A Mortal Glamour
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Cardinal Seulfleuve was an older man, harried of manner and scholarly of disposition. He held out the message from Pere Guibert to le Duc de Parcignonne and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sieur le Duc, but you must understand that this is quite out of my hands now. Cardinal Belroche has already approved eveque Amalrie's methods and any questioning of it now would only serve to make it worse for the Sisters at Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. You have no notion what it would lead to. From what I have read here, there would be a Process and burnings and all the rest of it."
Pierre shook his head. "eveque Amalrie is enjoying himself, from what I saw of him."
"That's possible. But there are others like him, and they are in great favor in these days - their zeal gives them power that they might not otherwise be granted. I would hesitate to question their right to do as they wish, just now. You can't be certain that they will not report you to the Pope or his personal assistants, and then there would be trouble." He put the message down. "It's those perfidious Romans, mon Duc; that is what makes them all so determined to protect the Church at any cost. Very wise and much needed, of course," he went on hastily. "The Devil rules in Rome and we are the last bastion against him. Still, there are those who in their determination to bring Rome's usurpation to an end cause needless suffering to the devout children of the Church. There has been more of it than you know. In March, a whole monastery was burned, with its monks, because they had become suspect. It could easily happen at Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion. You see that, do you not?"
Pierre shrugged. "Why plead with me, Illustrissimi? You admit that I am not part of the Church."
"But you are part of the nobility, and as such, you must do what you can to maintain the Church, by your oath." Cardinal Seulfleuve looked around the library where they were speaking. "They have removed books from this room, believing them to be dangerous to the souls of men. When books are burned, mon Duc, it is little time before the people meet the same fate." He shook his head. "I have done the only thing I could think of: I have recommended that the decision be left to the civil authorities. That would be you, mon Duc, until the matter is resolved one way or the other. It will keep the hounds at bay for a time." He paced down the room, his hands clasped nervously at his waist. "I do not know what to say. I have done everything that I could without bringing the attention of - "
"Yes, you've said so already," Pierre interrupted. "I would be pleased to be the administrator of your instructions. After all, I have a kinswoman there, and she is one that they claim to be afflicted. It may be simply that her lack of vocation is telling on her."
Cardinal Seulfleuve shook his head slowly. "It may be so many things. The Devil is subtle, and so are his Romans. I am at a standstill on this. If you were to agree to watch this until we are more certain of the cause of the commotion, then I would be most grateful. I have some authority in the issuance of Vidamies, and it may be that you will receive one for this service."
"It would be welcome," Pierre said honestly, knowing how much his House would gain from the Church title and the revenue from the lands. "Since the Plague, my House has been struggling with its holdings. We lack peasant tenants to work the land, and much of our acres are fallow."
"A vidamie will not change that," the Cardinal remarked.
"It will provide fields in good heart with men to work them. That in turn will give us the revenues to acquire more tenants. There are peasants that would be glad for a fief with a living lord and an assured succession." He paused, giving the Cardinal a little time to get to the end of the long room and turn back toward him. "May I inform my father of what you have told me, or must I delay?"
"I will inform him myself, and in a manner that will please both of you. There can be no objection to that."
"Then my thanks, Illustrissimi," Pierre said, going on one knee to the bent old man. "You will have word from me regularly. Courtenay, one of my men-at-arms, can write, and I will take him with me, so that I need not ask one of the priests to write for me."
"You are astute, mon Duc," Cardinal Seulfleuve said with a faint trace of a smile. "It is wise to be careful."
"So I am learning." He rose when the Cardinal had given him his blessing. "I will tell you this, Illustrissimi: I would rather face Turks in battle than remain here with the intrigue and deception and hypocrisy you find around you. With Turks you know where you are, but here ... " - he lifted his hands to show how inadequate he felt - "here a sword is about as useful as a plow in a river."
"Sadly, I must agree with you," the Cardinal said. "I am grateful to you, mon Fils, for what you are doing. In time, the Pope will be grateful as well."
"I do not hope for that." Pierre knew that he must not expect Clement to act on his behalf, especially in a matter as delicate as this one. "His Holiness has other concerns than this."
"Lamentably," Cardinal Seulfleuve agreed. "Well, I will bid you Godspeed and pray that you have less to contend with than you fear."
"My thanks, Illustrissimi." Pierre was halfway to the door when he added, "I do not want Cardinal Belroche to alter my instructions."
"He will not," said Cardinal Seulfleuve with more sternness than Pierre had heard before. "He needs my support in the matter of the priests from Genoa, and until that has been settled, he will not interfere with my agreements with you."
Pierre nodded. Bargains of that nature he could understand and appreciate. "I will be grateful to learn of any change."
