the floor.
“You stupid girl!” Harold shrieked “Watch where you leave your stuff lying around!”
The woman cowered as Harold prepared his hand to smack her. Before he would do so, the superintended quickly glanced at his pocket watch and sighed angrily, lowering his hand.
“Count yourself lucky,” Harold huffed as he fixed up his hair “I am far too busy to deal with your punishment. Mop up the mess you made and make yourself presentable. Our guests have arrived.”
Harold rushed to the main gates as two Sondeliers stood there. He could hear loud knocking coming from the outside. Taking in a deep breath and fixing up the crinkles in his outfit, Harold looked back at the guards.
“How do I look?”
“Splendid, sir,” both Sondeliers replied at the same time, making Harold grin from ear to ear.
“In that case; open the gates and let our refined guests in,” Harold raised his hands as if he were conducting an orchestral symphony.
As the giant wooden doors parted, Harold saw took in quite the sight. Dozens of men and women, all dressed in the finest clothing, stood behind the door, nearly flooding the archbishops courtyard. He could also recognize a few men in white robes as well, garnished with golden crosses, nervously waiting in the cool summer breeze.
“Ladies and gentleman, allow me to welcome you to our humble abode. Please follow me to the ballroom,” Harold said and bowed.
“It’s about time,” an obese gentleman, dressed in a red velvet tunic, said.
“I do apologize for the delay, Lord Claymore. We had some, minor issues regarding our staff, but rest assured we have taken care of it,” Harold spoke composedly as he observed his pocket watch.
“Just as scheduled,” Harold thought to himself and smiled contently.
Soon enough he led his esteemed guests to a large golden door with diamond-encrusted handles.
“I see the old archbishop’s taste is as elegant as ever,” Lord Claymore spoke again and laughed.
Harold gave him a sour half-smile.
“His Excellency will wait for you on the other side of this door,” Harold spoke formally “Please feel free to express your gratitude towards your gracious host once the meal has ended. After all, his providence did invite you to his home,” Harold warned in a soft, yet firm, tone as he opened the golden door.
The room in which they entered was large and circular with crimson carpeting covering its wooden floor.
Oil lanterns hung from the ceiling while bright torches sat alongside the walls. Each lantern had a different colored glass going from bright red lanterns set at the entrance and slowly turning emerald green the closer they were to the archbishop’s table.
The soft, soothing, sound of violins echoed through the room, welcoming each guest as they arrived. A dozen tables, made of the finest wood, were placed all over the ballroom and each was labeled for the specific guest that was to be seated there.
Under the emerald light of the lanterns, secluded from everyone else, stood a large, round, table at which the archbishop’s figure sat. He sat at the head of the table, dressed in his usual attire, while Isabella was seated next to him, wearing a low cut, long, black, satin dress with a golden cross encrusted in diamonds, hanging around her neck
“Aren’t you worried that you will stand out?” Odium whispered to her as one of the servants poured him a glass of red wine.
“That’s what I am hoping for,” Isabella said and grinned devilishly.
Each lord and his mistress were led to their table by a servant specifically assigned to them, while the men dressed in white robes were led by Harold himself to the archbishop. Each member of the Order that would arrive would bow down as they came face to face with their leader.
Most of the members that had come to pay their respects were sanctifacts, members of the Order in charge of monetary prospects, while only one bishop arrived. However, this was no ordinary bishop.
Slowly walking up to Odium, his figure slouched and his walk accompanied by a wooden cane, Bishop Contis de la Phonte arrived. His hands began to tremble as he took the archbishop’s ring hand and pressed it against his cold lips.
“You didn’t have to come, old friend,” Odium spoke gently as he helped the old bishop to his seat which was right next to the archbishop's side.
“Ah, it’s nothing,” Contis responded and waved his hand, “I don’t get to visit this place as often as I’d like anyways.”
Bishop Contis de la Phonte was the oldest member of the Order, being nearly a century old. He was also the Order's representative member in the Council of Eight. Outside of that, he was Odium’s mentor, helping to bring him to the position of the archbishop, and his oldest friend. All of these attributes made him highly important to the archbishop.
