Author Note: To Stéphane Cabel and Christophe Gans belong characters and plot elements from Le Pacte des Loups; Their Eminences the Cardinals Pirelli and Pezzoli appear with gratitude respectively to Ronald Firbank and Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, who are out of copyright, anyway. Sadly, the divine Aubrey is unable to provide illustrations...

Please note that this story contains sexual references and a decidedly decadent atmosphere.

To Juliss - The Inquisition was founded to deal with the upsurge of heresy in Occitania (including the territory in which the film took place) in early 13C. It was dominated by the order of friars founded by Domingo Guzman: the Dominicans. The Spanish Inquisition was a separate entity, but also predated Loyola and the Jesuits.

A HABIT OF INTRIGUE

"PAR LES DIEUX JUMEAUX TOUS LES MONSTRES NE SONT PAS EN AFRIQUE."

("For the twin Gods, not all the monsters are in Africa."

Inscription on Portrait of Himself, A.V. Beardsley, 1894

"His Eminence Cardinal Pirelli to see you, Reverend Mother," the ascetic-featured young man announced in Latin. He bowed deeply as the Cardinal - a large, rustling object of scarlet silk and lace, perfumed with stale incense and Bohemia-water - swept into the walnut-panelled study.

His Eminence deigned to incline his head in acknowledgement.

The Abbess smiled, lowering her quill pen and rising from her desk. She fell to her knees with a theatrical flourish: "Mio caro Monsignore!" She caught the look of concern in the young man's pale, feline eyes, but shook her head almost imperceptibly.

"That will be all, Gianfranco," she whispered.

The young man smiled, bowed again and, lithe as a cat, departed the room, closing the door behind him. The Cardinal's gaze followed him: he was tall, lean almost to the point of gauntness, and clad in sombre-hued secular costume. The lace of his shirt-cuffs concealed his hands almost to the fingertips. His long dark hair, tied simply by a black velvet ribbon, fell in curls down his back.

"A new secretary, Reverend Mother?" the Cardinal smiled narrowly, raising the nun to her feet after she had kissed his hand. "And such an elegant one!"

Her dark eyes glimmered in a face which seemed a shield of blush rose (surely 'La Séduisante' or 'Cuisse de Nymphe') amid her black and white veils. "Too old for your tastes, I'd have thought!"

"Indeed. But a very fine gallant all the same. You must tell me your secret, Mother Maddalena!"

She smiled mischievously. "Why? And have more competition? - I think an eye for beauty is bred in!"

"Of course," he grinned. "You are a Medici, after all! Quite the connoisseuse!"

He certainly admired her artistic sensibilities: the study was hung with exemplary scenes of heroic piety. There was a lean-flanked Saint Sebastian (after Langetti), bound and swooning; an unusually full-bosomed Neapolitan Saint Agatha, writhing deliriously under the pincers' grip; and a Flagellation by one of the lesser Caravaggisti which left nothing to the imagination...

Noticing the beads of perspiration appearing on the Cardinal's brow, she asked bluntly: "What do you want, Monsignore? I take it this is not a social visit to debate æsthetics?"

"Indeed not, my dear!" he replied, jolted back to business, and handed her a sealed document. "I cannot stay long! Our brother in Christ the Cardinal Prince Pezzoli being newly returned from the Spanish Americas, I promised to attend him at Vespers in Santa Maria in Trastavere this evening! But I have a message from the Most Holy Father. Given the success of your recent... pilgrimage, he is most pleased with you, and has renewed his Indulgence for you and your assistants. After all, our little 'vermin' problem was... eradicated, was it not?"

"Of course," she nodded. "I am most grateful to the Holy Father for his generosity."

"There is no reason why you should not sleep soundly hereafter - your 'secretary' permitting. No act committed in defence of the Mother Church - however it may be judged by the secular powers, or indeed, by the Church under other circumstances - may be accounted a sin. Your soul is clean, as are those of your helpers."

"It was not so very difficult in the end." She gestured towards a painting of St. Dominic, founder of her order and of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. A small votive lamp flickered before it, illuminating the piebald dogs that played at the saint's feet: Domini canes - a visual pun. "One always sets a hound after wolves, does one not? And when the hound is a bitch on heat, wolves become most co-operative."

"You did well, Maddalena," said His Eminence. "That region has always been troublesome: Cathars, Camisards... You know," he continued, taking a pinch of snuff from a gleaming ormulu-mounted ivory box, "I almost regret - as does His Holiness - that we can no longer use our old methods... It invigorated the Church. And it might stop all these damned kings demanding we disband the Jesuits, if they thought the Princes of the Church could put an crusading army in the field! - Still, I suppose people would complain these days, if we burned a few hundred as an example, or sacked a few cities..."

She shrugged. "There's really no need! And I'm not sure I can imagine you in armour..." (They don't make it in ormulu, she thought.) "Besides, King Louis has lettres de cachet, which do the job quite well enough. I doubt our lupine friends will see the light of day again. But of course, they remain alive in case further information needs to be... extracted."

"True enough. But what will the King want from us in turn? His Holiness fears for the Society!"

She laughed. "Throw a Jesuit from the dome of St. Peter's and he'll land on his feet! They'll survive!"

"- I had expressed some concern over the amount of time your investigation was taking: but I take it you reassured His Holiness on that account?"

"Indeed. I needed firm proof: I had to work with other sources, even government agents - But don't worry: they can't touch us. Also, there was the matter of the creature itself. I do have many unusual skills, but performing animals are outwith the run of my general experience!"

"And your 'secretary'? A souvenir of your travels, judging by his accent?"

"A valuable acquisition. I could hardly let him go to waste. He has his talents."

"I'm sure he does..."

"That's not what I meant. A superb shot, and, bar one, the best swordsman I've seen in years. I think he'll be a useful accessory."

"Really? I wouldn't have thought -"

"He's stronger than he looks. Our methods compliment each other perfectly." And as she folded her hands beneath her delicate chin, the candlelight glimmered on a ring on her right hand: a ring with a hinged bezel. "But," she went on, "I admit, the hindering of my return was his doing."

The Cardinal raised an eyebrow. "I can imagine!"

"Tsk! I mean, he was ill on the journey. If you must know, he had a disorder of the mind, and - more pressingly - a malady of the lung. Spitting blood."

"Consumption?"

"No. He simply reacts badly to cold steel."

She remembered returning to the old Templar Church, even as the rain beat down, hoping that the man who had tempted her might have changed his mind, might have waited. "I could introduce you in Rome", she had told him; but the sickbed of that provincial chit had held more allure ...

Instead, beside the desecrated altar, among the ruined pillars, she had been left with a ruined body, a broken mind. Half-naked, his many wounds - including her own handiwork - bleeding into the plashing mud... Treacherous, heretical, incestuous, deformed, insane, beautiful...

"It was Plato, was it not, who wrote that we are sundered creatures, each seeking our missing half?" she said.

"That's a dangerous notion, my dear!" Pirelli teased. "One of you is bad enough: two would be quite invincible!"

And Mother Maddalena - née Silvia dei' Medici - smiled, knowing that already they were.