"You have my assurance on it," the Cardinal promised, and waved him toward the door again. "You must recall, however," he reminded le Duc, "we are speaking in camera and nothing we have said is official in the Church."
"Of course," Pierre said, and backed out of the library.
* * * *
Long after sunset, the halls of Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion rang with voices, some raised in prayer, some screaming obscenities and profanities, and some reduced to terrible laughter. Mere Leonie called those nuns who could respond to the chapel and ordered them to devote themselves to prayers on behalf of the other Sisters, those who were not able to pray for themselves.
"I wish the night were over," Seur Victoire confided to Seur Philomine between responses to the Devotions to Saunt Jude.
"Hush," Seur Philomine whispered to her.
"I wish I could petition the Superior General of the Order to send me to another convent." Seur Victoire sounded both petulant and wistful. "It has been unbearable, these last few weeks. It was bad enough with Seur Aungelique running away and screaming to the Devil when she came back, but now..."
"You have been the refuge of those beyond hope. Who have lost every battle," Seur Philomine said with the others in the modified Latin of the Church.
"Don't you want release from this?" Seur Victoire asked, prodding Seur Philomine in the side with her elbow.
"Who would not?" Seur Philomine was goaded into answering. "You must be silent, ma Seur, so the prayers will be recited properly."
"To the Devil with prayers," Seur Victoire said lightly, her eyes turning away. "Everything else goes to him - why not our prayers?"
"What is your discussion, my Sisters?" Mere Leonie demanded from the altar where she had stopped the liturgy.
"Nothing," Seur Philomine said quickly. "We are frightened, ma Mere."
"She wants to go away from the Order. She told me," Seur Victoire said, more loudly than Seur Philomine.
"And for that you have interrupted holy service when the convent is in such dire need of aid?" Mere Leonie asked, her voice sweet and her eyes more icy than usual. "Would you care to explain to your Sisters how this comes about?"
Seur Victoire tossed her head. "I have done nothing, ma Mere. It was she. She has been tempting me."
Seur Philomine started to protest, but Mere Leonie cut her short. "If you have done such a wrong, ma Seur, you should be chastised as eveque Amalrie has chastised others. Do you long for the caress of the thongs, or are you pleased with the misfortune that has been visited upon us?"
"You know I am not," Seur Philomine said, feeling indignation rise within her. "I have been devoted to this convent, and though I am a tertiary Sister, I have performed my duties with contentment and humility." It was not entirely true, but she did not feel she was lying as such. She was as reasonable about her work as any nun in the convent.
"Which you boast of?" Mere Leonie challenged. "You are guilty of a great wrong, ma Seur, and it is for me as your Superior to correct it; Our Lord commands us to obey him, and we who are in his service are pleased to do so. There is nothing any of us should desire more than the opportunity to find satisfaction in his service. To be afraid, as you say you are, is to doubt the very strength and majesty of the God you say you worship and trust. Think again: do you require more than this minor admonition to be rid of your sins?"
Seur Philomine had gone pale, but she kept her composure. "You know that I have not the vocation of the others, ma Mere, and that may lead me into error. I love and serve God, but another has achieved the crown of my heart, and God has not seen fit to change that. Therefore, since I do not know the adoration of those with vocation, I falter and know fear."
Seur Marguerite, who had been caught in her own inner reflections, suddenly addressed the Sisters. "It is not wise to listen too much, because that way lies fear. I remember how it was before the Plague came - everyone talked and it was worse because of it, I think." She crossed herself. "My children always talk among themselves, constantly, and you see that they are dying."
"This is not important," Mere Leonie said with great control. "You are not the ones to act, you Sisters. It is for Our Lord to enter your hearts, as Seur Philomine has said. But ma Seur," she went on to the tertiary Sister, "you must fast and pray, for you may not have permitted Our Lord to touch you. He comes where he is invited, where he is wanted."
"And where He has made a place for Himself by giving a true vocation," Seur Philomine said, knowing that her defiance would go against her.
"Three days of fasting, ma Seur, and instead of tending the stables, you may keep to your cell." Mere Leonie stepped back so that she was braced against the altar. "Let us give one day to fasting, all of us, so that the tempestuous fires that have raged here will have the chance to be stilled and the soul will regain its tranquility."
"Fasting?" Seur Victoire cried out. "Starving, rather. We have not enough food, and the village can spare none for us. So we fast, pretending that it is because our souls are in need of it. Our larder is almost empty, and that is why we fast!" She made the sign of the cross and abruptly left the chapel.
