The Cathedral of Nisan had been spared most of the damage from the war, almost as if God himself had bent from the skies and shielded it. The hearts of the people, however, were less well-protected, and the ravages of grief were visible in many. For Sophia was dead, and Nisan wept.
She had died a hero, that much was plain, sacrificing herself so that others might live. It was characteristic of her, the people all said. Yet she had died, and for a nation that had lost far too many of its brothers and sons, losing its beloved Mother was almost too much to bear.
Sister Mary forcibly dragged her thoughts away from the matter of the recent war as she finished opening the doors to the cathedral, smiling softly at the masses of the faithful gathered for prayer. The war had ended, yet people continued to come to services, as if praying for continued peace. King Roni encouraged it; he said that any nation that had God's favor could not ever be defeated. Sister Mary thought that kind of him -- or perhaps he truly was one of the faithful; she did not know. All she knew was that as she made her way back down the aisle of the cathedral, the soft tattoo of her boot-heels echoing through the vastness of the nave, was that people came here for the healing that the sisters of Nisan had learned from the tutelage of the Mother.
She did not feel capable of bringing that healing -- not now, not today. The telegram, right before Mattins ... the terrible words, her brother's body finally found, the last of her family finally confirmed dead... But she pushed those thoughts aside as well, for it was time for Lauds, and the anaphora was hers. Her crystalline voice lifted as she took her place in the choir, spiraling to the heavens.
"Remember also, O Lord, those who have offered the offerings at thine holy altar and those for whom each has offered ... Remember, O Lord, all those whom we have mentioned and those whom we have not mentioned ... Again vouchsafe to remember those who stand with us and pray with us..."
The familiar words touched her heart, having a special meaning for her on this day. She spent the rest of the Mass in a warm fog of communion; always, always did she know that God heard her voice when she lifted it in prayer. It was not until after the liturgy, when the cathedral had emptied, that she remembered David, and once more bowed her head.
"Your pardon, Sister," came the voice from behind her; rough velvet, somehow soothing and alarming all at once, possessing weight and dignity.
She whirled, pressing one hand to her chest to still her heart; she had not been aware of his approach. Summoning the shield of her office, she looked up at him -- and up, for she was a small woman, and he a large man -- and said, forcing a smile she did not feel, "May I help you, pilgrim?"
The man facing her was tall, his shoulders broad, yet fashioned in a strange slenderness -- almost as if a strong wind would blow him away. Written on his face was the mark of years of ill-treatment -- ~perhaps at the hands of the enemy?~ her mind suggested, and was hushed -- but it was nothing compared to the pain held in his eyes. He spoke again, still in that rich voice. "Have you time to hear confession?"
Sister Mary stepped back, a bit against her will; his sheer presence was near-overwhelming. "F-forgive me, pilgrim," she stammered, hearing her heart beating in her ears. "Why me? I am but young; and the Nisan sect does not stress the importance of confessing one's sins to an all-knowing clergy; that is Ethos doctrine... perhaps you should seek their aid, or beg your forgiveness of God directly..." She could hear herself babbling, and one part of her was shamed at her uncharitable words, but the man's gaze unnerved her in a way she had not been disturbed before.
He shook his head, slowly. "The Ethos and I have ... theological disputes," he said, still softly. "And how could one with voice as yours not have the ear of God? I pray you, Sister, grant me peace."
How could she deny a request such as that? She could not, and she knew that to be truth. Bowing her head, she said, her voice soft. "Very well. Please -- please follow me."
He said nothing, simply inclined his head. She led him to one of the small rooms often used as confessionals, without looking back to see if he followed; she was not surprised, when she turned, finally, to find him already kneeling.
"Bless me, Sister," he said, voice barely audible, before she could speak; "for I have sinned. It has been ... years ... since my last confession." His head was bowed; his dark hair flowed around his cheeks. "I have failed in my duty to God, and to my duty to man. I have let one who depended upon me fall to his madness, and I have been able to do naught to check that fall save chase after him like a child to retrieve his toy. I have failed to reach his tormentor, failed to bring her back to the love of peace. I have taken life, and done so gladly, to spare further pain, and in doing so, have lost my chance to redeem a soul." His voice was calm as he recited his sins.
Sister Mary could feel her eyes growing wide at his words, at the pain that they held deeply in check -- but she remembered, all too well, that a war had just been fought. Her voice was gentle as she sat in the chair he knelt in front of. "Can you tell me what has happened to you?" she asked, softly.
The pilgrim shook his head, roughly. "I cannot," he said, regret in his tone. "It is a long story, longer than can be told in a single afternoon."
She nodded, and -- obeying some distant prompting -- reached out a hand to rest it on his shoulder. "Tell me what you can, then," she said, softly. "God will hear the rest."
He did not look up, but nodded. After a long moment in which she feared he would say no more, he spoke again. "I have failed," he repeated, softly, "in my duty. I have -- some small power, in this world, but with it comes no small burden, and I have laid that burden down for a time. When I returned to once more take it upon me, I chose poorly, and found the chance to reclaim that duty again had been taken from me and placed in the hands of those that did not understand its weight." He paused, still motionless. "It is a troubled time, Sister, as I need not remind one of Nisan. Part of the burden of relieving that trouble lies upon my shoulders, and I was unable to change aught that had happened."
Sister Mary made a small noise, halfway between soothing and distressed, and let her hand fall. "Surely you did your best?" she ventured, after a moment. "You do not seem the type to shirk a duty, not if this failure is riding you so..."
The man made a brief, abortive gesture, a small motion of frustration. "My best," he said, shortly, "was not good enough. I could have done better." He sighed, deeply, and finally looked up; she could barely hold back a cry at the pain -- the sheer weight -- that was visible in his rich chocolate eyes. "I come to you not for comforting words," he said, lowly. "For there is no comfort for one such as I; I come to you, rather, that there might be one person on this earth who may pray for me with unhindered conscience. Remember me kindly to God, Sister Mary, I pray of you, and pray that He might grant me strength to continue."
She looked back at him, held captive by those eyes. "I -- I shall," she whispered, not even able to wonder how he knew her name.
The man nodded. "I thank you," he said, softly, rising to his feet and turning to leave the small room.
"Wait --" Sister Mary found the cry dragged out of her, and she was startled to find that she too was on her feet, holding out a single hand to the mysterious man. "May I -- may I know your name, for my prayers?"
The man studied her for one brief instant, and then nodded. "Call me Raphael," he said, voice harsh, and then was gone.
It was a long few moments before Sister Mary could bring herself to leave the room, moments she used to review the brief encounter. She finally sighed. She did not understand ... but she would honor the man's request. How could she not, when it was asked of her in confession?
She remembered his name in her prayers for the rest of her life. She could not know it, but that thought brought comfort beyond measure to a single, all-too-human, angel.
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