“How did any of this happen!?” Pontiff Popola demanded as he slammed his hands down on the round table of the grand meeting room. He glared at the deacons of the faith, who either studiously refused to meet his eyes or were relaxing in apparent amusement at their colleagues' ill-fortune. “Well!? How is it that none of you noticed this massive ‘corruption’ issue we were supposedly plagued with?!”
Gabriel resisted her urge to correct the pontiff. It was incredibly obvious that most, if not all, of the deacons assembled had knowledge of their subordinates' corruption and simply did nothing to deal with it because they stood to benefit. She wouldn’t disrupt the meeting without leave to though, as it wasn’t her place.
Though she didn’t particularly like her current place, standing alongside Sandalphon and watching the leaders of Zemava try to duck their responsibilities. Responsibilities Gabriel and their siblings had to act upon in their stead. The past week had been a whirlwind of arrests and investigations–ever since Michael decided their best option for unveiling corruption was publishing it in the blasted newspapers–and even now Uriel and Sariel were still busy uncovering the dungeon cores some conspirators had apparently decided to plant all over the country. Not that most had gotten very far in the plan, but still.
It was good of Michael to reveal such a plot, but gods above, couldn’t they have been a little more subtle about it??
“Come now, Mitrio, you know as well as anyone that dear Amulius was more than aware of his order’s activities,” Deacon Icilia Centola said with a distressing amount of smug pride.
Not that Gabriel could entirely disagree with her. Deacon Amulius Bosio had been caught as a direct participant in a smuggling ring nearly his entire order was active in running, as had a number of paladins, priests, and clerics from across the entire nation. It would almost be amusing if it weren’t so disruptive to the entire public order. At least three monasteries had gone up in flames due to the idiot conspirators attempting to hide their crimes...
"Then why did none of you notice his corruption!?”
Centola gave a deliberate shrug, still smirking. “Why would I? The matters of other orders are up to their discretion. I took care of my own, Amulius took care of his. He simply chose a worse way to go about it, right Sepunia?”
Sepunia Bosio, the new Deacon of Order Bosio, was the only member of said order who was found entirely ignorant of her order’s corruption, allowing her to take the position. She was also a newly ordained priest from a minor town called Hilus, so her somewhat terrified squeak at being addressed was to be expected. “Ah...uh...yes? Or, no, um, no, because-Ah, what his holy-no, um-it was wrong? Bad. Yes?” She looked like she was a stern word away from crying.
“Yes dearie, very good,” Centola teased, before glancing back to Popola, “Regardless, I don’t see why you’re so worried.”
Popola looked incredulous. “You don’t–An entire order was involved in a smuggling ring! We have peddlers of–of smut and alcohol within our borders! And the taxidermied wyrm I ordered for my study is a forgery! This is a disaster of unprecedented levels!”
He was right, but also Gabriel wanted to hit him. She really wanted to, but she was the cardinal of prudence for a reason and it was moments like this she dearly missed Michael and their tendency to hit without thinking…
Then she remembered this mess was Michael’s fault to begin with and those feelings turned rather sour.
“For the previous Pontiff, certainly. You’ve been in power for less than two months, and you’re already rooting out all the corruption that the previous Pontiff Vocula let go unchecked.”
Charinus Vocula, the new Deacon of Order Vocula, shot her an immediate glare. “...Caius Veritas was excommunicated. His actions do not reflect upon his order as a whole.”
Centola hummed playfully. “Perhaps~? Though, I do believe he is the first Pontiff in, oh…it must be at least a couple thousand years to be excommunicated, right?” Leaning forward, a grin etched itself onto her face. "Not to mention, he also ran away rather than atone for his actions. Not that he could have."
"Stop with your petty squabbling!” Popola shouted, “We may have dealt with the corruption within our ranks, but that doesn't mean it's over with! We still need to know who their clients and suppliers are so we can deal with them too!"
While Gabriel wouldn't admit it, the pontiff did have a point. Aside from a mention of Michael destroying some type of “hotel”–and even then, the reports only stated it was the actions of a cardinal angel, even if it were obvious which one it was–there wasn’t much mention as to who these conspirators were working for.
