Story Title: Sunrise
Warnings: religious context
Word Count: 3.800
Setting: 'Phoenix Empire' verse, see Phoenix Empire Timeline & Index
Characters: Liviana, Nicodemus
Summary: Patriarch Hesemedes is dead. And his succession causes more changes than expected...
Feedback: Yes, please! Constructive criticism welcome!
“Please, Holy Mother, you should rest now,” Cardinal Sung Yo suggested politely. “This must be so much to absorb.”
“Indeed,” Cardinal Espinosa chimed in, bowing and walking backwards towards the door. “I am sure the Holy Mother will want to rest, now. Meditate, perhaps, doesn’t that sound nice?”
“You won’t have to worry about anything, Holy Mother,” Sung Yo ensured her, following Espinosa on his way out of the suite. “We will prepare everything for your first address, and your personal guards will pick you up when the time has come.”
“We won’t bother you any further, Holy Mother,” Espinosa concluded.
With a final, deep bow, the two cardinals closed the tall, double-winged door behind them. The door was locked, twice for good measure, and Liviana could hear the sound of swiftly disappearing footsteps on the precious polished hardwood floor outside.
Silence fell, oppressive and choking, made all the more gloomy by the half-closed curtains and stale air.
Liviana felt as if she had to scream, to run and flail her arms just to keep herself from suffocating from shock.
But she couldn’t. All she could do was wrap her arms around herself tightly, and walk in tiny, measured steps, taking tiny, measured breaths. Was this really happening?
Slowly, she became aware of a sound that managed to enter her new quarters from outside, rising and ebbing, like the murmur of waves. But they were hundreds of miles from the nearest shore, here in Palames, the capital of Terra.
When the realization hit her, Liviana couldn’t keep walking any longer and collapsed to her knees. There was only one thing that could possibly be making this sound. She was hearing the masses on St. Anna’s square, gathered by the hundred thousands to witness the first address of the newly chosen Patriarch from the balcony of his office adjoining the dome of Palames.
Patriarch Hesemedes had died almost a month ago, ending a recalcitrant reign of almost one hundred and thirty years. This very morning, a dozen white doves had been released from the convent where the College of Cardinals had been sitting in seclusion, telling the world that a new leader of the faithful had been found, a new shepherd of humanity, a new representative of God among the mortals.
Only this time, the Cardinals hadn’t voted for one of their own.
They had voted for a woman, for the first time in over ten generations. They had not chosen another Cardinal, or at least some Archbishop, no, they had picked a simple priestess. Utterly without precedent, they had voted for a priestess of Temple Aroona, a part of the church that hadn’t even existed when Hesemedes took up his reign.
They had chosen Liviana.
She had been summoned to Terra only a few hours ago, completely oblivious. She knew something big was about to happen, of course. She also felt that He had plans with her, so she expected a post in the new administration, maybe, or to act as replacement for someone else called to serve in Palames.
Never in her wildest nightmares would Liviana have thought about being the next Matriarch.
How could He do this to her? Why? She was too young, too inexperienced for this job. She was merely fourty-two! She didn’t know the least thing about the tangled and most probably corrupt ways things were handled here on Terra, she didn’t know the people, she knew nothing.
The way she had been handed the news had been almost worse than the facts themselves. The cardinals informed her that she had no choice, that she would serve either voluntarily or by force, and that she was not expected to take up any measure of control of her life, her words, or heavens forbid, even her job. Whatever had happened behind the closed doors of that convent that made her the only suitable candidate, the cardinals seemed hell-bent on accepting her as figurehead, only. And even that admission seemed to have been pried from their fingers by force.
This all made no sense to her. There was no possible way of even beginning to sort this out, but a million ways of getting this all wrong.
Liviana was so afraid that she could hardly breathe, so alone it physically hurt.
But like an angry child’s glare, a stern sentiment pierced her despair. She was never truly alone. God was with her, at any time, if not exactly always helpful. And there was also her family on which she could rely unconditionally. And her friends.
