He had warned her it would not be a good idea. Matteo and Lupe had backed him. The Abbot backed him. If the Second Son of the D’Angelos had not had to return home for business, he knew she would have backed him too. The Lord Caligara may even have been able to sway his wife from going to the crypts but he was still on the island, dealing with the aftermath of the attacks. In retrospect, it would have been futile. All knew once Melisende made a decision, there was little that could stop her. And now he watched her from the shadows, surrounded by the grey muslin wrapped bodies of the dead that she could not save. Her shoulders shook in the dim candlelight, the shadows dancing on the cold, stone walls. Sobs filled the chamber, echoing throughout the inner Basilica catacombs. Damien knew that the preparation room was in general not a sad place to be. The Priests of Persephone that cared for the dead took solace in the preparing of bodies as it was a sacred ritual and duty. It was a time of quiet and inner reflection, of respect. Melisende herself had always enjoyed the peaceful silence. She could sometimes be found down here instead of the Gardens or her office. But now – now it only served as a reminder of her failure.
The monk observed the cardinal on the floor of the chamber with her arms wrapped around herself as her tears carved rivers down her cheeks. Her journal lay forgotten at her feet, half open to a scrawled page. The preparation chambers were filled to capacity and then some as those that survived the onslaught of Merrow finally fished bodies out of the receding ocean covering the Docks. Those that did not survive and could not be revived due to lack of money were laid here, waiting for their families to claim them. It was a staggering amount of common folk and an unjustly accusatory amount of death. Damien stepped forward into the candlelight, his heart wrenching for his charge. In other situations, the cardinal was a force of nature to be reckoned with. She had survived Revenants, assassination attempts, the high noble society, and now a near-world ending attack by monsters. She was brash and sometimes rude, but so full of energy and a world-liness akin to individuals twice her age. But in this moment, as she sat there, he is reminded that she is younger than he is – than most of the nobles she took company with. She was barely into adulthood and already had so much responsibility.
A particularly harsh sob forced him forward and to her side. As the monk murmured soothing words to her and pulled her into him, he prayed to Persephone for guidance. She collapsed into him immediately with a choked sigh, hands bloodied where the sharp edges of her symbol of the Dread Mother punctured her skin from the force of her grip. Incoherent words fell from her lips as she struggled to breathe. He grasped one of the Sending Stones he carried on his belt, quickly sending a message in hopes that help would come.
It has been a few days since the Ritual and the city is barely beginning to uncover the full loss we had at the hand of the Army and the Coven. We did it. We completed it and sealed away the Coven and their Lord, but not without heavy costs. The island I hear was completely ravaged with very few survivors who now grace our fair shores. Graziano has stayed behind to handle matters with the help of Catalina, though now I believe she retains on sabbatical – well deserved if you ask me. Especially with the vicious rumors circulating about whose fault it was for the attack. Formal letters and remarks have already been made to the Senate. I myself returned to the city immediately following the completion of the ritual along with Tessa. The aftermath was and is staggering though the assault only lasted for 10 minutes. For the city, the Docks are still heavily submerged though the ocean is at last beginning to recede. Bodies come by the cart load to the Basilica. Some we’ve been able to revive through our Second Breath ceremonies once families have provided the necessary funds. Most however, were too poor to afford such luxuries. This morning I had to turn away a grieving father and I had never experienced such heartache. He pleaded with me, begged on the stone steps at my feet with hands grasping my robes. All I could do was sit with him and hold him while he cried. Despite the havoc, the law and the Church were firm on the price of the ceremony even though bodies of children fill my Basilica. The fact that the majority of the dead were of the common folk has not gone unnoticed. An emergency wealth tax has been placed on the nobility, much to the dismay of some and happiness to others. I fear that Cas is right in that the high society will attempt to take over the docks in this chaos.
My heart hurts at the mention of her name honestly, though I cannot tell what emotion I am feeling fully. I haven’t seen her since the day this all happened – when she found me in the Inner Gardens and yelled at me for hiding. I admit, I purposefully haven’t sought her out either. I don’t know what to say to her. Or to Cameron. Or to anyone for that matter. Despite all of the eyes looking to the Church, to me – I have no more words. I am angry, my soul burns with a cold fury I have never felt. I equally want to scream but also weep for my tongue needs to be held in trying times as this. The Abbot already chastised me for saying what I have already and not having a united front for the people. I still have yet to find a balance between Melisende the person and Melisende the Cardinal. I am not mad at Cas for her words. She is just and true in her emotions. I am mad because I cannot do anything without choosing a side in this stupid feud between the nobles and the people. And if I were honest, I do not want anything to do with it anymore.