Most of the nuns were silent now, trying to avoid Mere Leonie's piercing gaze. At last the Superior addressed them once more. "Yes, we have not as much food as you or I would wish, but that does not mean that Our Lord will neglect us, for we are His servants, and we are doing all that we may to honor Him." She moved away from the altar, walking up and down the chapel between the nuns. "You each have doubted God. Who has not, in these times when the world seems to near an end? You have demanded that you be saved, now, in the body. Our Lord answers such prayers, my Sisters, and you must - "
"There are too many souls to save," Seur Marguerite announced to the nuns. "There are so many that they are beyond counting, and God does not know what to do. I love my children, but I do not know how many of them have died. Think of all those who have perished. There is not space in the earth to hold them at Judgment day. How can the earth give up so many?"
"Sacrilege!" Seur Morgance shouted, and threw herself at Seur Marguerite, reaching to claw at her face.
In an instant the chapel was in disorder. Seur Marguerite whimpered in hurt and confusion as Seur Morgance bore her down, knocking aside the two Sisters who knelt beside her. One of them began to scream while the other scrambled on hands and knees for the door.
"This is forbidden!" Mere Leonie shouted.
Seur Victoire rolled on her side and drew her knees up to her chest, reciting the first line of Pater Noster over and over quickly and softly. Seur Philomine put and arm across her to shield her, but one of the Sisters caught in the scuffle reached out and struck Seur Victoire as she attempted to escape.
Two other nuns were fighting now, one of them accusing the other of unnatural desires. One well-aimed blow caused a nosebleed, and shortly there were small stains on many of the grey habits.
"By God's Grace!" came an outraged voice from the door as eveque Amalrie rushed in. "What has..." His face was rigid with fury as one of the distraught nuns grabbed him around the waist and clung to him.
"Forgive them, mon Berger," Mere Leonie shouted to him, hardly audible over the din. "It is the Devil's doing."
"The Devil may have begun it, but God will stop it!" he promised, his eyes sweeping over the Sisters in utter contempt.
Mere Leonie lowered her head as the chapel became silent once more. "We are in the hands of Our Lord."
* * * *
"What are you telling me?" Pierre demanded as he faced Seur Aungelique in the herb garden. It was a warm, close afternoon; the scents of sage and thyme hung in the air.
"You heard what I said," she answered him with a toss of her head. "I am with child." She made a sound that was intended to be a laugh.
"But ... how?" Since his return to the convent two days ago, Seur Aungelique had been attempting to speak with him and this was her first opportunity. He had avoided her and now wished he had continued to hold her off.
"You know how, mon cher cousin," she said. "You know the act. You know what it is that men do to women. You've done it many times, haven't you?" She plucked a sprig of tansy and sniffed at it.
Pierre's face grew harder. "You know what I meant. Answer me. Was it someone at Comtesse Orienne's gatherings?" He had heard many of the men speak of Seur Aungelique when she had been at Un Noveautie, admiring her.
"Yes. And no." She cocked her head to one side. "It happened after you brought me back. I know. My courses came after my return." She added angelica to the tansy. "But you know what it is to have a lover. Mine followed me. He came to me, to posses me."
"That's ... " - he was about to say "ridiculous" or "absurd" but could not bring himself to speak - "impossible."
Her expression was taunting but her voice was angry. "What? Do you doubt that I could inspire such devotion simply because you do not wish to love me? Well, you may not find me to your taste, but there is one who does, and he is willing to defy Heaven for me."
Pierre restrained himself, though he wanted to strike her or shake her. "You are not with child. You are saying this to force your father to take you away from here and find a husband for you. It's a stupid game, ma cousine, and one that may reap you a bitter harvest."
"Other women have bastards," Seur Aungelique pointed out, making mock though reason. "They have lived well, those women, with pleased husbands and honored children. Do not threaten me."
"They may have bastards, but not while living in a convent," Pierre growled.
"They don't? How strange. I have heard that other women have forsaken God for the flesh while in His house. You told me of Dacient Joberre, didn't you? She had three children while in a convent. Or was that a tale to amuse me?" As she came up to him, she held out the herbs she had picked. "Will you wear these for me, mon cher cousin?"
He struck out, casting the sprigs aside. "Stop it! Stop!"
"It is too late to stop, Pierre. The babe will be here by Christmas, just like Our Lord." She held her wrist where his hand had hit her.
"Stop this jeering. It gains you nothing!" His voice had risen and he strove to lower it.
"It gains me satisfaction," she said, bringing her chin up. "You will not have me, my father does not want me, the Church is a farce, so what does it matter that I will have a child. It will be mine."
He took a step back, his heel crushing the stalks of half-grown basil. "And what then? God and the Martyrs, girl, you're inviting disaster."
"Well enough. If that is what God intends for me, I will embrace it. You see how compliant the convent has made me? I will bend my will to God's Will. And you can do nothing to change that. You are not God." She crossed her arms, her eyes narrowing. "Of course, you could marry me, and then there would be no problem, would there?"
