Story Title: A Ray of Light
Word Count: 2.600
Setting: 'Phoenix Empire' verse, see Phoenix Empire Timeline & Index
Characters: Liviana, Nicodemus
Summary: Abbot Nicodemus is faced with an unexpected problem – a lively young Aroona sister seeking to be stationed at his Verata monastery on Guild Central...
Feedback: Yes, please! Concrit welcome!
“Abbot Nicodemus?” the acolyte asked softly. “She is here.”
Looking up from the paperwork on his desk, the aging Verata priest needed a moment to remember who his aide was talking about. But of course, there would only be one person warranting such ominous introduction.
“Where is she, now?”
“In the yard, Father. Shall I send her up?”
Nicodemus pondered the question for a moment. He could feel in his bones that this was an important point in time, a juncture maybe as important as the day when one of his students came up to him, asking him if there could be truth in the words of heretics, truths that went beyond the teachings of their order.
That day, he had hesitated just as he did now, before he had answered yes.
His answer had started what scholars now called ‘the Purge of the Verata’, as if it had been a rebellion. They made him the leader of that movement, these days, though all he had done was insisting on considering truth coming from sources formerly considered unsuited.
Some considered him a hero now, other a heretic of the worst kind. Nicodemus saw himself as neither. He was just doing his job to the best of his abilities, dealing with what God saw fit to task him with one day after the other. Some of those tasks he managed to fulfill, others, he failed. And he would rise each day to face those tasks until he took his last breath.
So what kind of task had the Lord put on his plate this time, he wondered.
With a soundless sigh, he closed the book he had been reading, and picked up his staff. It was a long, ungainly thing, much like Nicodemus himself. A crooked shepherd's staff wrought from black iron, he had forged it himself years ago, as a reminder that it took many blows to turn a lump of matter into something useful. And he liked the material, after all. Not brittle as cast iron, not as flexible as steel yet - halfway between raw and refined, a constant reminder that there was always room for improvement.
Leaning on his staff as much for support as by habit, Nicodemus walked through his cramped office to the only window. This place had been a Beligra monastery, ages ago, with walls thicker than a man’s stride and windows long and narrow as arrow slits. A good, utilitarian building, it had been a home for his order now since many decades, and the square courtyard framed by those high, massive walls had seen many brothers and sisters come and go over the years.
And yet, the sight that presented itself to Abbott Nicodemus was probably the first of its kind.
Among the bustle of the place, between pallets laden with goods and red-robed Verata priests of all ranks, a young woman was standing. A bit on the skinny side, with her blond curls in a simple braid, she looked at the same time frail, curious, eager and daunted. But what really made her stand apart from all the place around her were her blue robes - the vibrant, sky blue cloth of an Aroona priestess.
That alone would have explained the curious, sidelong glances the monks in the courtyard were shooting her. But her robes were only the least of her questionable properties.
She wasn’t just some Aroona priestess.
She was the personal acolyte of Archbishop Rasputin of Serin, the disputable founder of her sect. Nicodemus had once had the chance to attend a seminar hosted by Father Rasputin, and even though he still found many of the Aroona’s methods appalling, he had been forced to admit that Father Rasputin indeed was a man of faith and spirituality, maybe even more so than Nicodemus himself.
Said Father Rasputin had written a letter of recommendation for this particular acolyte, ridiculously informal and all but gushing about her wondrous being. Very much like him, and very flattering. She could have applied everywhere in the Empire with that letter. She could have become the youngest abbess in the history of her barely weaned order. Anything, really.
And yet, she had applied here, at the Verata monastery on Guild Central, as her first post of service. A monastery that even the Verata only used for their penitents and most unruly members. A damp, dark fortress in the middle of ruined, crumbling high-rises, on top of a sea of toxic waste and surrounded by a few billion atheists.
Even discounting the Aroona’s well-known penchant for self-sacrifice, this was absurd.
Grumbling softly to himself, Abbot Nicodemus turned away from the window. Whatever it was that brought that woman here, he would find out. And then he’d wash her head, thoroughly, and send her off to somewhere where her kind notions of love and care would be met with some modicum of welcome.
