09 - Salva Nos

~ ~ The end is nothing but silence. ~ ~

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"God, Nico left a mess, didn't he?" Katine muttered darkly a few days later, flipping through a thick sheaf of papers that she'd requested/demanded from the officials of the Consigliere. "No accurate records, no successor, not even a datebook."

Audrey, hovering by her bedside anxiously - at least, as anxious as he ever got - raised an eyebrow. "As I recall, you haven't chosen a successor yet, either."

She glared at him. "Last time I checked, that's my prerogative, not yours."

"Yes, ma'am." he replied quietly. Then, "Should you really be doing all this? I mean-"

"Do you plan on working at all or do you get more pleasure in telling me that I should be lazing around like a bedridden old hag? Just because Nico left things a mess doesn't mean that I have to let it stay that way."

He sighed, defeated, and sat down on the edge of the bed. "What exactly are we looking for?" he asked, picking up another large stack of documents.

"A definite order of rank, for one thing. As far as I can tell, there was the leader - Nico, and then eight equally-ranking officials, plus all the lesser officers and et cetera. That Sidney Farozi that we picked up is one of them. The problem with that system is that if the leader dies without an heir, as we see here, there's no one person who's expected to step up and take the position."

"Why can't we do nominations, and then take a majority vote?" he asked shrewdly.

Katine nodded slowly, biting her lip. "I had thought of that. I didn't put it to them yet because I'm not sure how they'd take it. From my experiences, the Consigliere isn't as... hmm... liberal? as we at Ars Arcanum are. They're very old-fashioned, very traditional people. Things that seem commonplace to us, like a vote, aren't exactly what they're used to."

"Ah."

"We used to be that way, once. I found it in some old records when I was a teenager." She seemed to be talking more to herself than to Audrey. "It was very strict... very unforgiving. We almost had a civil war of sorts between the elders and the young people; that's how bad things got. I guess in the end it was Eleanor de Liberi-Cantanon who eventually led the movement for peace. You remember her, from the stories of the Mage Council and the Seal of Bell, Book and Candle?"

He nodded. "She sounds like an impressive person."

"She was. She was only fifteen or sixteen when it all happened."

"Sounds familiar."

Katine shook her head disbelievingly and turned back to the papers that were spread all over her bedcover. "Don't compare me to her. She was a great lady."

"/You're/ a great lady."

"No, I'm just a girl with a lot of work to do."

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~ ~ Dreaming ~ ~

In her dream, she walked in the catacombs of Valido Forza. She'd only been down there once and had no desire to do so again; they left her feeling... unclean was perhaps the best way to describe it. It also felt as if something was down there watching. Something fetid and alive.

Now, though, she was the only living soul. The watching thing was gone, thankfully, leaving her alone with the dead. They rested in their marble sarcophagi, forever trapped in the dark. As she walked, she looked at their names. A few she recognized from her history readings; many were unfamiliar. And then...

Nicolo Anastagio.

A part of her had expected and yet dreaded this; she ran a hand along the cool marble with its inlays in wrought gold and sighed, remembering their times together as children and wondering if things had been meant to play out the way they did. But his sarcophagus hadn't been made yet, had it? Or had it? Would they make one for an oathbreaker such as him?

The stone shifted.

The body resting inside, hands crossed over the chest and gripping a spiral staff, the symbol of office in the Consigliere, was not Nicolo's. It was Cerys, and her eyes were open. The bodyguard gazed up with reproach and said, "Why did you say you didn't need me? You knew I could only stay as long as I was needed."

She shook her head in wordless denial. "I didn't-"

"You knew." she accused angrily, and it was finally clear why this didn't look like the Cerys she knew. Her eyes were not their usual clear, crystalline blue. They burned a smoldering, unfathomable crimson, a few shades darker than her hair. And Katine knew, with startling certainty, that the Cerys she once knew was dead.

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~ ~ Waking ~ ~

Katine woke with a jolt, soaked in sweat. Shivering, she turned onto her side, ignoring the rush of pain that accompanied that movement. She bit her lip, staring out into the unfamiliar shadows of her sickroom, and forced herself to believe that the dream meant nothing despite its bone-chilling vividness. Cerys was not dead; she had deserted them. And maybe, she'd found happiness out there somewhere, too...

She shuddered involuntarily and huddled deeper under the blankets, craving warmth as well as the small comfort they could provide. Why was there the strange feeling that she had failed somehow, that despite her best efforts she'd let everyone down? Cerys was gone, vanished without a trace; Nicolo, her cousin and once-beloved, was dead by her own hand; the Consigliere was in shambles, although she would try to put that to rights in the days to come...