"Why not marry your lover? Or is he married already? Or is he a priest?" He aimed the questions at her as if they had been quarrels to pierce armor.
She beamed at him. "But you have heard the priests, Pierre. My lover is a demon. They have decided that, those three eunuchs, between them. And Frere Renaut records it all, to tell the men at Avignon." She pointed to his feet. "Stop walking, mon Duc: you are ruining my garden."
* * * *
"What do you mean, they are recalling you?" eveque Amalrie asked Frere Renaut as they waited to hear the confession of Seur Catant.
"That was the instruction the messenger brought," the young monk said, sighing.
"But you are needed here. I must have someone to record all that transpires, so that they will know what we have accomplished." The Bishop's mouth turned downward.
"It is from His Holiness' secretary. I cannot easily refuse such orders, mon eveque," Frere Renaut said. "There are the priests. Both of them can read and write after a fashion; enough for your purposes."
"But..." He folded his hands. "They are subverting my work here. They are making it impossible for the Devil to be routed. Whatever they put their hands to will be contaminated by this."
Frere Renaut shook his head. "Your feelings are just, mon eveque, but I beg you not to say such things to me, for I will have to report them when I return, and it would be to your discredit to have such sentiments, no matter how justified, known to Pope Clement." He went toward the door to the hospice. "I must hasten, since the orders require that I leave here before sunset."
"Tell them to authorize a replacement for you. You can do that at least," the Bishop insisted.
"I will tell them that you are in need of another monk to record for you. But I am in no position to do more, mon eveque." He forced a kind of smile to his lips. "We are servants of more than God when we are in the Church."
"The Church! The Church!" eveque Amalrie flung up his hands. "That is why we are here, Frere Renaut. They have lost sight of that fact, it appears. They have decided that casting out the Devil is unimportant. They are subverting the very work we are mandated to perform!" He paced the length of the room. "First they send that infuriating Parcignonne to interfere - and he is not a churchman, but the most worldly noble - and then they remove my aide. What has come over them? They are chasing Roman specters as a cat chases mice. And they catch far less. This should have their attention, not what the Roman Cardinal did with his nephew in bed."
"Mon eveque, please - " Frere Renaut began and was cut off.
"Don't you see? They must be made to understand what danger we're confronting here. They do not appreciate what is at stake, and so they are proposing to abandon their daughters to the degradations and degeneration of demonic possession. They have not thought about it. They do not comprehend what I must do here! And you. You! You obedient hound, fawning at their heels and wagging your tail because they have called you in from the stables. But this is not a stable, it is a cesspool. They do not have the knowledge to ... to..." He made a complicated gesture to indicate how vast the hazard was. "You have not told them! You have not recorded all the confessions correctly, and that has deceived them!"
"eveque Amalrie - " Frere Renaut protested, his face alive with distress. He shook his head and made an attempt to leave the room. "When you are cooler, we will - "
"When I am cooler? Who are you, Frere, to determine if I am fit and if I am able? Or is there more to this? Have you been sent not to record these confessions at all, but to watch me on behalf of my enemies?" The Bishop approached Frere Renaut with an unpleasant grin on his rosebud mouth. "Is that the game they are playing? They remove one spy - you, mon Frere - and give me another - that confounded imbecile of a Duc - in order to keep me from fulfilling my purpose here. You have thwarted me from the first, by objecting to floggings and vigils! I should have seen it at once. I have been blind!" He was a deep, plummy shade and his small eyes bulged with his emotion.
"Mon eveque, this spleen is - " Frere Renaut's tone quivered.
"Out of my sight! You are not to approach me again. Go back to those lickspittles at Avignon and slander me! God sees what I do here. God is my defender and the force of my arm!" He turned away from Frere Renaut. "Do not think I will ignore your perfidy, Frere Renaut. The Cardinal may think he has banished me, but he is wrong. You will all learn that."
Frere Renaut watched the Bishop storm away, and his heart was tight in his chest. He knew of eveque Amalrie's unruly temper from other monks who had had the misfortune to work with him, and now he understood their frustration in dealing with the man. He shook his head, this time slowly. He would have to include all this in his report to the Cardinal as well as the less official message he would send to Tuscany where it would be relayed to Rome. He was contemplating the possible rewards he would receive when he heard a footfall behind him.
"Frere Renaut?" said Mere Leonie.
"Yes, ma Mere?" he responded, facing her.
"You have had some disagreement with Berger Amalrie?" Her pale eyes rested on his face and she could see his embarrassment at her stare.
"eveque Amalrie is a man of ... strong temperament. It is not wise for those of us who are in his company to ... to act in any manner that displeases him." He was drawn into her gaze, transfixed by the clean lines of her features.
