(Set in the middle of the debrief for Matters of Trade.)
Armand sits, enveloped in shadow, at his escritoire: hands stretched out, cupped, before him. A single lamp at his desk provides scant illumination, as fear of the dark - however justified - he has reasoned, is a pitiful trait that he disdains to acquire.
His heart beats in his hand. Unpleasant. Every flutter feels precarious. There’s an unexpected heft to it that goes beyond physical weight - a kind of spiritual pull that draws the eye, and sets the base of his spine tingling. He hasn’t let himself consider the ramifications of that. He hasn’t let himself think at all since he began focusing.
Warrior. Sharpen my courage and heighten my strength. Help me achieve what must be achieved.
His lips frame the words, but he doesn’t chant out loud. Some instinct is telling him that this calls for absolute silence, and so he obeys; the prayer dies, incongruous against the hush. It’s quiet in here, approaching dusk - but, somehow the open window still troubles him, and even the mild summer air seems to bite. He feels vulnerable: stripped back, as though flayed.
Slowly, he pulls the curtain shut, until only a narrow line of moonlight falls to the foot of the bed.
With effort, he looks over towards Penelope, where she is crouched, half-asleep, in the corner of the room - her knuckles white against the edge of a bottle; her newly red hair falling in fine, greasy strands - and wonders how it can even be possible that he’s already - gods, not forgiven her, but…
The awful, indefensible truth of it wells up against the edge of his awareness, and suddenly - though he has remained stone-cold sober, thank you, despite ample reason to do otherwise - he feels as though he might need to throw up.
He doesn’t know what to do with this. He doesn’t know if the urge to speak for her - to cry out against Uncle Walter’s decrees; to take the scrupulously truthful account of events that he publicised, and overwrite it with platitudes and half-lies that might salvage her reputation - is just the hangover of half-acknowledged feelings from before (before she ripped his heart out), or whether it’s evidence of something more permanent. Either way, it frightens him.
He’s helpless against this. He hates that.
More than anything, he resents the implication that it gives her power over him. It doesn’t. No more than if he’d just been concerned, and not wholly devastated, when she’d been carried away by those shadow things - and hadn’t he proved as much, when he went shovelling through wreckage to excavate Francesco? Armand Cargan leaves no allies behind.
He’s moved now, shifting so that he’s hunched right over his hands, but Penelope might as well be carved from granite for all that she seems to notice. Fine by him; her input is the last thing he needs. With the manner of a man no longer certain of his own destiny, frame of mind, or purpose in the Founders’ scheme, but who is nonetheless resolved that any investigation into this matter must take place under absolute cover of darkness, Armand reaches over and extinguishes the lamp.
Still no word from Penelope. Good.
With that, he sits, closes his eyes, and - heart pounding in his cupped hands - concentrates. Focuses on the quiet hum of divine energy before him. He can’t quite trace it, nor can he accurately pinpoint its provenance. All he knows is that there’s an edge to it that doesn’t quite cohere - a strangeness that sends another slight chill down his spine, finishing where the name Alyssa still burns in the small of his back. It is entirely different to the rich heat of the Warrior’s presence: all fire, and laughter, and fortitude. It is, however, not unfamiliar.
Penelope tips her head back to take another gulp from the bottle, pulling his thoughts temporarily back towards the room, and he sighs, irritated. Sets his jaw.
Warrior. Sharpen my spirit and -
It’s second nature, the need to connect with his god - even more so, since that brief, horrible spate of silence earlier today, with shadows scraping at his throat, and Penelope’s knife at his back - and right now, it’s pure comfort: but more alarming is the way it feels completely inappropriate to the current setting.
He pauses. Re-evaluates. With tremendous effort, he banishes all thoughts of the Warrior from his mind.
Then, he sets about tracing that soft glow of power back to its source.
His breathing evens. Stills. The only noise in the room comes from the soft, unperturbable snap of the clock on the wall - alongside which comes the softer, equally regular pulse of the heart in his hands. The shadows grow longer still, engulfing the bed, as clouds drift over the moon.
A flicker of determination: steel. Flash of a smile. Pang of remorse - but not doubt. Never doubt.
“Oh,” breathes Armand - and wasn’t this inevitable? “It’s you.”
And then recoils, realising. The chair skitters halfway across the floor as he stands.
His heart beats wildly between his fingers, agitated, like a small, caged animal. Dizzied and perplexed, he stares down at his hands - awkwardly uncertain of what he ought to do with it. Which is, quite frankly, preposterous, considering all the trouble he went to reclaiming the wretched thing. To say nothing of the fact that it’s his. And yet, there it is: this is awkward.
Penelope finally snaps to attention, looking pained, as he begins to pace about the room.
“I am a priest of the Warrior,” he whispers, indistinctly - half-ashamed to speak her name. Or her epithet. Once, he realises, she had a name, just as the Tender was once Alyssa.
Alyssa, cut into the small of his back - still raw. The Warrior, whose title will be forever on his lips. The Traitor, with her fingers twisted around his heart.
Is this what it’s like, to be truly under the gaze of the gods?
“I am a priest of the Warrior,” he murmurs again, to steady his thoughts.
And yet. There she is, just at the edge of his senses. Though fainter than the Warrior’s presence, the weight of her tugs at him still: and he knows - he knows - that, were he to ask it, she would turn her eyes upon him. She would -
- Penelope looks at him.
He slumps to the floor. Nausea creeps at the back of his throat. And yet, he still clings to that thread: still clutches his heart by the fingertips - still turns instinctively towards the aura, the glow of it; for how could a priest resist the divine?
Shakily, he swallows.
“Pull the curtain tighter,” he says, numbly. “It’s too bright in here.”