“So tell me, how have you been? Is everything alright in the Council?” Odium inquired with a smile.
“Same old, same old,” the ancient bishop responded as he took a glass of wine and drank “Although there have been some changes. The king has brought in the new replacement for Lord Cramington,” Contis said with a heavy sigh.
“Already?” the archbishop interjected.
Lord Cramington was a strong supporter of the Order in the Council of Eight before his tragic demise.
“Yes. Apparently the king was already thinking of replacing him before his untimely demise."
“I suppose it was inevitable," Odium took in a deep breath "So who was given the honor of replacing him?"
“Marion Linderheim,” Contis responded as Odium almost choked on his wine.
“Her?!” Odium yelled under his breath.
“Yes, her,” de la Phonte responded, “The king said she could provide some fresh insight into the Council. Can you believe that?” the old bishop shook his head disapprovingly as Odium began to panic on the inside.
Marion Linderheim was the youngest field marshal of the King’s army. While she wasn’t born as a noble, her education and perseverance allowed her to rise through the ranks very quickly. Unlike Lord Cramington, who was a devoted follower of the Order, Marion was openly critical of the Order’s practices, often criticizing the exorbitant amounts of money that the Order gathered as a mandatory contribution from the populous. She was particularly aggressive against the archbishop and his spending habits, comparing him to “a greedy swine decorated in blood covered jewels”. This, coupled with the fact that she was very close to Demeter, made the archbishop very anxious about her addition to the Council.
Odium brought his hand to his chin and began to think intently.
“This might prove to be an issue,” Odium thought to himself.
Suddenly he felt a hand slapping him on the back. He turned quickly to Isabella, only to be greeted by her smiling face.
“Don’t worry about it,” Isabella said as she patted him on the back “I’ll take care of everything,” she winked and returned to her drink.
Odium returned her smile as he realized that he truly had nothing to worry about. Not even Marion could stop his plans, as long as Isabella was on his side.
The doors swung open once more as large pots and wide platters were brought in, covered by metallic lids.
“Dinner is served,” Harold said as the servants began to pour in the soup.
Fresh steam rose from the plates as a powerful scent of rosemary and coriander wafted over the esteemed guests, making their stomachs rumble with delight. As they ate they felt the meat and the potatoes melt like snowflakes on their tongues as they hungered for more. Moans of delight quickly spread across the room as the second dish, a roasted, suckling swine, was served.
“This meat is exquisite!” Isabella cheered with joy.
“Indeed,” Odium concurred “Antonio really rose to the occasion.”
Once the second course was eaten, and dessert was served, some lords began to approach the archbishop’s table. They would greet him and kiss his ring, as a sign of their respect, and would return to their tables.
Odium would look at all of them with delight, happy to see these men that the rest of the kingdom feared and respected, bowing down to him. However, one figure stood apart.
A large man, dressed in a red, velvet, tunic slowly approached the archbishop. He was accompanied by a tall woman with brown hair, wrapped in a bun, and dressed in a light, white, dress.
The man’s beady eyes, sunken deep into his moon-like face, lit up with delight as he noticed that the Archbishop greeted him with a smiling face.
“Lord Claymore, it is a delight to see you,” Odium exclaimed as the corpulent man got up.
“The pleasure is mutual, my friend. I can see that Bishop de la Phonte is with us as well,” Lord Claymore exclaimed and waved to the old bishop.
Bishop Contis lifted his glass towards his coworker in response.
Lord Marcus Claymore was another member of the Council of Eight. As one of its richest members, Lord Claymore usually dealt with those laws that would keep his merchant business running and his wealth secured. He was also on good terms with the Order, even though he himself held no particular belief in a higher power. However, he did want to be secured just in case that the Order’s teachings were righteous.
“And who is this lovely creature you have brought to us?” Odium asked referring to Marcus’ companion.
“This is Emilia Losantes. She is a jewel most worthy of a man such as myself,” Lord Claymore introduced the elegant woman as she cordially bowed to the archbishop and kissed his ring.