"What has displeased him, then? You are not bound by the confessional, mon Frere, and may speak as openly as your conscience will permit." She came a step nearer. so that she was not quite out of reach.
"First ... ah ... he suggested that it was unfortunate that I should be recalled to Avignon. And he is not ... convinced that it is necessary to have le Duc and his men here." He wanted to be silent, to keep what he had heard to himself, as a good monk was expected to do, but there was something about Mere Leonie that captivated him, enthralled him, and he could not still his tongue while she was near him. "You understand that he is convinced there is a demon here."
"Only one? With all that has transpired, the creature must be worn to a rag." There was just enough humor in her retort that Frere Renaut was able to laugh a bit.
"There is a demon here, ma Mere," he told her, but as softly as if he were entreating her love.
"Why do you say that? Because we have not perfected ourselves and are still weak in the flesh?" She smiled at him. "I know what women are, mon Frere, and I wish to bring them to Our Lord. If you believe that because of misfortune and human error we have fallen far from grace, that is one matter, and one that does not require a Devil, only that God has not moved the hearts of the Sisters to His perfection." Here she crossed herself. "But do you think it is more than that?"
Frere Renaut dragged himself out of her gaze, moving away from her and looking toward the crucifix hung over the door. "Yes, ma Mere. It is more than that. There is a demon here."
She came up beside him. "I agree."
This calm statement astonished him, and he turned recklessly toward her. "You do? Don't you know what that may mean for you and your Sisters?"
"That there will a Process?" She considered it. "I would be surprised if the Church bothered to begin a Process here. There are so many more important matters demanding their time."
"eveque Amalrie has said something of the same thing," Frere Renaut admitted. "He believes that there is subterfuge behind it."
"Of course he does," she said, speaking very evenly. "He is an ambitious man. He does not want to be here, and for that reason, he punishes the nuns." When she heard the protesting gasp, she amended her condemnation. "He is afraid of the Devil. He does not want to see the Sisters in the toils of Hell, and for that he is a good shepherd; that is apparent. But he would rather be sent to investigate demons in some place that will add to his credit. We are a small convent and there are fewer nuns here than there used to be. Our Order is not large, we have no distinguished patron, the location is ... insignificant." This time when she smiled, her handsome face was more open, as if she were his comrade sharing a drink and reminiscences with him. "I have no illusions about Le Tres Saunt Annunciacion, but I go where I am called, mon Frere. I am the devoted servant of Our Lord, and if this is where He wishes me to do His work, then I am content to obey."
Frere Renaut was more relieved than he could express. He would not have to battle the Superior as well as the Bishop. "God send us more such Meres as you, Mere Leonie," he said, no longer resisting his urge to stare at her.
"To say amen would be vanity, and therefore a sin, mon Frere," she said, chiding him lightly. "But it was kindness for you to say so, in this hour of trouble."
There were visions in his mind that he would have to confess, but he could not bring himself to leave her alone. Mere Leonie entranced him. He had never felt the flesh pull him as it did now, and not for a prostitute or other slattern, but for a tall, lean nun with a face as handsome as a boy's and eyes of cold blue fire. "There is more I might say," he whispered.
"What? Of demons?" She shrugged. "What is there is say until Avignon speaks or the Plague comes again? What more is left to us?"
"No, not that." Confusion made him tongue-tied. "No ... You don't understand what ... what it is ... I mean, what can happen ... it - "
She took pity on him. "Do you fear to say that these Sisters may be sent to the stake if the Process begins? Who is not aware of that? Which of us is safe when the Devil is abroad?"
"That's not..." He coughed. "I will make my report to Avignon, ma Mere, and I will say that you have done all you might to keep this place from being ... infested."
"But that is not correct, is it? I hope you will tell the truth, for all falsehoods, even the most kind or flattering, are homage to the Devil and traps for the virtuous." She hesitated. "I do not speak against you, mon Frere, I wish only to accomplish the tasks Our Lord sets forth for me."
"Most commendable," Frere Renaut said, anxious now to be out of her disturbing presence. "I will do as you ask."
"Deo gratias," she responded, her manner still humble but no longer as potent as it had been.
"I will tell them," he said, as if repetition could increase the force of his promise. "I have seen how these things are dealt with in Avignon. I know how to tell them."
"Yes; and for that Our Lord be praised," she said, then went away from him back to her Sisters waiting in the refectory for their midday meal.
* * * *
By the time the second messenger came from Avignon, eveque Amalrie had ordered eight of the nuns into a week of seclusion and had given floggings, with Padre Bartolimieu's help, to five more. His temper was still uneven and he was terse with everyone around him. He gave an elaborate greeting to the messenger, offering him a bench in Mere Leonie's study, which he had taken for his own. "It has been more than three weeks since Frere Renaut departed for Avignon. Your arrival is most welcome, but I find it a little tardy."