And at least one very old friend of hers had the perfect set of skills needed for this kind of spring cleaning.
Taking a deep, determined breath, Liviana sat herself squarely on the floor, concentrating as much as she could.
-- Uncle Stephen? -- she thought firmly. -- Uncle Stephen, are you listening? --
The answer came almost immediately, muddled and half-worded, half-felt; but honest and caring and full of life and light.
-- Liviana, cupcake! I didn’t know you were on Terra! -- In the back of his mind, Archbishop Stephanus was already calculating if he would have enough food for one additional guest at tonight’s dinner table. -- Why didn’t you say anything, dear, are you alright? Can I help? --
His completely unfiltered hospitality brought an involuntary smile to Liviana’s face.
-- This is kind of an emergency, Uncle Stephen, -- she replied firmly, trying not to overwhelm him with facts he’d learn soon enough. -- Will you please patch me through to Father Nicodemus on Guild Central? --
-- But of course, darling, -- her uncle replied, keeping his growing concern as much in check as he could. -- It’ll just be a second. Let me know if I can do anything else. --
And then suddenly, his warm and sunny mind was gone, replaced by the massive machinery of Nicodemus’ presence, like a mountain of gears made from glass and lightning, honed to a scalpel edge sharp enough to dissect souls. His concentration was so profound it translated into perfect silence in their connection, deep enough to drown out even the murmur from the crowds gathered in front of the building. Even despite all the years they had been friends, now, his presence felt nothing but impressive to her.
-- Nicodemus! -- Liviana thought, already feeling immensely sobered, confronted with his unforgivingly analytical mind. -- I have a favor to ask from you. --
With almost crystalline precision, Nicodemus conveyed her the sentiment of a slightly concerned question, nothing else.
-- I need you here. Now. Please. -- she replied, paring down her request to the core. -- And yes, this is more important. --
For a heartbeat, Nicodemus thoughts remained silent, then his mind sort of shifted gears. As if a massive warship suddenly turned battle-ready, the glittering mountain turned inside-out and became a wall of steel, deadly blades hidden just beyond sight. And age hadn’t dulled their edges, not at all. If anyhting, he was more bellicose than ever.
-- One moment. -- he thought, the words appearing in her mind as if carved in stone. She could feel him giving orders to an aide, then he sent her the sentiment of unconditional agreement, his sign that he was ready to come whereever she needed him.
His trust in her almost made Liviana choke up with tears. She had always known that Nicodemus was the closest friend she had within the church, and that men like him only did things they were truly convinced of. Just how deep his unconditional trust was, though, was new even to her.
-- Uncle Stephen? -- she asked again, hoping he would notice her request. -- Can you please ‘port Nicodemus right next to me? --
-- You know I have to have all direct teleports to Terra sanctioned, cupcake... --
-- Will you, please? --
At first, Stephen hesitated, but then, with the image of a smile and a sigh, he relented. A mere heartbeat later, Nicodemus was standing right next to her, his wrought-iron shepherd’s staff in his gnarled fingers. He was close to eighty years, by now, but his posture was so ramrod-straight his age barely registered.
For a long moment, Nicodemus looked around, taking in the almost oppressive splendor of the room and the fact that they were all alone. Finally, his eyes came to rest on Liviana, and the golden stole around her shoulders, its fringe striped red, white and blue. The patriarchal stole.
Or rather matriarchal, since this morning.
“What have they done to you, girl?” he asked, full of compassion. “How could they do this?”
“I think He left them no choice,” she replied, sounding much livelier than she actually felt. “And it is not so much the office that scares me. It’s the people.”
Nicodemus expression turned from concerned to belligerent in less than a heartbeat.
“What did they do?” he asked coldly, his clipped words echoing faintly in the crystal chandeliers above.
