Chapter 10

I

Place and time unknown

For as far as Raguel could be considered a reliable judge of such matters, the garden was quite beautiful. Long rows of scented cypresses lined the long lazy lanes that snaked their way back to the pink baroque palace in the distance. There was a thick aroma of blooming flowers and sun-kissed citrus fruits in the air, and from every corner of the garden came the sound of singing birds and buzzing insects. If wasn't so bloody hot, it could have been rather pleasant.

"So this is where you keep yourself busy these days." Raguel said, trying to strike up the conversation in a casual tone. He knew that there was no need to rush things. Time did not exist in this paradise. "How long have you been hiding here from the watchful eyes of the hosts?"

"I have not been in hiding." The other man replied. He was dressed in a long white habit. His eyes were half concealed underneath a heavy hood. In his hand, he held a long wooden staff. He did not seemed to be very pleased to see Raguel again.

"This looks like a hiding place to me." Raguel commented, gazing around. "You're wrapped yourself in a comfortable little bubble outside of time and space. It made it very hard for me to find you. I had to pull a lot of strings and ask for a lot of favors."

"You were not supposed to find me. Nobody was."

Raguel's lips curled into a most deviant smile. "Now that's no way to treat on old friend."

"You know what happened." Although his host's voice remained calm, it was clear to Raguel that he was resentful. "You know that I was imprisoned here by the hosts for failing to carry out my duty. So stop taunting me."

"Oh yes." Raquel replied with a roguish grin. "I remember now." He plucked a stalk of grass from the nearby lawn and chewed at the tip. "Still, not a bad place for a prison. Could be worse."

"How could it ever be worse?" The other man replied. His low voice was now poorly concealing his growing annoyance.

"Oh I don't now." Raguel shrugged. "You could be tossed into the chaoplasm? Or maybe father could have turned you into a tree?"

There was short moment of silence before the other man replied in a slightly less antagonized manner. "You have spoken to the Fallen One?"

"And to Zambriem. By the way, he sends his love. Zambriem that is, not Lucifer. You have to forgive him, but he never did like you that much."

"You do know that they are looking for him?" The other man said in a more pressing voice.

Raguel just shrugged back in response. "Of course I know. That's why I came here to see you."

"I am not going to protect him." The other man replied most resentfully. "If it wasn't for Lucifer, I wouldn't even be here, so far away from the silver city, all but forsaken by our lord."

"Yes, well, you have to see it from his point of view. The guy was imprisoned in the chaoplasm. You know horrible that place is. You can't blame him for trying to escape."

"He was imprisoned in there because he betrayed our father! He rose up against him and had tricked others into doing the same."

"I wasn't tricked." Raguel hissed, walking up to the other man.

"All I am saying is that the crime suited the punishment."

"All right, how about your crime? What did you do to end up here, looking like this?"

The other man bowed his head to shield his eyes.

"I failed my duty. I failed our father." He muttered under his hood.

"Yes you failed him, but you didn't do it on purpose, did you? You just didn't know how it would turn out, but you did your best, and how did the old man and his gang reward you? Tell me then, does your crime suit your punishment?"

"Enough." The other man interrupted him, but Raguel knew when it was time to push through and go for the kill.

"How is Clemens these days? Do you know where he is?" There was cruel glint in Raguel's eyes when he reminded his host of the other fallen angel. "No doubt his punishment is at least as severe as yours. I cannot imagine that they are more lenient with him than they are with you. After all, you were an innocent bystander. It wasn't you who opened the box and let Lucifer out. It was Clemens who took the Avernus. It was him who injured you and took away your -"

"I said enough!" The hooded figure punched the straight end of his wooden staff deep into the ground. The earth immediately started to shake so violently in response that a rain of cones descended from the cypress trees. Even the walls of the pink palace in the distance started to groan. Raguel's eyes drew wide when he saw ground open up beneath his feet.

"All right! All right!" He raised up his hands in surrender. "I won't mention his name again. I swear!"

The violent earthquake subsided and the cracks over the ground stopped spreading, allowing Raguel to regain his footing.

"Why did you come here?" The other man asked. His voice was sounded dangerous, and threatening, but Raguel just smiled back at him in utter defiance. "I am the ex angel of vengeance. I know when and where to show up when I am most needed."

"You came here to ask me to help you and Lucifer? Aren't you afraid I will inform the others?"

"No." Raguel shook his head. "Not a chance in heaven. Not while you're still so very angry. My dear brother, even though you are kept separated from our universe and are confined to your own bubble prison, I can still feel your resentment against those who have wronged you all the way from the other side. I know your heart. You yearn so much for retribution."

"All I want is justice." The other man whispered.

"I can help. If you would be so kind to help me first."

"What do you want know?"

"First things first. We are looking, among other things, for Lucifer's Morningstar, do you know where it is?"

The corners of the other man's lips slowly curled into a knowing smile.