The messenger was enveloped in a simple dark brown cloak, and the warmth of the day had made him sweat. He removed the cloak and revealed the splendid Papal tabard beneath it. "We are told to travel covered, so that Romans will not know where we go, or why," he explained.
"I am aware of that!" eveque Amalrie barked. "You are not dealing with a simple village priest who knows little more than the Mass and the Psalms."
"You have not been much outside of Avignon until now, mon eveque," the messenger reminded him smoothly. "I often visit my father's vidamie, and then, when I am simply an obedient son, I ride covered. The times require it. In this instance, it was best to observe all the precautions."
eveque Amalrie pouted. "They have forgot me out here. They think I am as gone as if the Plague had come again."
"Pray God it will not," the messenger said, crossing himself.
After a moment, eveque Amalrie did the same. "It is a bad time, my lad." He assumed his most portentous manner. "There are forces here that would cause even the most holy of men to blanch with fear."
"That is unfortunate," the messenger said, unmoved by this revelation. "You are being recalled to Avignon."
eveque Amalrie sat in disbelieving silence. "To Avignon?"
"I have been sent to give you notice, and to require you to prepare to depart. The Pope has ordered you to return. He is concerned about the Romans who have been busy again."
"Romans? But these are demons here. They are at work on these Sisters, and if we do not act swiftly, the demons will spread among us." He looked with suspicion at the parchment that bore the huge Papal seal. "Why am I being recalled at this time? Were there not Romans when I was sent here?"
"Of course," the messenger said smoothly. "And their numbers are increasing. They are reaching more of our faithful, reminding them that the Church had its beginnings in Rome and attempting to convince them that therefore it should continue this way. There are political favors, as well, for those who are not too proud to take them." He looked at eveque Amalrie. "You have said that you wish to serve the Church and defend her. God and the Pope have given you that opportunity."
Although eveque Amalrie had some experience of courtiers, he did not often recognize them when they wore the livery of the Church, and so he took much of what he heard as vindication of his worth rather than the appeal to his vanity it was. "I am always determined to defend the Church and show how worthy Avignon is. Rome has shown itself corrupt and evil. Avignon is the only hope of the world. But I fear for these unfortunate Sisters, who will have no one to watch over them."
"Their priests will be here," the messenger said, doing his best not to appear bored. "They will have protection. If there is any danger, le Duc de ... uh ... Parcignonne is still mandated to defend them."
"Do you mean he is to remain here?" eveque Amalrie demanded. "Here? His men near these women who have fallen to demons?" He half-rose from his chair. "I will need escort back to Avignon. Since Frere Renaut has left - and doubtless told you many lies about what has transpired here - there is my page to lend me his protection, and that is not enough, especially in these times, when a Papal messenger must travel wrapped in a cloak." He smiled in appreciation of his own wit.
"It is proper that a man of your dignity have escort, yes," the messenger said in a bland, practiced manner. "It is proper that le Duc provide it. Had the Pope created this area a vidamie, then it would be for the vidame to extend that honor, but His Holiness has not yet decided how this area is to be assigned. Doubtless you will be able to advise him, since you have been here."
This morsel was snapped up at once. "It is true that I have some thoughts on the matter. Mou Courbet is not the sort of place that would bring credit to one of the nobles, and certainly Saunt-Vitre-lo-Sur is a prize that most men would not want. Yes, there are matters that we should discuss, the Pope and I." He leaned back, folding his hands in complacent satisfaction.
"I will inform the Superior of your orders, if that is your pleasure," the messenger said, rising. He had managed to discharge his obligation here without making more of an issue of the Bishop's removal than the Cardinal wished, which would be to his credit later on.
"It would ... be best that you do, I believe," eveque Amalrie said, his voice a little wistful; it would have been enjoyable to tell Mere Leonie himself, to see how dismayed she became, but it was more impressive and appropriate to have this done by the Papal messenger himself.
"Then I thank you for your gracious courtesy, mon eveque, and I pray that God will speed your return to Avignon." He knelt to kiss the ring eveque Amalrie extended to him. "With some dispatch, you should be prepared to depart in two days. Is that reasonable? May I inform the Cardinal that you will be on the road then?"
"It will be my intent to obey. If le Duc is willing, then I will be at his disposal." eveque Amalrie's small eyes glinted. "Avignon. I have longed to be there so many times."
"You will be there soon," said the messenger, and left the study. He made his way toward the chapel, trying to decide if his impressions were the same as those Frere Renaut had relayed. It was clear the Bishop was a petty man, of limited ability and tremendous vanity, but there were many such in the Church. He often was puzzled that God should call men of that temperament to His service, for they were not of the same dedication and virtue as the Apostles, in whose footsteps the clergy trod. So intent were his thoughts that he did not hear a voice call out to him until the second time.