Offering Liviana his free hand, he helped her off the ground and tucked the stole straight in a wonderful, fatherly gesture that no-one would have expected from him. But Liviana knew him better than that, and this was the reason she had called him here. If there was one man strong enough to guard her back through all of this, it would be him. After all, he had been through worse when the curia accused him of spreading heresies.
“In short? I think they hate me.”
Father Nicodemus scoffed. “That makes them dumber than even I gave them credit for.”
Liviana smiled at the fact that she didn’t even need to say who ‘they’ were.
Looking thoughtful, Nicodemus took a few deliberate steps before he stopped right in the middle of the room.
“This place smells of nothing but old men and dust,” he grumbled. “We have to get some fresh air in.”
Liviana had to gasp and laugh out loud at the same time. She had never thought he’d remember her exact words of their first meeting nineteen years ago. But then, he never forgot anything, though she really hadn’t expected to hear those words again in such circumstance.
“What about you do what you do best,” Nicodemus suggested, “and get this dump of a place a little more hospitable, and I go and see if I can rake up a few honest souls around here?”
“That sounds wonderful, Father,” she replied, endlessly relieved at finally having something to start working on.
“Always happy to oblige, Holy Mother,” Nicodemus replied just as formally.
It took Liviana a whole three seconds to realize that he had been joking.
Two jokes in less than a minute from Nicodemus? He seemed to take this whole mess with a lot more humor than she would have ever given him credit for, Liviana wondered. And indeed, now that she was looking for it, there was a certain grim sparkle to his eye, a spring to his step she had rarely ever seen. He seemed happy, and excited, as much as a man of his persuasion could possibly be.
"Actually," Nicodemus started all of a sudden, "forget what I said."
"About cleaning up this place. I think we should rather take a walk."
For a moment, Liviana was genuinely speechless. Of course Nicodemus had some sort of plan, but she really had no clue what that would look like. Only when Nicodemus walked towards the door that led outside her suite, she found her voice again.
"They locked the door, I think."
"Who did?" Nicodemus asked, not appearing impressed.
"Cardinal Espinosa, I think."
"And Cardinal Sung Yo."
"Also an idiot. And a coward to boot." Turning to look at Liviana over his shoulder, Nicodemus asked: "Are you coming?"
For a heartbeat, Liviana hesitated. Then she shrugged, smiled at her friend and teacher and followed him. The worst had already happened. It could only get better from here on.
Nicodemus used his staff to knock at the door, gently, three times, and then opened them as if they had never been locked. Outside, two guards were standing in glossy golden ceremonial armor, and stared at Nicodemus in open confusion.
"The Holy Mother is now ready to address the faithful," Nicodemus proclaimed in a tone that didn't allow even a trace of doubt. "You may lead the way."
Still the guards stared at them, dumbfounded. Finally the left one managed to ask: "And who are you?"
"I am but her humble servant," Nicodemus replied with deep conviction. "I will see to the matters of the curia, while the Holy Mother is concerned with matters of faith."
"Right..." one of the guards muttered, still looking pretty much overwhelmed. "But we were supposed to wait until one of the Cardinals - "
"I am sure the Cardinals are very busy right now," Nicodemus replied with a clear note of warning in his voice. "Her Holiness, Matriarch Liviana, wishes not to disturb them. She will address the faithful on her own, and now."
"I...," the guard stammered, torn between two very clear orders. "Father, could you please wait until we have fetched at least one of them?"
"I am the Matriarch," Liviana said, all of a sudden not insecure any longer. Maybe she wasn't a Noble any longer, but she still remembered her childhood very well. Especially Lilith' tone when she was angry with her staff. "Why is it that you disobey my orders?!"
"We...," the first guard took off, but then closed his mouth with an audible 'thud', visibly struck by her presence. Instead, he knelt down on one knee, bowing his head. "We beg your pardon, Holy Mother. This is all very new to us."
"No kidding," she grumbled, gesturing them to rise again. "Please come with me, and show me the way to that balcony. I don't want to get lost on my first day at work."