II

Ophelia put her whole soul into combating the disease. She looked after her two patients tirelessly, tending to their every need while being oblivious to her own. I stayed by their side, and together we nursed the old man and the child through the worst of their suffering. On the sixth night after our arrival, the old man suddenly woke from his fevered delirium. He sat upright and asked fearfully for his mother, as if he had completely forgotten that a full life had already passed. We managed to calm him down, telling him not to worry, that his mother had gone out to cut the fields, and will soon return home to him. He slipped back into unconsciousness soon after, and died in his sleep during the early hours of the following morning.

"Don't tell the little girl." Ophelia whispered. When she gently shut the old friar's eyes, I noticed that hers were shining with tears. "I don't want her to know what happened to him. She must have hope."

We continued to look after our last patient, and barely left the tower in the long days that followed. It was agonizing to see the little girl suffer so much at such a tender age, but it was equally agonizing to watch Ophelia suffer along with her. As the girl kept slipping in and out of consciousness, so did Ophelia's hope and despair, wane and wax like the different phases of the moon.

After another two weeks the pestilence finally subsided. The malignant blooms deflated and lost their dark coloration till they became flat reddish spots, before disappearing altogether. On one bright spring morning, our young patient finally opened her eyes to meet Ophelia, who greeted her with a most radiant smile.

"Welcome back." She whispered and placed a gentle kiss on the child's damp forehead.

I had never met anyone who could remain so passionate and true to such a selfless cause. Saving this little girl's life had meant everything to Ophelia, and now that she had finally achieved this seemingly impossible task, the joy that was visible on her face could touch even the most hardened of souls.

But then, heaven help the fool who had already lost his heart to this earthly angel of mercy.

"Oh may heaven reward you both for restoring her." Friar Norbert exclaimed after he heard of the good news. He took us in a joyful embrace, which delighted Ophelia but brought me only embarrassment. I had done nothing to deserve his gratitude. It was Ophelia's unfaultable conviction for doing what was right that had saved the child's life, whereas my selfishness would have let die.

However, the simple man lacked the wit to see the obvious, and heralded us both as saintly heroes to everyone in the monastery to hear. Every one of his flattering words that painted colors to my imagined virtues rang false in my ears.

"As her miraculous recovery coincides with the Mayday celebrations, we will hold tonight's feast in your honor to thank you both for your great kindness." The friar proclaimed. Of course this only further worsened my guilt.

When the festivities started later that day I was quick to withdraw from human company, finding the faces of the friars and the poor who came to express their misplaced gratitude to me far more impossible to bear than would have been their scorn or hatred.

At least the latter were well known territories, whereas their kindness was too much terra incognita and worked havoc on my nerves.

I found my way to the wine table and started drinking heavily in the hope that the evening would pass sooner once my faculties were numbed. I was about to empty my second cup towards drunken bliss when Ophelia found me sulking behind the stack of wine barrels.

"There you are." She said. "Friar Norbert was asking about you. Why won't you come and join us?"

"Alas my good lady, I am no good company." I replied as bluntly as I could, taking another good swig to make this ridiculous world a little bit more bearable. "Don't want to spoil the mood for everyone else."

"Oh come on, you must have celebrations in the north, or where ever you came from." She teased in good humor. "What do you normally do?"

"Normally?" I snorted. "Normally I would try to avoid these frivolities on the pain of death." The wine was stronger than I expected it to be. The intoxication that coursed through my blood at a most delicious speed brought boldness to my tongue and weakened my reserve. "Honestly I had never understood what the whole point was of these senseless gatherings." I complained, steadying myself with my hand resting on one of the barrels.

"Well." She said, still in good humor, she crossed her arms over her bosom. "If you truly don't understand, let me explain it to you. You see those people over there who are dancing around that bon fire? They are happy. They are celebrating that they have yet survived another dreadful winter. That their loved ones are healthy again, and that the warmth and the light have finally returned after long months of absence. They have come together to celebrate life."

"It must be so liberating to desire no more but such simple pursuits." I muttered, taking another swig from the wine.

"You find their pursuit of happiness ridiculous?"

"Oh no, in contrast, I am envious. Look at those simple fools, you have saved but one life and they respond with such…extreme positivity. It is as if you have cured them from all illnesses and solved all of their problems. If only I could shed my cynicism and think like them for the rest of my days, why I would be constantly ecstatic!"

Her good mood soured in response to my sarcasm. "You don't understand what she means to them, do you?"

"She is just one little girl. The elixir will not always work. It did not work with the old friar. Millions have dead from the plague before, and millions more will undoubtedly follow." I remarked, pointing out the obvious flaws in their thinking.

She placed her hands on her hips. I noticed that she often did this when she was rejecting any of my arguments. She was literally standing her ground. "Yes she is but one child. She is also more than that. She is hope. They celebrate the survival of one child because for them it is a light in the darkness of these horrible times. Life is not bearable without it."