Like every time when he passed the door of his study, Nicodemus had to stoop low, careful not to add another dent to the doorframe, low as it was. This place had not been designed for men of his height, not at all. But it was sturdy, and would last another millennia or two, so who was he to argue?
He walked down the narrow, dusty passage that led from his study to the inner wall, and from there on down the rickety wooden staircase into the courtyard.
A cursory glance upwards confirmed that is was the same weather as almost every day - a leaden gray sky turning muddy brown further down, with a sick line of sulphuric red towards the horizon. No discernible clouds, but many layers of fine mist that would turn into drizzle a few hours after sunset. Guild Central was not a place easily liked.
Now carefully placing one foot in front of the other, his wrought iron staff resounding heavily on the cracked concrete of the yard, Nicodemus walked over to the Aroona priestess.
She was pretty, he had to admit. Not beautiful, or vain, as he had feared, just pretty, in the best, plain god-given sense of the word.
Not quite what he had expected.
Because, he reminded himself, the real surprise had come only a few days ago, when one of his other students found out who that woman really was. She was Sister Liviana, now, yes. But she had been born Princess Liviana of House Dracon, Daughter to the Duke of P2 and one of her perverted slaves, highest daughter to the purest line of evil this rotten House had ever produced.
Why a woman like that would discard her name and all the power and riches that came with it was beyond him. Why then she would ask for a position in a place like his monastery felt plainly wrong.
But he would hear her out, if nothing else.
“Sister Liviana,” he greeted her, remaining at an appropriate distance.
“Abbot Nicodemus, I assume?” Her voice was firm, bright, honest. “I... don’t quite know what to say. Reporting for duty, maybe?”
Even from those few words, Nicodemus could learn a lot about her. She was a confident young woman, polite, maybe even a bit daunted. Eager to take on a task she could not entirely fathom yet, but too uninformed to feel scared. Nicodemus couldn’t feel any false modesty on her, at least not right away. Definitely a lot more than he had expected.
“Why should I allow you to stay?” he asked, not harshly, but firm, trying to put the worst part right in front.
Sister Liviana blinked at him with her blue eyes, not really surprised, but oddly disappointed. “I thought... I had hoped you would be able to tell me.”
“Able to tell you what?”
“Why he had sent me here.”
So it hadn’t been her choice, after all, Nicodemus thought triumphantly. “Who sent you here, child? The Archbishop?”
“No.” Here blue eyes grew stormy, and there was a truly unexpected note of reproach in her voice when she added: “God sent me to this place to do his work, and I really hoped you could at least give me a hint on what I am supposed to do here.”
It was no lie.
Completely taken aback, Nicodemus needed a heartbeat or two to gather his wits. This girl truly believed to know the Lord’s plan for her. What hubris.
“So you presume to know God’s will, child?”
But eschewing every expected reaction, she merely shrugged. “How am I to know? If he tells me to come here, I come here. What else can I do?”
Again, no lie.
“Are you telling me God talks to you?”
For a second, Sister Liviana seemed to squirm uncomfortably. “It’s not really talking. It feels more like a mute child trying to communicate through his drawings. Or through the way she plays with her dolls. It doesn’t always make sense to me.”
And still, there was not even a hint of a lie in her words.
“Are you insane?” Nicodemus asked the next logical question, almost dreading the answer.
But Liviana laughed, a clear, carefree sound that made all work in the monastery grind to a confused halt, wondering what had just happened.
“I really don’t know, Father. Some days, I wish I were, so it wouldn’t feel so infuriatingly helpless. Other days, I am grateful for the work he allows me to do.” Sighing despite her smile, she added: “I’ve had myself tested, though, and all the tests came up negative.”
Shaking his head in silent wonder, Nicodemus leaned heavily on his iron staff. Of all the things he had expected, a truly faithful woman had been the last.
“So you know we do not have a place here for a woman, much less an Aroona priestess?”
“I know you are not prepared to host one,” she replied with a soft challenge. “I doubt you don’t need one.”
There was no guile in her answer, no vanity, no illusion. There was a strength in her that belied her little frame, the kind of conviction that came out of a faith born in reflection, not blind obedience. Much to his own surprise, Abbott Nicodemus found that he liked her. Which, unfortunately, would mean that he would be doubly hard on her.