"You're the messenger, are you?" said Pierre, striding along the narrow corridor, making the walls appear too close together. "How is it that they sent an old reprobate like you?" He clapped the messenger on his shoulder. "How many years, Jean? Five? Six?"
The messenger's expression changed at once; he grinned and gave Pierre a resounding kiss. "Seven years, as well you know." He returned the hug Pierre gave him. "Now what is the name of the Angels of Heaven are you doing on sentry duty here? When I was told you were keeping watch on this place, I almost went off in a faint. You, Pierre?"
"I have a cousin here, and her father - d'Ybert; you've met him - has just been made a vidame, so he is generous with his favors to the Church."
"Generosity is not how I should describe it," the messenger said. "You could be better employed." As he said this, he was not entirely certain it was true, for he saw deep lines of fatigue in le Duc's face, and noticed that the man was thinner than before, his eyes dark and feverish.
"Amen to that. Every time I have returned here, I have vowed it would be the last, but then something happens and we are back here to fix the doors or keep watch for demons. It's a dreadful way for a good fighter to have to spend his days." Pierre made an exaggerated sigh. "My men. You knew Ivo, didn't you? He has said that if he comes back here, he'll rape a few of the women and say that the demon impelled him. He does not like being away from his leman for so long a time, and there is nothing to do here that would interest him. One of the villagers, from Saunt-Vitre, that little hamlet you came through to get here, asked Ivo if he would help catch his pigs that had escaped. And Ivo, if you can picture it, was so hungry for something to keep him busy, agreed. He killed one of the pigs, but the man did not object. We've been eating it for the last three days." He stopped and gave Jean a long look. "And you? What are you here for? And in that tabard?"
"My father is one of the new vidames, and he, too, is generous with the Church. You do not know what it is to have a family brought back from the brink in that way. Two of the old fiefs are gone to ruin since the Plague was there. Now there is a chance to save them, but it means that those of us who are able must give our service to the Pope. I'd rather be fighting Romans, but this is what they have given me to do, so - " He opened his hands in acceptance of his predicament.
"Do you think it will come to that? That we will fight the Romans instead of this eternal spying and bickering?" Pierre spoke with animation, but Jean sensed that there was a more frantic need for battle than mere boredom.
"It might," he said. "My father heard one of the Cardinals say that he favored a war. God would defend the true Pope and there would be no more of this nonsense. But there are not enough men to mount a real campaign, not yet. If the English had not been so busy in the north, then we might have been able to do something before now. Oh, I think it may drag on another three or four years until both sides are more prepared. It cannot go on indefinitely."
"Three or four years is too long as it is," Pierre declared. "But that's a Churchman for you - take more time and make it all much worse. They cannot see when a single, powerful blow can do more than all the prayers in the world."
"True enough." Jean stopped, then said in another tone, "You do not approve of eveque Amalrie, then? If you find priests slow to act, this man - "
"That man does not act, not in any way I would think worthy of a man of honor. He is one of those who likes to see men flogged, and so much the better if he can flog women. It is not such punishment as any sensible man must mete out from time to time, but that other, reckless sort of beating that brings pain and dread." He hooked his thumbs in his belt. "That Captain in Lyon - do you remember the man, with the yellow hair and dark eyes? - he used to have his men flogged that way, so that they howled and gibbered. This eveque Amalrie is the same sort."
"I recall that man. Strange, that a man with such a bent should want to be a priest." Jean lowered his chin. "He isn't a second son. It's not as if his family sent him here. He is said to have a vocation." He began to walk again, motioning for Pierre to keep up with him. "eveque Amalrie has been recalled to Avignon, by order of the Pope, and you will be required to escort him."
"What? Why should I let my men be lackeys to that miserable - "
"Be calm, Pierre," Jean said with a grin. "If you escort him, it may be that you will be able to appeal to the Pope to send others here next time, and you will then be free to return to your estates or to prepare for battle with Rome, whichever is more to your liking."
"That's possible," Pierre said slowly, as if he could not entirely make sense of what he had heard. "But so far, d'Ybert has insisted that I be the one to speak to his daughter Aungelique, who is a nun here."
Jean reached the door into the courtyard, but he did not go out at once. A reminiscent smile touched his hard, square mouth. "Aungelique. Is that the one that keeps running off to Un Noveautie? The one Comtesse Orienne calls ma Freree? No wonder that d'Ybert wants you to be here. Any other man would make short work of that girl." He chuckled as he opened the door. Hot sunlight met them, making both men squint and shade their eyes.
"That is part of Michau d'Ybert's reason. He also desired to impress the Cardinal so that eventually he will regain the lands that are currently disputed by him and Courtenay."