“Isn’t Losantes the name of your rival mrchant?"
“Might be, might be,” Marcus smiled slyly as his eyes turned to the raven haired beauty on the archbishop's right.
Isabella quickly noticed the wild gaze with which he looked at her. His shameless stare of desire was all too obvious for her. She could easily see that his eyes were nowhere near her eye level.
“It isn’t fair to keep such a lovely creature all to yourself, Odium,” Lord Claymore said as he took Isabella’s hand “What is your name my dear?”
“Isabella Cordillier,” she said and positioned her hand so he could kiss it while keeping an eye on his mistress.
“Such a delightful name for such a wonderful specimen,” Marcus said as he kissed her hand.
“Oh, dear, you flatter me too much, “Isabella said and laughed, her voice sounding like the chiming of silver bells.
Lord Claymore grinned widely as Isabella noticed his date becoming more and more flustered.
“Well, I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay. You are always a welcomed guest at my court,” Odium said as he and Lord Claymore parted ways.
Once the archbishop had returned to the table he noticed Isabella’s smile growing wider.
“Would you mind if I play with Lord Claymore for a bit?” she asked Odium as if she were a child asking her father for candy.
“By all means, my dear,” Odium smiled contently and gave the signal for the violins to play something faster.
The melody of a fast-paced waltz began to spread throughout the room as Isabella stood up from her chair and approached Lord Claymore.
“Care to dance?” she asked innocently, ignoring the woman he was with as she did so.
“Certainly!” Lord Claymore exclaimed as Isabella took him by the hand and led him to the dance floor.
As she did so, she slightly turned her head at Emilia and winked at her. She could notice her pale white skin turned pepper red, making Isbella giggle.
“You’re no Cattanburry, but you’ll serve for the night,” Isabella thought to herself as she wrapped her slim hands around the hefty frame of Lord Claymore.
As the guests and their gracious hosts enjoyed themselves below, Cattanburry could not calm down upstairs. A single candle illuminated his grey beard and wrinkled face, which was now drenched in sweat. He tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep. Finally, he decided to sit on the edge of his bed. He buried his head between the palms of his hands and took in a few deep breaths. The cardinal attempted to calm himself and recollect the events that had just transpired.
“Now you’ve done it, Ronnie. You have really started something here,” Cattanburry sighed to himself by the dim candlelight. He walked around his room and stopped at a large mirror, hanging on a wall. The cardinal looked at the mirror, barely being able to recognize the elderly figure that stood in front of him
“Don’t you understand the repercussions that will come out of this?! You are supposed to be the voice of reason here!” he yelled at the figure in the mirror and began to point at it.
As his fingers touched the glass he looked at them and then back at the reflection. The realization made him laugh maniacally.
“I am losing it,” Cattanburry spoke under his breath and moved away from the mirror as fast as he could, his laughter slowly returning to his panicked breathing, “I must think rationally about this. My panic will only serve to cloud my judgment."
“Do as your honor commands from you,” Odium’s parasitic words resurfaced once more in Cattanburry’s mind. Their sound resonated louder than thunder within Cattanburry’s head.
“That’s right,” Cattanburry said to himself under his breath “After all you owed him your life. It was your honor to sign it! Isn’t that what’s most important here?" he suddenly got up and walked over to a window overlooking Odium’s forest.
“Honor. That one word, or better yet idea, bounds us all,” Cattanburry began to theorize with himself as he opened the window. He pulled up a chair and sat next to it as a cool breeze washed over his grey, short, hair.
“Whether a peasant or a king we are all servants to it, for it is our only trait that separates the kingdom of man from that of the beasts. We are strictly confined by its laws and we answer to it, in the long run. For how can we be civilized and call ourselves noble, if we have no honor,” Cattanburry sighed to himself and looked on in to the green grove as his mind began to clear up. The restlessness of his heart seemed to dissipate as time went on. However, it was nothing more than a calm before the storm
“Could I have rejected him? Sure, I could, but imagine how my reputation would be tarnished,” he continued to rationalize “Everything I worked for all my life. Every action I did to get to here would be wrecked, shattered into a million pieces if I were to ignore the request of a man that had saved me from death’s cold grasp. My judgment was right,” Cattanburry attempted to convince himself yet still he felt as if he was not justified. Something, deep down in the pit of his stomach, told him that he was wrong.