"You do have a point, but I do have a question to ask our grand cardinal here?" With the slightest inclination of her head, Gabriel acknowledged Centola. "I would never question the wisdom of the cardinals, but I would be blessed if you would explain to me why a cardinal would find it necessary to let the public know about the corruption, rather than let us deal with this internally."
"..." Keeping her voice calm and steady, Gabriel did her best to not show any of the rage she held against her sibling. "Cardinal Michael judged their choice to be the best decision."
“Then their judgment was faulty,” another deacon, Galerius Tammaro, complained, “Going to the taurus instead of bringing matters to our attention was foolhardy. Now we have the eyes of the Light Lands on us for what should be an internal matter!”
There was a smattering of nods and agreements from the other deacons and a tittering from Sandalphon that went silent the instant Gabriel glared at her cousin.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Deacon Vel Lurio commented, “So we throw out a few bad apples before they can spoil the rest, so what? That’s what we usually do anyways.”
“That–we can’t just ‘throw out’ several thousand members of our–”
“Yes we can? We’re doing exactly that right now. Granted, we probably should get those trials underway at some point, right? I don’t think Vinculum was meant to hold half an order.”
“It could hold far more than five thousand at its height,” Sandalphon stated with clear amusement in their voice, “And there are other prisons we may reopen, if needed.”
“No thank you.”
“...” Sandalphon cocked their head. “...I do not believe that is your decision to make, Deacon.”
“It is when it comes to the prisons in my province. Cruxus was the biggest, and my order converted it into an academy over a thousand years ago. The rest were also either torn down or converted into buildings that would better serve our communities, so I’m fairly certain we just send the actual hardened criminals that can’t be held under house arrest or fined to Vinculum.” He hummed, rubbing at his chin in apparent thought. “Actually, when was the last time we actually had anyone dangerous enough to warrant sending there…?”
“Light above, how does your province even function?!” Tammaro questioned, “You can’t just let criminals stay at their homes! They need to be punished for their crimes!”
“And you can do that in your province. How is the crime rate in Durium again?”
“Gh-You can’t ask that right now!”
“Why not? Is it because a number of your paladins were found to be abusing their authority-”
“You be silent! My order holds the coast against all threats to-”
“Oh, so you know why all those fish were dying. Bosio brought that one up, so I suppose that leaves it to you to follow it, right? After all, you coastal provinces are so clearly on top of things–”
“DO YOU WANT TO GO!?” Tammaro ripped his glove off and threw it straight at Lurio, who ducked the improvised projectile. “NAME A TIME, YOU RAT FU–”
The Orders Lurio and Tammaro had a rather poor history that extended into increasing animosity between the two holy orders over the centuries, starting from the very moment of their foundings following the Reformation. Each Order of Light had selected a natural color of light to define themselves with, and the two orders had both selected Blue. The resulting schism nearly escalated into open warfare until the Pontiff at the time had intervened and granted Tammaro the color “Indigo” instead, which mollified the order.
At least until it became clear that Indigo was just sort of a darker bluish rather than the more “royal” Purple the Order Popola had selected–which didn’t endear them to the Tammaros either–and indigo dye–originally quite a valuable and expensive commodity–became relatively easy to produce, dramatically reducing the prestige of the name. In the modern age, the Order Tammaro was now rather insistent that they were, in fact, the only true “Blue” order, and that the perfidious Lurios were, also in fact, Cyan.
And all of that is to say that Gabriel had to restrain a deacon, again, and take him to the “meditation room”/time-out lounge so the discussion could continue properly.
Pontiff Popola let out a deep, frustrated breath, which Gabriel could almost sympathize with. Almost. “...Give me a full report, right now. How many people from each Order were found to be participating in this...farce our dear neighbors from the south have thrust upon us?”
Deacon Centola stood with a smile. “Well, honored Pontiff, I can say with certainty that my own order has had nothing to do with–”
“Your order runs a mercenary guild,” Deacon Vocula complained, “How in the world were none of your order found to be colluding with any criminals? You practically run a protection racket with those ‘adventuring guilds’!”
“Which isn’t illegal, which you might know if you were actually here when the laws were signed into effect, junior. But as to your question, allow me to answer you succinctly, and forgive me for my crassness: I don’t shit where I sleep.”
“That’s enough, Centola!” Popola snarled, before glaring to Deacon Suedia Opsita. “Your report.”