This city is cursed by avarice and lies. The brutish nobility is a plague that eats from the very core out. I have dedicated my life to this hellhole because I can see the good parts through the rot covered lenses. My cause has never been to serve the nobles who play their games from their high houses filled with ichor blood, but to the people – the “common” folk of my home. They are the life of this city, the foundation upon which all 100 noble houses have built their empires. Yet they are treated as lesser than with little thought beyond something “to be ruled.” I sit here surrounded by bodies of my people, my flock – men, women, young, old…children. This morning I wanted nothing more than to provide that father with the life of his dead son. The spell is easy, the ceremony quick. My heart yearned to do this one justice for this man. But I couldn’t. Social rules and hierarchy demanded that I don’t on the sole reason that he is too POOR to afford it. The system protects those that do nothing but abuse it. How can I be someone with so much power yet be so completely and utterly powerless to fix that which is broken?
What is my purpose then? To live and to die by the city that hates itself? To play the game of the nobles, be a countess and have children who will become cogs in the very system I hate? Rule and demand those beneath me to adore me? If I cannot bring back an innocent child from the dead, if I cannot protect my people – then what is the fucking point?
They tell us we are free, the gods tell us that we possess free will and the capacity to create change. Persephone herself represents that unending cycle of change. But I am beginning to lose sight and lose faith. She no longer answers me though I can feel the bone cold touch of her fingers in my heart.
I have never felt so stuck and alone.
Determined footsteps echoing in the halls caused Damien to look up from his spot on the floor. He still held Melisende as she softly sobbed into his robes. Cecily Renata-Tempesta di Solana stood at the threshold of the chambers with Lupe at her side. She wore a traveler's cloak over her clothes, most likely having rushed from whatever the older monk had called her from. Her eyes took in the scene in front of her – the collapsed and bleeding Cardinal, tossed aside journal, and the monk's own face. She nodded towards him in acknowledgement. Damien saw the briefest hint of bone-weary exhaustion before the mask of the First-Born Heir slid into place. Her eyes became sharp with a fierce protectiveness as she slowly approached the pair.
"Melisende, the Lady Cecily is here." He murmured quietly, glancing back to his cardinal. Her sobs quieted but she made no move to look up. Cecily knelt down on the floor next to them, her skirts not surprisingly artfully splayed around her.
“Mel?” her voice was soft and calm, as if speaking with a frightened animal. The younger woman sniffed quietly and wiped her face with the back of her hand, wincing as the motion pulled on her injured fingers. Cecily gently grasped both of Melisende’s hands before working her fingers free of the bloodied necklace. She placed it off to the side and stared intently at the cardinal, her thumbs rubbing soothing circles into her wrists. Melisende slowly opened her eyes but still stared off into space.
“They’re all dead.” she murmured, her voice cracking from stress and disuse.
“Everyone. The city.”
“What makes you think they are all dead?” Cecily pulled one of Melisende’s hands to touch her knee, “I am here and I am very much alive.”
“I couldn’t save them…” the cardinal’s eyes began slowly filling with tears as her voice rose from panic, “They’re dead because we forgot….something….somewhere….somehow. I keep thinking how we missed it. How everyone missed it. How did Graziano. Catalina. Myself. We promised the city would be okay. The people are angry because we – I – messed up. I promised I would protect the city. We thought we were protecting the city. We thought we were protecting the villages on the island. We worked so hard. I haven’t slept. Barely slept. So much effort and just. We lost. We lost it all. We saved the city but at what cost? This city hates itself, hates us. And so many are dead. Everything and everyone is dead. And I didn’t keep my promise!” She ripped her hands away from Cecily and covered her face as her shoulders shook from her fresh sobs. The Lady Renata-Tempesta pulled the cardinal away from Damien and into her chest. She murmured soothing words as she ran fingers through Melisende’s hair. Her other hand wrapped around Mel’s shoulders and rocked her gently back and forth. It was a few minutes before the cardinal calmed down enough to hear Cecily.
“You did nothing wrong. You did everything you could. I swear.” she said, “None of us saw this attack coming. No one. Those who judge you did little in all of this, those who say it is your fault are trying to absolve themselves of blame.” The older woman gently pulled Melisende’s hands away from her face and cupped her chin, staring intently into her green eyes, “You. Did. Everything. You. Could. Be happy for the lives you DID save. You helped save the WORLD.”
Melisende swallowed thickly and nodded without a word, the last bit of tears escaping down her cheeks. She moved to wipe her face, surprised only a little to find her skin free of tears or marring. The tingle of Cecily’s Prestidigitation left her skin feeling slightly tender as the magic danced away. Next to them Damien jumped to his feet and offered a hand. The Lady Renata-Tempesta released the cardinal and stood with his assistance. She brushed her skirts as Melisende got to her feet next, hands nervously grasping themselves.
“Have you eaten yet?”
The cardinal was quiet for a moment before answering, “No.”
“Then come. Let us find something to eat and we will discuss your dress for the D’Angelo debut.” Cecily held out an arm and raised an eyebrow towards the younger woman who smiled slightly before taking the offer. The older woman smiled in turn, leading Melisende out of the darkness below.