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No deed goes unpunished

(Vatican City, 1693)

Tim sat down at his desk, staring dejectedly at the letter before him. Penmanship isn’t the first thing one might expect from a higher being, but it certainly was Her Majesty’s hallmark. Punctuality was the other. For one who didn’t age, efficient usage of time seemed oddly paramount. Barely an hour had elapsed when he’d opened the doors to his office, dismissing his secretary for the day. There, a monogrammed envelope lay neatly on his desk, waiting. No one delivered them, no one knew exactly when they came, but always, the missives were placed precisely at the same place without variation.

Tension hung thick in the air, like wood bending beyond it’s breaking point, cracking and popping, splinters signaling the inevitable. Picking up the envelope, seeing the familiar ornate ‘B’ pressed into the red sealing wax, he tapped it edgewise on the desktop, delaying.

Diary of a madman

He’d saved it from the fire, but would the diary of a madman be enough to spare his life? Her Majesty was unpredictable at best, prone to rage without warning, cruelty without thought, like a bored child throwing rocks at a bird, or pulling legs off a helpless spider. His heart felt numb, beyond feeling. It all happened so fast, now it’s shock waves would certainly destroy everything he loved.

My life is lost, Tim calculated, but then there had only ever been one end to his sorry existence. Fia! His heart ached, knowing she wouldn’t understand why. Better to be done with it, insulate his love and the boys from his hideous life. Evil corrupts, and absolute evil corrupts absolutely. Jenkins had been a fool to think otherwise, Tim thought ruefully as he sank into a morass of despair and recrimination.

Pulling himself together

Then, pulling himself together, as he’d learned to do more than a thousand times before, he took his ivory-handled letter opener, slicing open the missive, and read,

Dear Cardinal Lambert, 
3 am. 

Yours,

Beauty

Letter dropping from his fingers, he sat back, brows furrowed, putting his digits together at there tips, thinking. Like a pawn in an ancient chess game, he’d taken a powerful position on the board – now threatening the Queen. His only move lay forward, no matter how suicidal it was. If this desperate gambit failed: Game over.

A new professional low

(Italian Countryside, 1693)

Along the soggy country road, Lot fell asleep repeatedly, only to be jolted awake by the odd stone in the country track, carriage springs flexing furiously in muddy ruts. This was a new professional low. First, missing his target, now this! Obviously, he’d lost Cardinal Lambert’s confidence, and that didn’t bode well at all. Mistakes, in his profession, were simply not made and those who did, didn’t survive long in the employ of The Order.

Briefly, he’d considered fleeing to the New World, there The Order was present, too, though in less control of Britannia’s new colonies than in Italy. However, the thought of losing the finer things; the wines, foods, and comforts of his indulgent life, made him dismiss that idea before long.

Mostly though, his pride felt wounded, as if the dagger wrapped in the white cloth lying on his lap had impaled it. Carrying out judgments is what I do best, better than anyone! I’m an artist of rare talent and craft. If my medium was color and canvas, I’d rival the masters. Yet… Yet…

The document

(Vatican City, 1693)

The courier, waiting to be dismissed, stood at attention as Fiammetta gaped at the document, thinking to herself, This is too much! Looking up, in shock at the news, Fia motioned for Maria to take care of the man saying, “I will retire to my room, you can find me there.” Document in one hand, picking up the edges of her dress, she hurried away.

Coming to her room, opening the door, she locked it behind her, then lit two more candles from the solitary one on her desk, sitting down to read.

She opened the legal instrument again, it’s many pages long and rather hefty, reading the top letter first,

What have I become?

“Dear Fiammetta,

As a token of my sincerity, please accept this gift for Nico.”

Then underneath, the large document read:

“I, Matteo Foranza Deangelo Imperiali, being of sound mind and body …”

Fiammetta felt the pit in her stomach grow as she realized that her Timothy must have made good on his threat. Suddenly, she felt tired, as if all hope of happiness had been snatched away, just as she believed things might turn out well. Feeling the world an ugly place, her heart beat fast as she tried to sort out her feelings. Matteo had been sincere, making good on his promise to ensure he recognized little Nico as his son and only heir to his considerable fortune. Her heart thumped and hurt in her chest as she realized how grief-stricken Mafalda would be, bereaved of her beloved grandson, the light of her life. What have I become that a man would murder for me? Fia thought. Matteo never asked for this, and despite the unjust circumstance, wanted to do right. “If only I’d spoken to Tim sooner! I’ve messed everything!” she said out loud as she began to cry, burying herself in her pillows, weeping uncontrollably.

The way downwards

Thankfully, she doesn’t summon me very often, Tim thought, while spiraling down the stairs and through the gates of what was, for all intents and purposes, hell. Feeling the hair shirt rub uncomfortably on his skin, Tim almost felt a sort of odd, familiar comfort. Entering her lair, he stood, trying not to cough at the stench of sulfur. In a way it was a relief, almost a touchstone to be able to end it all on his terms, where his father died, and not hers.

He’d even gotten used to the sexual feelings she engendered, ceasing to blame himself for the perversion he imagined, realizing that he was only a man. She stood, back to him, wings almost touching the floor, obscuring her tall body with the red feathers laying flat, her golden, wavy hair hanging midway down between them. She moved slowly, deliberately amongst the candles, lighting one here, snuffing out one or two there. Tim stood silently, waiting, having arrived precisely at 3 am.