The only ones who seemed to be thriving were Audrey and Brian, and for that she was profoundly thankful, though she would not have dared say so to either of them. What transpired between the two seemed inevitable, considering Brian's uncanny physical resemblance to the deceased Eddie Vayga and the gentle, caring side of Audrey that so few ever saw; not that Katine hadn't tried to warn her old friend against this new relationship just as she'd objected to his relationship with Eddie...

/She/ didn't love him, not like he loved Brian. But... she'd entertained the idea that if for some reason being the leader of Ars Arcanum ever forced her to marry, he would have been her first choice. She would trust him with her life and the life of anyone she'd ever met. The two had no physical desire whatsoever for each other, but their deep friendship was more than enough. She didn't want to see him hurt.

When Eddie had died it had nearly killed him. And it nearly killed her to see him in agony and be able to do nothing but convince him that he had to go on living, that there was something out there worth living for... when she'd found him in the bathtub that one day, years ago, with blood and water covering the floor and him just laying there like a sacrifice to some ancient, cruel god of fate, she'd almost taken the knife to her own wrists as well. Only the knowledge that his chest still rose and fell shallowly brought her to her senses; that day forever changed her.

It had cut her soul as sharply as the blade had cut Audrey's wrists. That he could as much as tell her that their friendship wasn't worth living for was a harsh slap in the face. She knew he cared enough about her to die for her; he'd proven it time and time again. Couldn't he care enough to live for her, too?

She prayed to God that nothing ever, ever happened to Brian, because if something did, she wasn't sure she could pull Audrey back from the Shadow-Lover a second time.

~ ~

With so much chaos surrounding the death of Nicolo, the selection of a new leader for the Consigliere was almost anticlimatic. A surprisingly large amount of people were receptive to the idea; only a few spoke out openly against it, and those were quickly silenced by their peers. Nominations were taken; Katine herself presided over the vote, and within a day, Valentino Salvatore was officially sworn in as leader.

Valentino, or Valen, as he preferred, seemed quite charmed by Brian; more than once, Audrey had to step in when the Consigliere's new leader seemed to be getting a little /too/ friendly. One day, a short time before the people of Ars Arcanum were to return to their home, Katine sat down with Valen and had a short but serious talk with him.

He was a sharp-looking young man, with masses of curly dark hair pulled into a short tail at the nape of his neck. His brown eyes had a spark of humor in them, and he was almost constantly fidgeting with a pen - twirling it between long, graceful fingers, tapping the end on his mouth, or beating out a random pattern on the desk. He didn't seem surprised to see her appear in his office one day (which was not the same office that Nico had used, thankfully; Valen had commandeered an over-large storeroom and had moved his own furniture in); in fact, it seemed that he'd been expecting her to have a chat with him for a few days.

"What's on your mind?" he asked, cutting straight to the chase with no tact involved. Katine liked that about him, she realized; he didn't beat around the bush when there was work to be done.

She looked long and hard at him for a moment before answering; to his credit, he met her penetrating blue stare without flinching. "The Talented women in Italy. You've seen me and my people work, and you know that the women in Ars Arcanum pull their weight just as well as the males. You shouldn't continue to force them to sit on the sidelines while your boys do all the work; if my people are anything like yours, which I think they are, the women in this country must be itching to do something. The Talent, once awakened, doesn't sit back down because of gender. If your women don't get proper training, their power will break out in ways that might prove... unpleasant." With a humorless smile, she tossed a stack of papers onto his already-cluttered desk - the fruits of her labor with Audrey. It was detailed accounts of all the ways that, in the past, women - including the formidable Eleanor de Liberi-Cantanon - had done things that men couldn't or /wouldn't/ do, all in the service of humankind. It also showed all the instances in which prejudices because of gender had led to failure or disaster. "It used to be that none of us had any prejudices. I hope that with time, it can be that way again."

Valen sat for a long while, watching her thoughtfully from above folded hands. "Why is this so important to you?"

"Because," she responded in all seriousness, "once upon a time there was a little girl named Elena, and she was told that she couldn't be a leader because she was a girl. So she did it anyway." She paused, letting him take that in, and added, "And just because your women have let themselves get walked on in the past doesn't mean that's always how it's going to be. They might wake up one day and decide they don't like it."

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A/N: ... and it's over. Or is it? Don't expect Season Two anytime soon, but it could happen someday. Your thoughts on this series are very, very welcome - I would love to hear what you've got to say! This project has been part of my life for almost a year now, and I'd like to see it continue. If you're interested in a second season, please, let me know!