The deacon in orange sighed, trying not to look at anyone. “...In the defense of my paladins, working in the mountains can be very–”
“Why are we trusting the Opsita to run our penitentiaries again?” Deacon Vocula asked, still sounding irritated, “You could let out the quarter of your order arrested at any time–”
That earned an immediate glare. “Besmirch my order again and I'll send you to meet Caius Veritas in whatever hell he fell into–”
“ORDER! I will have order in these halls!” Popola shouted, before rubbing his temples, “Light above, how did this all go so wrong so quickly? So many paladins were removed from our forces right when I was so close to convincing the cardinals...”
“...” Gabriel gave Sandalphon a look.
<What?> they replied, sounding cheery even in Celestial.
<Have you been agreeing with the Pontiff’s terrible war plans?>
<Hm? Why would I? That would be silly~.>
She gave them a very unimpressed stare. <So why did you?>
<Mortals like being praised, Gabby. You ought to learn that by now.> Sandalphon cleared their throat, catching Popola’s attention. “Dear Pontiff, if the criminal paladins are an issue to you, might I offer the solution of a penal legion?”
Gabriel felt their eyes widen as they envisaged the absolute horror that would inevitably result from giving a Pontiff the power to force prisoners into an army. “That is a cruel idea and I believe the Elder Lucere would take exception to it.”
“Mm, I do not think so. It is a way for the criminals to earn their honor back. We did do such things back in the old days, and I am certain the Archdeacon of Purity would be willing to offer their services, however meager they might be, in aiding such reprobates in purifying their filthied souls.”
“That’s brilliant!” Popola exclaimed, and Gabriel was quite thankful her helmet hid her wince. She was going to need to have a long talk with Michael about long-term consequences when they got back… “Ha, we can put those useless–those stained souls in need of redemption right to work! No need to let them simply waste away in cells or slip off into death! Their souls may be saved, and we can use them properly!”
“I’d like to raise an objection to this action on the grounds that slavery is illegal in Zemava and the Light Lands as a whole,” Lurio said. He didn’t leap out of his seat or even sound particularly upset with the proposal, but his objection was quickly agreed with by the other deacons, none of whom seemed to want Popola to have his own army of prisoners.
Sandalphon tittered again though. “We hear your objection, honored deacon, and would like to reply that this opportunity will not be forced upon the prisoners. It is entirely voluntary, and they shall be taken good care of should they elect to aid us.”
“Ah...yes, of course,” Popola agreed, then cleared his throat, “We, of course, care deeply about even the criminals of this country, and we only want to offer them this opportunity.”
“Would Saturio even be up for leading an army, or whatever it is you’re trying to do here?” Centola spoke up, “The Purists tend to keep to their monasteries, don’t they? Sure, you can find their exorcists around, but the majority abstain from even interacting with the world.”
“Yes, for that is the will of my Holy Father,” Sandalphon intoned, “And my Holy Father shall be more than happy to allow a return to our practices of the old days, to better the lands of Zemava in the face of such clear corruption.”
“It’s not necessarily a bad idea,” Opsita said, thoughtful, “Prison labor was regarded as an exception to such rules in previous centuries, and–”
“The practice was barred because of its inherent, corruptive cruelty. The purpose of a penitentiary is punishment and penance, not profit,” Vocula retorted.
“Well our orders did profit far more in such times–”
“And the moral degradation warped the lands until a hero came in to put things to right. We know the stories, do not try to act like this will not have equally poor results.”
Popola winced, and Gabriel felt herself relax somewhat. The ultimate threat against tyranny in the Light Lands had always been the existence of heroes who defended it. And while those heroes primarily defended the Light Lands from the monsters of the Dark Lands, there were a myriad of points in the continent’s history where those who wielded the chosen sword had taken a stand against tyrannical rulers.
“I would also like to remind all those present that the Pontiff Caius Veritas was excommunicated for diverging from our Elder’s will,” Gabriel said as she straightened, gazing at each of the deacons in turn to ensure they knew of the gravity of the situation, “We live in a tenuous time where the Dark Lands have chosen to engage in deception against us, rather than open battle. I know not of the circumstances through which my sibling obtained the information they chose to disseminate, but we must be vigilant. This plot may have been an attempt to disrupt not only our lands, but the peace we operate under.”