“Is this truly how You feel?!” he yelled out, holding his stomach in pain, at the starry night “Is this Your punishment for my inadequacy?!”
Defience raged within his soul. The pain only served to fuel its fire.
“Well if it is, so be it,” Cattanburry said coldly “I shall endure a thousand more punishments from You if it means that I will protect my honor. I will lay my life down for those who have helped me. I will wage a war against the heavens themselves if that is what he chooses! Judge me as you wish, but I know I did the right thing. You will see that, very soon,” Cattanburry said silently as he exhaled. He felt like a huge rock had been lifted from his chest as his heart was now, finally, at peace.
“Moral is human. Honor is godly,” he said to himself and blew out the candle on his nightstand.
Darkness filled his room within seconds and Cattanburry quickly fell into the night's cold embrace.
As the bishop rested in his room, Demeter still could not fall asleep. A few Sondeliers came down for a patrol, but he noticed that they were quickly departing. He paid them little mind as he assumed that the archbishop was having another one of his extravagant parties. In the meantime, Ayla had woken up and was now sitting close to Demeter, intently observing every single pore on his face.
“Keep looking like that and your pretty little eyes might pop out."
“I am just fascinated by you,” Ayla said and continued to stare at Demeter.
“How come?” Demeter asked with a raised eyebrow.
“You have been sitting in that exact spot for quite some time now and you haven’t taken your eyes off of me or my bed. Seems to me like you have been smitten by my charm,” Ayla said and flipped her hair seductively.
“Well I do have a job here after all,” Demeter said and laughed at her attempt.
“Oh, I see, so that’s all I am to you; an assignment,” Ayla pouted and pretended to be very hurt by Demeter’s comment, making him snicker.
“Your methods, while admirable, still fail. Better women than you have tried and failed to seduce me,” Demeter responded proudly.
“Seduce you? Perish the thought,” Ayla said and began to laugh, unable to keep her composure anymore.
Demeter waited patiently as she calmed down.
“I apologize for my outburst” Ayla bowed her head as she saw that she went a bit too far with her jokes.
“Apology accepted,” Demeter responded, “However, I do have to ask; do you usually joke like this?”
“Pretty much,” Ayla responded “My jokes help me to uncover the true nature of those around me. Helps me to differentiate friends from foes."
“And what category do I fall in to?"
“I cannot disclose that information at this moment,” Ayla replied and winked at Demeter.
“You are one interesting specimen, Ayla. I don’t think I have had the pleasure of meeting someone like you up until now."
“So now you are trying to seduce me?” Ayla smiled “However, I do have to ask you something.”
“Why are you keeping me here?” Ayla asked, her voice becoming more solemn as she did so.
“What do you mean?” Demeter asked, intrigued by the direction this conversation was heading.
“Well, why am I imprisoned? I did nothing wrong,” Ayla said, defending herself.
“Any sort of magic within the human kingdom is treated with the utmost seriousness,” Demeter explained “The dark history of our subjugation by the magic users makes us warier of those who possess such powers. The archbishop’s goal will be to determine if you are a magic user and what kind of magic do you use."
“Interesting,” Ayla responded and rubbed her chin “So if that’s the archbishop’s goal, then what is your job?”
“My job is to keep an eye on you and to try to find out as much information as I can in regards to your background,” Demeter explained calmly.
“And I assume you will relay this information to the archbishop, no?"
“Only that which I deem relevant for him,” Demeter said with a smirk.
“Ah, I see,” Ayla said, “So would it be safe to say that you are not on good terms with the archbishop?”
Demeter went quiet after that question. Seeing as she prodded a bit too far, Ayla changed the subject.
“So what do you think of me?”