"Yes, Holy Mother, of course."
Still very much out of their comfort zone, the two guards led the way down the corridor, with Nicodemus one step behind and one step to the right of Liviana, like a bodyguard.
Already at the next corner, they ran into a Cardinal, one that Liviana hadn't seen in person, yet. The man stared at the four of them wordlessly, then turned around on his heel in a flutter of blood-red robes and rushed down the hallway, all but running.
"I am sure we will see him again," Liviana remarked, dryly. "As soon as he has fetched his colleagues."
"Oh, I bet he will." Nicodemus replied, mildly amused. "And it won't help them at all."
Looking over her shoulder, Liviana wondered why Nicodemus seemed so delighted at the whole situation. She knew how much he hated Palames and the whole tangle of administration and politics. Also, he seemed to take the fact that she was Matriarch now utterly in stride, and not showering her with long lists of her shortcomings and duties.
But then, the guards already stopped at a heavy, white curtain. Liviana could feel the noise of the crowd in her gut, a deep rumble and murmur that seemed to shake the building's walls even though it wasn't that loud right now.
"This is it," one of the guards said. "I really think we should wait for the Cardinals..."
"Your concern has been duly noted," Nicodemus quipped rather politely, grabbing the heavy cloth with both hands. "You might want to step aside, though, unless you want to see your faces on every newspaper of the Empire come tomorrow morning."
Almost instantly, the guards stepped away from the curtain, shocked and grateful for Nicodemus' warning at the same time. With an encouraging nod to Liviana, Nicodemus deftly pulled the curtain aside, revealing another huge, double-winged glass door that led out onto a balcony above St. Anna's square.
Immediately, the gathered crowd below broke into deafening cheers, making Liviana and the guards cringe with the sheer volume. Nicodemus, on the other hand, seemed absolutely unimpressed. He opened the doors and stepped onto the balcony, and there onto the small dais behind the lectern that had already been set up.
As if he had never done anything else in his life, he raised his arms, gesturing the crowd that he wanted to speak. In his sleeveless, coarse red robes and with his gaunt, aquiline features, he cut a striking figure indeed. And the crowd fell silent, one by one, until almost a hundred thousand people waited for him with baited breath. The sensation was almost as deafening as their cheers before.
"Brothers and Sisters in Faith," he said, his words carried over the square by the microphone in the lectern. "We have a new Holy Mother."
Again, cheers and applause branded up, and it took a while for it to subside again.
Liviana, who had not walked out onto the balcony with Nicodemus, was the first to hear the voices and the flutter of robes, and only seconds later, a whole flock of Cardinals burst into the corridor, rushing towards her as fast as they could without running. A scary image, Liviana found, but also robbing her of any respect she might have held for those Cardinals.
"Brothers and Sisters, I give you Matriarch Liviana of Temple Aroona," Nicodemus declared behind her.
By sheer force of will, Liviana forced herself to turn away from the approaching Cardinals and instead walked onto the balcony herself. Again, deafening cheers branded up, and for a second, all she could do was smile and wave politely.
"You go and talk to them," Nicodemus whispered into her ear, so softly the microphones couldn't pick it up. "I deal with those red fools."
"But what shall I tell them?" Liviana whispered back, feeling more than a little lost in front of a sea of faces.
"Just speak your heart, girl," Nicodemus replied, gently patting her shoulder. "He will do the rest."
Then he turned around and left the dais, just in time to place himself between Liviana and the arriving Cardinals. Their stampede came to an abrupt halt when they came into view of the cameras, but that didn't slow their voices down one bit.
"Cardinal Sung Yo," she could hear Nicodemus say, his clipped voice cutting through the din easily. "So good to see you again. Still thinking I should be burned at the stake for heresy?"
Liviana couldn't make out the Cardinal's hissed reply, but for now, she had more important things to concentrate on. Like, the immense amount of people right in front of her, their faces full of expectation.