“The false peace, you mean,” Popola said with a scowl.
“I do, your holiness. And it is through that false peace we are vulnerable. To be seen as an aggressor in this time is to be regarded as an evil to be defeated, not a defender of our lands’ virtues.”
“Bah.” Regardless of his clear distaste, Popola sank in his seat, apparently willing to concede.
"If that is settled, then there is another matter I think should be good for us to focus on~." Gabriel really needed to figure out how to kick Sandalphon out of these meetings... "Namely, that of how the people of Zemava view the paladins."
“Is now really the time to worry about our popularity?” Opsita asked.
“It is precisely the time to speak on such matters,” Sandalphon answered, “The people of Zemava have had their faith shaken. The widespread publication and revelation of such corruption, released to the masses before anything could be done to temper their reactions, is undoubtedly creating a doubt within the souls of the people. Even as the guilty are stripped of the worldly possessions that so weighed their souls with sin and are confined to fasting and prayer to lift that weight, the people must wonder ‘how could such a thing happen? How could our most holy orders fail to realize the corruption in their midst?’
“It is a question many are undoubtedly asking, and it is one they will seek an answer to, should we not provide satisfaction.”
"Then what do you suggest?"
"We must show the masses that their faith isn't misplaced. We must make an example of those who would be corrupted."
Gabriel really tried to avoid face-palming. It was an arduous trial, but she managed it. <Sandalphon, please do not suggest burning the criminals at stake, that was outlawed after the inquisitors were disbanded in year 40 of the current era.>
Sandalphon didn’t show much visible reaction, but Gabriel could tell they had gone stiff while Deacon Vocula raised an eyebrow. “And what sort of example are you proposing?”
<Execution via light-searing was outlawed under the “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” Act of 127, which also eliminated execution via drowning, flaying, exsanguination, and roasting via oven, defined at the time as an enclosed, metallic space where heat is conducted. Stoning was later added to the act, as was pressing via large stones, in 146 and 142, respectively,> Gabriel further explained, briefly wondering if she was imagining Sandalphon’s mask starting to awkwardly sweat, <And public executions were outlawed in 2672. Pontiff Vocula really didn’t like looking at them, and moved for all executions to be private affairs. Even then, under the current culture, calling for an execution is viewed as barbaric, and the condemned are instead encouraged to salvage their honor via self-poisoning.>
“...” Sandalphon straightened. <...Is flogging still something they do?>
<Self-flagellation is expected amongst the penitent, but the Halidom of Zemava, as a whole, prefers to keep things very tidy. The public dislikes violence, regarding it as filthy and unclean, and those who disagree are encouraged to pursue work outside our nation. To wit, cleansing monsters is a fact of life; killing a sapient is a sign of fault in our society, and I ask you to heavily consider if your desire for violence, a sin in the eyes of our Faith, is worth disrupting the sanctity of our nation.>
<Your point is made.> Sandalphon went silent. The deacons started glancing amongst each other, looking confused, before the ordinal clapped their hands together. “I would like to propose that the criminals responsible for spreading such corruption through our lands suffer the penalties of a public atonement, through which they will know the shame of their sin and better learn from it.”
“...” The deacons looked among each other, before Vocula spoke up again to say what Gabriel knew he would, “Ah...not to disparage your idea, Cardinal–”
“Ordinal,” Gabriel corrected.
“Er, right, Ordinal. However, I, and I believe my colleagues as well, take issue with the ‘public’ nature of your suggestion.”
“...” Sandalphon tilted their head. “Why.”
“Simply put, you’re talking about publicly shaming paladins. Priests and clerics too, the anointed servants of our Goddess–”
“Who have committed crimes.”
“Yes, but the masses don’t need to see that. Removing them from view is better for everyone
“Why would that be better?”
“Because then they can be dealt with as needed. Penance can be made, and they can be integrated elsewhere or removed as needed. If we make such a thing public, the masses would see members of our holy orders shamed and humiliated, and that reflects poorly on the rest of us. The Orders are mirrors and prisms through which the Light of Lucere is reflected, and to disrupt the images we display is to reflect poorly on Lucere herself.”