“Do you really want to know?” Demeter said and got close to her.
“Of course,” Ayla clicked happily, dying to see how his mind operated.
“Well,” Demeter began his theorizing “Let’s start with your look. More specifically your white hair and tanned skin."
“What about them?” Ayla asked as she was restlessly seated.
“Such a combination is most uncommon for the human kingdom. If your skin was as white as snow, I would understand, but that is clearly not the case,” Demeter deduced.
“Couldn’t I have used a potion to gain this appearance?” Ayla asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Naturally, but it wouldn’t last this long. Most potions that drastically change your appearance only last a few hours. The more logical outcome would be that you are from one of the surrounding kingdoms,” Demeter countered her.
Hearing his reasoning Ayla’s pupil grew wider and her breathing quickened slightly.
“What else do you have?” she asked eagerly.
“Second, your clothing,” Demeter said and touched her gown “I can feel just how soft the fabric is under my fingertips. This is most likely silk or something akin to it. A clear sign of a higher status,” he explained as he let go of the dress.
“Couldn’t I have stolen it from someone?” Ayla asked, her excitement slowly growing.
“It is a possibility,” Demeter responded “However, I doubt it. If you were truly a thief, you would not be flouting your goods around. By wearing it, you would only serve to diminish the value of your dress.”
“I could wear it to show off. As a testament to my strength and villainy,” Ayla tried to counter his claim.
“We wouldn’t be talking here if that were truly the case,” Demeter said and showed off his dagger.
“So he’s prepared as well. This is getting very interesting indeed,” Ayla thought to herself as she tried to contain her excitement.
“Besides, a person like that is not prone to waiting so long before they attack, so it’s not a likely outcome,” Demeter explained “Again, the most logical answer is that you are of noble upbringing."
Ayla was now in overdrive. Her eyes were fully open, her heart raced and her feet restlessly danced on the brick floor.
“Anything else,” she spoke, barely able to contain her excitement.
“Finally, your strength; considering your behavior and joking nature, it is easy for me to see that you are a very strong and capable magic user. Someone who is very confident in her powers,” Demeter finished.
“That’s quite the assumption you are making. How do you know that I even have magical abilities?”
Demeter smirked as this was just the question he was waiting for.
“You told me,” he responded smugly.
“What?!” Ayla yelled out in shock.
“Not directly of course,” Demeter responded “However, your actions and reactions to everything I said more than gave you away in this regard.”
“How do you figure?” Ayla pressed on.
“The tale that the old man told us seemed suspicious to me at first,” Demeter began his explanation, “A bright flash of light is quite distinct as a magical sign after all.”
“Couldn’t it have been just a strike of lightning though?”
“It would be possible, however, there were no thunderstorms in the past week. In fact the weather in Darion has been rather dry lately, so this is not a likely possibility,” Demeter struck down her argument with surgical precision “However, even if that were not the case your reaction to my story of human subjugation under the rule of magic users all but gave you away.”
“Oh?” Ayla let out, biting her lip in excitement.
“You did not try to defend yourself , and you only called my story ‘interesting’,” Demeter explained “This leads me to believe that you are a magic user. And, since we have established your noble origin, you have to be very powerful at it. It’s the only conclusion that logically fits,” Demeter finished his explanation.
Ayla’s jaw dropped as she stared at the man that stood before her in awe. His deduction skills were unparalleled and his words cut deep and precise. Moments later she snapped out of her daze and began to clap vigorously.
“You have quite the agile mind there, Demeter,” she exclaimed, “However, you still haven’t guessed who I truly am.”
“That may be true,” Demeter said “But I will figure it out soon enough. Unless you want to tell me that is,” Demeter looked at her expectantly.
“I think I’ll let you come to that revelation by yourself. I can see that you are up to the task,” Ayla smiled and yawned.
“You’re tired already?"
“After an examination like that, anyone would be tired. I could barely hold still as you talked,” Ayla teased “I’m going to turn in for the night. You can stay there and watch if you like, but just take the candlelight out."
“Your wish is my command,” Demeter said and blew out the candle.