“You will attend the prayers and meals like every other member of our order,” he decided firmly. “You will tend to our sick and assist in the kitchen and in cleaning the monastery. If ever I see your hands idle, I will see you punished.”
Again not acting even remotely appropriate, she merely cocked a bored eyebrow. “You really think you can scare me with WORK? You really don’t know anything about the Aroona.”
“Then teach me,” he simply replied. Pointing his iron staff at her hands, he added: “Not moving.”
Sister Liviana scoffed at him, a fascinating gesture of disrespect and acceptance of an honorable challenge. Then she kicked up her satchel from the ground, snatched it out of the air and disappeared inside the monastery, clearly in search of something to do.
Barely managing to hide his smile, Abbot Nicodemus followed her with his eyes, still leaning on his staff.
Maybe this was a good thing, that girl appearing here, he mused. A bit of laughter would do this place a lot of good, a bit of fresh blood and new ideas. It would be a hard struggle, no doubt about that, and it would leave scars on all of them. But they would emerge strengthened, and hopefully all a little wiser.
He allowed his eyes to wander for a little while, over the rust-stained walls of his monastery with their crenelated walkways, up to the dirty sky with the pale blotch of light that passed as the sun here. It took him a moment to realize, but there was something odd in the sky. A tiny smudge of blue amid the gray and brown, a smidgen of real sky that allowed a tiny ray of sunlight through, shining right down on their monastery and Abbot Nicodemus standing in its courtyard.
Blinking at the unexpected light, Nicodemus hardly dared to breathe, fearing he would waste these precious seconds with something else but wide-eyed wonder, hoping to burn this moment into his memory as clearly as possible. Sunlight, here on Guild Central? He couldn’t remember ever having seen the sun shine like this in all the years since he lived here.
Was this a portent? A sign? Maybe. He was wary of attributing all kinds of miraculous meanings to everyday events, and yet... Maybe that girl was bringing greater change than any of them would have thought possible.
With a loud bang and the sharp screech of rusty hinges, the narrow window of his Nicodemus’ study was forced open. Instinctively, everyone in the courtyard looked up, only to see a thick cloud of dust sparkle in the last rays of sunlight. Several thick puffs of dust followed, and then, after a moment of inactivity, the long rug that lay in front of his desk for as long as he could remember, flew out of the window and slapped against the wall.
There could obviously be only one culprit.
“What in all the seven hells you think you are doing there?!” Nicodemus bellowed, making the whole courtyard shake with the volume of his voice. “How can you dare to touch my belongings!”
“This place is a dump,” Sister Liviana’s voice reached down from his study, completely free of insult. “It’s just dust and the smell of old man in here.” Suddenly, her blond head appeared within the narrow window, frowning and grinning at the same time. “You told me to go find work, and damn, this is where my work is needed most.”
Again, Nicodemus was tempted to bellow something harsh, to condemn her to some grueling punishment. But for the first time in his life, his ability to discern the truth of every word worked against him - he only found himself agreeing with her. He had indeed been lax in applying the same rigorosity to his surroundings that he had applied to his mental exercises.
Maybe it was about time that someone spoke truth to him, after all.
So instead of a thunderous dressing-down and a harsh flogging, he gave her a barely perceptible nod. “If you bring disorder to my books, I will have you flogged!” he grumbled loudly.
“Yes, Father,” she replied humbly, “I will be careful.”
But her brightly shining eyes told him clearly that she had perfectly understood the concession Nicodemus had just made. With a tiny nod of her own, she disappeared again, only to have the sound of heavy furniture being moved around fill the courtyard.
Abbot Nicodemus grimaced at the sound, almost wincing at the feeling of chaos that threatened to invade his life. He looked up at the sky, but the tiny patch of blue had almost disappeared again.
Bigger changes than expected, indeed. It seemed God wasn’t quite done with him yet, and there were a still few lessons he expected Nicodemus to learn. With a deep sigh, he looked at his staff, smiling at the spots where his constant grip had worn down the coarse metal and rendered it smooth and glossy.
If the Lord puts me through another ordeal like the last one, he mused, he will make steel of me yet.