“...A pontiff was excommunicated quite recently, and the populace knows of the corruption engaged by these criminals. It would serve your orders better to be open about their punishment.”
Vocula sighed and visibly rolled his eyes, earning a snicker from Centola. “Ordinal Sandalphon, it has been a very long time since you walked the lands of Estus, but you do need to understand that we do things differently these days. So do try to remember your position and speak when called upon.”
“...I beg your forgiveness, Deacon.” Sandalphon bowed low, their halo rigid with forced calm. “I will endeavor to educate myself in regards to your modern ways.”
<Careful, cousin,> Gabriel said, careful to keep her expression neutral and unamused, <You’re starting to make me think that angel Amitiel was correct. After all, if you bothered to know the laws of the mortal lands, you wouldn’t be making a fool of yourself.>
Unnoticed by the mortals, Sandalphon’s halo briefly spiked, a rare show of genuine rage. How quaint.
“Now now, don’t be too mean, Vocula,” Pontiff Popola spoke up, apparently done with sulking, “Ordinal Sandalphon does bring up a valid point in one regard, which is that we, the servants of the Light, must earn the trust of our people once more.” He smiled, the glint of a dangerous idea in his eyes. “So I think it best we launch an investigation into the clear source of this corruption: Sollamava.”
Oh gods no. “Pontiff, I urge you to reconsider. Invading a sovereign nation–”
Popola waved his hand dismissively. “It won’t be an invasion. All we’re doing is lending our neighbors some aid in a time of clear crisis. Why, if a minority of our orders were involved in such corruption, who’s to say what sort of evils their suppliers in Sollamava must have committed? No, the only decent thing is to work to protect the common good of our noble countries and uproot the darkness leeching off of us!”
“...that is a decent point,” Deacon Opsita murmured, and the smattering of agreements Gabriel heard put a deep feeling of dread in their chest.
“We do have an alliance with Sollamava. Having our paladins joining forces with their law enforcement could put this issue to rest easily.”
“We don’t necessarily need to use our paladins–”
“We’re not paying your guild to handle things for us, Centola.”
“Though that is an option we could bring up, if needed.”
“I-If it’s, um, a peacekeeping matter, that’s fine, right?”
Gabriel cleared her throat, stepping forward. “Deacons, your holiness, I still object to this course of action. Sending the paladins into Sollamava could be taken as an invasive action–”
Then she went stiff at her cousin’s voice. “Then we do not send the paladins.”
Sandalphon slowly straightened from their deep bow, letting everyone in the room see their smiling mask once more. “Clerics would do, certainly, to both spread the word of the Light and ensure Sollamava is sufficiently aided. However, if I may be so bold, would it not be better to send an angel of judgment to do the job?”
“My place is at the Pontiff’s side,” Gabriel cut in, trying to ignore the tension in her body.
“I agree~! And therefore, I propose we send Uriel and Sariel to our southern neighbor. It is not far, so they may return as needed, and the experience will be good for our newest cardinal.” Sandalphon gave a small tilt of the head as they looked at Gabriel. "Not to mention, while we have dealt with our corruption, we cannot be as certain about Sollamava. If we send our paladins, they may attempt to corrupt them, but an angel of judgement has no chance of being corrupted, wouldn't you agree~?"
"But wouldn't one angel be enough if we were to send someone?" Deacon Opsita asked, and Gabriel was struck by an immediate urge to gag the blasted elf. It was an innocuous enough question at first glance, but the phrasing assumed that it was perfectly acceptable to send an angel to handle the mission. In one fell swoop, the deacon had solidified Sandalphon’s proposal, and Gabriel was positive her cousin would capitalize on it.
"That’s a good question~! But I do think it would be better to send both Uriel and Sariel on such a mission, should you elect to do so. After all, Sariel is new to the position and, as I am sure you were briefed on, with Michael and Raphael currently indisposed, I would hate to leave the poor thing to attempt the duties of a cardinal without a mentor at her side, and as Gabriel has made very clear, her place is at his holiness’s side.” Their head tilted the other way as Sandalphon continued to speak in a cheery tone. “Though, if need be, I am sure I could provide an adequate mentor to the newest member of the cardinals.”