"That will continue until the Last Judgment. It is three generations already and there is no sign of an end," Jean said, pleased to have something so remote to discuss. "But you. You are not bound to d'Ybert for that, are you?"
"By Heaven, no. Courtenay's son is one of my men-at-arms and I will not be asked to arm for d'Ybert should they ever come to battle over the land." He stared around the courtyard. "When are we to take this precious burden to Avignon? Do you know?"
"You would do well to leave in two days. The Cardinal wishes to have the man back where he can reach him before the Cardinals meet to discuss the new vidamies that are being awarded. There is no saying what the nobility will expect, but there are lords holding out for vidamies before they will prepare for war. It is not a great consolation, their dedication is predicated on what we can provide them in land and revenues." He gazed at the wall of the hospice. "Would there be room for me with your men? I don't relish passing the night in such a place as that one, not if the nuns are as Frere Renaut described them."
"In my tent, if you wish," Pierre said, then wished he might withdraw the offer, for he did not know what would transpire in the night. He had had more visions of Mere Leonie, and if there should be another such while Jean slept near him, it might be a very bad thing.
Jean inclined his head, saying, "I thank you, and another time I would be most pleased to accept, but not, I fear, tonight. While I wear the tabard, I must keep to my own quarters. I will need a man to stand guard, but Ivo should not mind."
"He's done it before," Pierre said with a terse laugh.
"As well we both remember," Jean agreed. "And in the morning, I will have to leave again, I have another message to deliver to Saunt-Elizair. It would seem that they caught a Roman and killed him after pulling out his nails and breaking all his teeth."
"What is the matter?" Pierre asked. "You would have done the same, wouldn't you?"
"True, and worse," he answered, shaking his head at the waste of it. "But we would have questioned him while we worked on him and there would have been someone there to record the answers. That is what has me most concerned, Pierre, I confess it - many Romans, if Romans they are, are being caught and held and killed without any attempt at discovering what they have been sent to do. Some of them, I would guess, are not Romans at all. If the word goes out that Avignon is permitting the slaughter of innocent travelers, you know what that will do to trade and the treaties le Roi has made with other rulers. There would be war then."
"Excellent!" Pierre exclaimed. "I would be ready in three days, with two dozen men to ride with me."
"And we are not preparing for war. You know that. And we must have more intelligence if we are to prevail." He stared around the courtyard. "This is the most forlorn place."
"That it is. I'd rather camp in the desert than here." They resumed their walk toward the doors. "Our camp is over there, at the edge of the fields by the orchard. I'll see if one of the Sisters will care for your horse. The one who usually does it has been ordered to keep to her cell and meditate on her sins and her lack of vocation. This eveque Amalrie is like that. The only Sisters he has not confined to their cells for more than a day are the cooks."
Both men let themselves laugh at that revelation as they ambled out of the convent into the open fields.
"Nothing much growing, is there?" Jean observed. "The orchard and a few vegetables. It could go hard with them come winter."
"The whole valley is like that. The Plague hit hard, and there aren't enough peasants to work the land. There used to be more Sisters here, and the land produced what they need with sufficient simple fare for the travelers who came to the hospice." He pointed to a row of spindly gourds. "They need water, but with all the nuns doing penance, the plants are withering for lack of care."
"A pity," Jean said, shrugging. "I'll mention it in my report. The Cardinal may order some relief, if he has time to do it."
"It would be sensible, I think," Pierre said, then abandoned the subject of the nuns for the more interesting matters of spurs and dirks.
* * * *
As the men-at-arms grouped around the wagon that carried the petulant eveque Amalrie, the Sisters came out of the convent to pray for his safe journey and to ask God's blessing for his great service to them.
"You are all in need of the Grace of God," the Bishop reminded them as he addressed them for what he devoutly hoped was the last time, "and you are all frail women without the aid of God's guidance to bring you to His Glory. You must take the way of la Virge, observing all holy rites and doing nothing that would bring temptation to you. The presence of the demons here shows that you are now turned from God. Prostrate yourselves, mortify the flesh for the glory of the soul and it may be that God will show His mercy to you and save you from the Pit. You cannot do that by denying the evil that has come to you, but by acknowledging the demon and welcoming the chastisements that must free you at last." He signaled to Pierre. "You may start, Sieur le Duc."
"'You may start, Sieur le Duc'," Pierre mimicked under his breath, then raised his right hand and called out his rough, ringing cry, "Onward for honor of the bees!" that had been permitted to his family by le Roi for service to him - the badge of the royal household was five golden bees.
The men echoed his cry and they moved out at a walk.
In her cell, Seur Philomine stood on tiptoe to see out the window so that she could watch the little cortege leave.