This was ridiculous, she suddenly realized. What was she even doing here? She had no idea, no training, no clue of the traditional blessings a new Matriarch was supposed to give.
Slowly, the crowd on St. Anna's square fell silent, once again creating a deafening silence. Even though the balcony was well above the crowd, Liviana could still see how the people in the first rows were praying, looking up at her with rapt attention, with expectation, with hope.
What were they hoping for, Liviana wondered. A miracle? All I can give them are words. But she knew she had to say something, anything, or things would start looking very strange.
"Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Faith," she started with a line borrowed from Nicodemus. "I... This task has been cast upon me with little preparation and less expectation, and..."
What was she doing, Liviana wondered again. She sounded like one of those old farts she had always despised for their soulless blathering. Those people below, and all people, actually, were hoping for one thing only. A message of hope, a promise of deliverance that they could understand with both their minds and their hearts. This wasn't a faceless crowd she was talking to. This were men and women like herself, with fears and hopes and worries like everyone else.
And she knew how to talk to normal people.
"Okay, this is bullshit," she said mostly to herself. But her words were picked up and carried all over the place, causing a wave of astonished murmur wash over the square. Fumbling for a second, she pried the microphone out of the lectern, ignoring the nasty wailing feedback loop she created. Then, with the microphone in her hand, she stepped off the lectern and smiled at Nicodemus who was still standing in the doorway, his staff blocking a wall of blanching Cardinals from storming the balcony
Still smiling, Liviana turned to face the crowd angain and girlishly hopped onto the balcony's railing, sitting down comfortably on the velvet-covered stone. Her were feet dangling in the open air, showing her worn-out, comfy sneakers for the whole Empire to see. The gathered crowd stared at her, wordless and completely flabbergasted.
"Right, let's start this again," she said, her smile widening another notch. "Hi, I am Liviana. I am your new Matriarch."
It took the crowd a long second to understand what had just happened, then they burst into a cheer even louder than the one before, waving and chanting her name. Laughing herself now, Liviana waved back, glowing with the feeling that this was the way it was supposed to be done. In the back of her mind, she knew that He was smiling as well, a rare feeling, and a very good one. This would be easy from here on.
"I was supposed to read a speech to you that some very smart people have prepared," she said when the crowd had calmed down again. "But, you can read that in the papers tomorrow. I have very little to say, and a lot of work to do, so I'll try to keep this as short as I can."
Waiting until the crowd had calmed down to a whisper in anticipation, she said:
"I want to remind you that God loves you, all of you."
A soft murmur rose in the crowd, as her statement wasn't without controversy. Did His grace truly extend to aliens? What about sinners, pagans, demonists, demons even? How could she be so unspecific?
"And He loves all of you unconditionally."
The crowd's murmur rose to a roar. If His grace was unconditional, why should they adhere to any of the demands of the church?
"He embraces everyone seeking deliverance, and there is no repenting sinner beyond hope."
This time, the din of the crowd was swallowed by disbelieving silence, and even the angry comments of the Cardinals behind her subsided. With a few words, she had thrown the doors of the church wide open, accepting every sentient seeking spiritual guidance, every race and faith and history. She had canonized St. Cornelius' borderline heretic attitude of accepting Belligra who adhered other faiths parallel to the Imperial Church, she had offered acceptance to everyone who was willing to follow their path. She was creating quite a mess here for the church right now, but sometimes, this was the only way of getting the old stuff out.
"I think everyone of us knows someone who is in a dark place right now, and who needs His assistance. Let us pray for them, and for us, so He might give us the strength and insight needed to help them."
From her spot on the balcony's railing, Liviana could see some of the people in the crowd break into tears, but she knew they were tears of joy. Finally, there was hope for every one. She knew that this would be a hard sell within the church, but she also knew that she had Him on her side. And Nicodemus.
And that would be more than enough.