You all burn out

“You Edenites are like these candles”, she mused, voice seeming to come from near his left ear, instead of from across the room. “Eventually, you all burn out and must be replaced.”

Tim said nothing, waiting for it.

Turning to face him, she said, “Fitting that he should burn out, too, don’t you think? Although I prefer to do the honors myself.”

Tim’s skin crawled as the level of menace in her voice thickened like a tiger’s growl before attack.

“Tell me, why did you kill my servant?” She said, sitting on the throne, invisible power pulling him towards her. “Of course, I’m going to kill you anyway,” she added, “but I’m curious as to the ‘why?'”

“He was about to betray, you – us – the Order!” Tim blurted

Eyes narrowing, she said, “Pray, do tell.”

Release me!

“He…he…” then in anger and fear, Tim said, “Just release me so I can talk!”

She dropped him on the floor. After a moment he stood, straightening his clothes.

Looking at her, he reached inside his robe and produced the blood-stained diary, saying, “He’d kept record of all that he’d done in your service. He threatened to make it public, exposing The Order…and you. He believed it would make your work more difficult. He wanted me to join with him against you.”

As Beauty’s eyes relaxed slightly, Jenkins’ diary floated from Tim’s hands towards her classic face, until, almost touching her nose, she sniffed it. It opened, pages flipping through, then closed. “Curious, the only time Edenites smell good is when they die,” she observed.

The book closed, then combusted, specs of white ash falling down from where it used to be.

Looking at Tim again, she said, “So you killed my priest in order to protect me…how quaint.”

“No, I did not.” Tim said angrily.

“What?” the large seraph said, eyes flashing as the room shook.

I killed him!

Then, letting all the years of pent up hate release at once, face contorting, Timothy said, “I killed him because he killed my father! I took revenge on the bastard and told him I’d give this book to you as I watched him bleed out! I hated him!”

Gripping him like a vice, his feet left the floor as she brought him close, red eyes looking at him penetratingly, smelling his anger and hatred. Then, seeming to come to some decision, she said, “Now that – I understand.”

Setting him down, she smiled, saying, “My priest kills your father, you serve the priest as a boy, the boy becomes a man, kills my priest and serves me.” Beginning to laugh, she said, “Truly, Cardinal Lambert, I never saw that coming. Only in this god-forsaken place could something that absurd happen.” Beginning to laugh more she said, “And the irony is, you’ve become twice the viper he ever was! And now you’ve even murdered him!” She roared, saying, “Delicious! Just too delicious!” Waving dismissively as she continued to laugh out loud at Timothy’s painful admission, she chuckled, “Just go…you’re perfect!”

Just a bad joke

Tim, fully expecting to die, now caught unawares without a plan B, slowly backed away as Beauty steadied herself with one arm on her throne, cackling fitfully, causing the whole cavern to shake, some candles falling over. Hurrying up the winding staircase, Tim’s whole body shook – adrenaline coursing through his veins, heart racing. So she spared me because she thought my tragic life was funny? Jenkins’ death was just a bad joke to her?

Disposing of his clothes, as he always did after meeting with Her Majesty, he scrubbed furiously, knowing that the scent would come off his body, but linger in his mind for days. Afterwards, utterly exhausted, he fell into bed, asleep before his head met the feather mattress. Rising a couple hours later, his servants dressed and fed him, handing over the day’s schedule.

Walking down the near empty halls of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Tim marveled that he was still alive. Something about the delight – the tone in her voice, as she reveled in his misery, deeply disturbed him. It was almost like she identified with him, like he was a part of her expressed. It was another level of evil he wished he didn’t know.

He’s dead, Cardinal

He met his secretary standing outside his office door, and the man leaned close and whispered into Cardinal Tim’s ear.

“It’s about time,” Tim commented irritably, walking through the doors into his office, as Lot sat stiffly while he passed by.

“So it’s done?” Tim said as he sat.

“Yes and no.” Lot said flatly.

“What do you mean? Matteo Imperiali’s either dead or he’s not.”

“He’s dead, Cardinal, but not by my hand.” Then reproachfully, Lot said, “I told you I would do it, there was no need to send another.”

“What?” Tim said, as Lot placed an object wrapped in white cloth on his desk. Tim stared at Lot’s long fingers revealing its content. A cold chill ran down from the back of his neck as his heart sank. After a moment, Tim whispered, “Where did you get this?”

“From the body of Prince Imperiali. It was in his chest when I found him dead at his country estate. Within an hour of my arrival, I surmise.”

Oh, no…

Glancing at the letter opener on his desk and then back to the dagger that lay on the cloth, Tim exclaimed, “Oh, no…”

“I would have performed the judgment, Cardinal Lambert, I thought we understood each other. There was no need to send another, you know my work, I’m a professional. My word is my bond.”

Tim didn’t hear him, though, as he stared at an exact copy of the dagger he used to open his own letters. There was no mistake: The monogrammed crest matched the only other one he used at Fiammetta’s apartments.

As the big priest sat stunned, he thought, I’m evil. And now I’ve corrupted her, too.

Tim raised his hand, compelling Lot to quit speaking excuses. Standing, Tim bent down, took a bag of coins out of a desk drawer, held it out to Lot, saying, “Tell no one of this, ever.” Surprised, the tall man hesitantly took the coins and left.

Why?

Turning around, looking up at the mural of Christ on the wall behind his desk, Tim whispered with dry throat, “Why, Lord?”

SEOIB.