“That will not be necessary,” Gabriel said, her mind awhirl with how best to move with these sudden shifts. The best option in this situation… “I acquiesce to the ordinal’s request. If the Pontiff feels it best that we send two cardinals to intervene in Sollamava, rather than protect our own lands, then I accept such a decision.”
“Good!” Popola grinned, clapping his hands together. “The cardinals will be our spears, plunging into the heart of corruption within Sollamava while the paladins of our orders step up and pick up the slack! This terrible scandal shows that we need more discipline, and what better to instill that discipline than the duty of defending our holy lands?”
And the deacons agreed. The discussion continued further, but the sum of it was that the leaders of Sollamava decided to send two of their defenders to a neighboring nation to distract from their orders’ failings. Or, in the case of some, to gain some sort of advantage through the new shifts. Centola seemed very interested in the idea of her mercenaries/”adventurers” being used to supplement the paladin forces where needed, and Lurio seemed content to simply allow things to move as they would. Bosio practically leapt at the opportunity to have others help her, so everything seemed quite settled.
The meeting came to a close, and the deacons began to leave, all while Sandalphon’s mask continued to smile. Gabriel waited and watched, ever vigilant as those she guarded left her sight–Popola almost hurried from the room, seeming giddy as Sandalphon followed behind him–though Lurio paused near her for a moment.
“From one person who values prudence to another, you really need to get better at political maneuvering,” he said in full earshot of essentially every elf and angel in the room, all of whom had excellent hearing. Gabriel actually saw Centola’s ears twitch with interest as she blatantly listened in.
“...I will take your advice into consideration, Deacon. I do wonder as to your means of conveying your support, however.”
“Now who said I supported you? This is advice, cardinal. Take it from a man two millennia your junior: caution serves you only when you stand to lose little.” He chuckled, glancing to Centola and raising a hand in greeting–which she didn’t return, instead scowling and leaving quickly–before looking back at Gabriel. “We mortals have many flaws, but the prospect of death at least makes us a little more risk-prone, even when it comes to the long-lived of us.”
“...” Gabriel narrowed her eyes. “I wasn’t aware high elves considered themselves mortal.”
“I consider myself mortal. What that says about me, well, who knows? Ah, though, more importantly, have you given any thought to my proposal?”
Gabriel paused, internally wondering just what he meant by– “Deacon Lurio, I do not think orihalcum coins will be a sound investment for our nation–”
“No, see, I guarantee they will, we just need to get Centola and her ilk on side, or at least move the jurisdiction of the Colluvi mines away from the Silvium Province...though I suppose they’d go right to Natrium in that case, and I don’t particularly want Opsita in charge of it…”
“Perhaps you should mull over this subject to bring up at our next meeting,” she replied, trying not to show any of her weariness. Out of all the Lurios she had encountered, Vel was one of the few to distinguish himself. That was not a good thing.
“Hm, I suppose, though I can’t go openly saying anything like that. You know how people can get when it comes to giving up territory. The stubborn ones would sooner die before giving up an inch of power, but you should know that already, cardinal.” He smiled and gave her a short bow. “May the Light forever shine on your path.”
“And may the gods protect your brightened soul.”
Gabriel watched him leave, then finally let herself relax and try to think. Sandalphon was planning for something, that much was clear, but Popola was a warhawk and she needed to rein him in before he did something truly foolish...she could afford to let Uriel and Sariel go for a time, they could be called back easily enough, but then what was the purpose of sending them away to begin with? Sandalphon couldn’t be angling to have them removed in favor of Metatron, the argument wouldn’t hold and Father would protest it if it came down to that…
She wondered how Michael was doing. For all her complaints towards her eldest sibling’s conduct, they were at least decisive when it came to important matters...maybe she should have said something earlier? If she had spoken up, had Father switched the jobs they did…
What ifs helped nothing. She had her job, and she would fulfill it, no matter what she had to do for her city and its people.
“Alright, I’m finished with meditation, my heart is soothed, so on, so forth. What did I miss?” Deacon Tammaro asked as he walked through the doors.
Gabriel stared at him. He stared back at her, then slowly looked across the otherwise empty meeting chamber.
Gabriel decided to amend her resolution. She was going to do her job, but she was also going to put in a perfectly reasonable amount of effort, which was why she promptly left the room without a word.