"Finally you say something I can agree on. Life is unbearable indeed."

She sighed deeply. "What may I ask, do you pursue, Richard of Bosworth?"

"To be truthful, I…I don't know." I paused and gazed in the distance. "I used to know. I mean, my father, he used to know. He always knew exactly what he wanted."

The English throne had been my father's dream. It was that great ambition of my beloved lord, which had become my curse. In the end it had destroyed our noble house. I, with my own incessant scheming, had brought down the great house of York, but I was still lucid enough to not tell her that, despite the wine loosening my tongue.

"When I was a child, I was often bullied by my cousins, because…well I guess you can think of the reasons why." I said with a bitter grin. "One day, after an exceptional cruel prank, I ran home, crying like some dim-witted gosling. My father found out, and instead of providing consolation like my loving mother did, he took me aside and scolded me for being a weakling. He said, the only reason why I was bullied, was not because I looked different, but because I had allowed them to torment me. If I had confronted my bullies with full conviction and strength of mind and body, they would have not dared to ridicule me. To my father, supremacy was the only answer, and he urged me to take it into heart that I should always strive to better myself and my family's fortunes. The higher our positions, the smaller the chance that our enemies would be able to harm us. Of course you could not always enforce a man's love and loyalty with dominance, but you could make him fear you. If one day, you find they do not fear you enough, then with that same authority, they are easily dispatched."

I paused, realizing that I had said too much, but now that my heart had opened up to Ophelia, it was difficult to shut it again. "After my father died, his dreams became that of mine and my brothers. For a long time I believed in my father's words. I thought that the higher I would climb, the less I would make myself vulnerable to others. I guess at the end, I had climbed so high and had reached such a dazzling height, that the only fate left to me was to fall." I paused, dark thought clouding my mind.

"So here I am, back at the bottom where I once started, like some damned Icarus with burnt wings who had soared too close to the blasted sun." I concluded with a bitter grin, my heart filling up with self-loathing. "Only I wish, like Icarus, I could have been granted the decency of a permanent death. Why I still walk this earth and am forced to wallow in its misery is beyond my comprehension. For all considered purposes, surely life should have been done with me by now." I raised my cup in a mock salute and was about to empty it in one go, when she took stopped me.

"Don't say that. It's not true." She told me strictly, looking deep into my eyes. "I think you have more then enough for now." She put the cup out of my reach, and gazed over her shoulder at the merry crowd behind us. "Dance with me." She said, turning around.

"I don't dance." Surely she could see that I was already swaying on my feet. What was in this most potent wine? It worked faster and more efficiently than a blow to the head by a blacksmith's maul.

"Oh sure you do." She took my hand and pulled me behind.

"I am serious, I don't know how." I was being truthful. I never had the determination nor the patience to learn what most of my kin considered to be an essential part of court etiquette. What the use? No woman in her right mind would ever accept an invitation to dance from this repellant crook-back.

But Ophelia was very determined. "Believe me, no one really knows." She gestured at the dancing pairs who were twirling joyfully in a wide circle. "They are just shuffling around, pretending that they do. Come Richard on, before this night is over, I want you to have a bit of fun."

She dragged me into the center of the circle and started to dance. Her feet were floating on invisible clouds as she alternated her steps on the rhythm of the tambourine, while her hands swayed lively from her side, following the melody of the lutes. As always, her enthusiasm and sheer joy for the moment were contagious, and as the rhythm of the musical instruments aligned with the beating of my heart, I lost my reservations, and followed her wild dance steps till I was as synchronized with her movements as her own shadow. It was in a sequence of claps and turns that she became overconfidence and lost her footing.

"Careful now." I muttered, catching her in my arms.

"Oh I am so sorry!" She laughed while trying to regain her balance. "I am such an ass! I almost muddled it up and dragged you down with me."

She wrapped her hand around my neck for support. Then she looked at me. In her eyes I saw the reflection of a million stars.

"I suppose, we both are who our fathers have made us." She gently touched my cheeks with her fingertips. "It doesn't mean we cannot change. You don't have to be the man your father thought you needed to be. Life is about change, and you Richard of Bosworth, are very much alive."

She shut her eyes and gently pressed her lips onto mine. For a brief moment, the memory of what happened after I kissed Isabel Neville came back to haunt me, and made my body stiffen in response. But then the tenderness of her touch slowly dissolved all of that, and chased away the darkness of that thought. I leaned into her, responding with a burning desire, a deep seated yearning to be loved, that I had not known still existed in me.

Was this what greybeards called divine love? This shameless need, this ravenous hunger for another soul, this strange addiction to her presence without which I could now scarcely breathe, let alone imagine go on living?

She pulled away, parting the brief bond that had ignited this fierce longing in my heart.

When she opened her eyes again to look at me, there was no dreaded disappointment of a hard-faced rejection. Instead, her lips broadened into the most dazzling of smiles, and with it came a promise of a love that was finally returned.

TBC