Saint Angelione was not the largest church within  Vatican City. In fact, as far as churches went, it was tiny, but when it came to outward appearances it was easily the most ornate. Several hundred years’ association with the Roman Catholic Church had given Monsignor diCendia a basis for comparison and Saint Angelione was certainly the most decorated church he had come across in the past eight hundred years. Built over century and a half ago, during the height of the Gothic movement, every surface that could have been carved shaped or adorned, had been. DiCendia used to find such an elaborate presentation of the Church objectionable and unneccesarily fussy, but time had changed his opinion.

            The Monsignor had always preferred churches at night, and now - due to certain lifestyle restrictions - he was limited to visiting the serene vestibules only after sunset. He had to admit that he preferred it that way. The masses needed saving, certainly, but the dirt and noise they brought in with them were a distraction from the quiet beauty of these houses of God. In the middle of the night, the only distraction he bore was the scent of dozens of candles pushing back the shadows. The nightly routine of lighting the candles - a task he was currently halfway through - with its steady monotony of action and prayer always calmed him against whatever the evening might bring. Yes, an empty church was a fine place for thinking without distraction.

            But tonight, the church was not empty.  A young woman stood beside a wooden depiction of the crucifixion, idly stroking the feet of Christ as she gazed upon a stained-glass window that glowed red and purple in the moonlight. Unlike the peasants that the Monsignor found so bothersome, she was clad in a long woolen dress of a fine enough weave to indicate she was a member of the upper class. He shouldn't have been surprised. Only the nobility would brave the evening's horrors - real and imagined.

The young woman didn’t bother to turn until he approached, watching him stop a few feet away from where she was.

            “May I help you, child?” He spoke with a quiet monotone, not wanting to upset the stillness the night offered. Midnight visitors hardly surprised him as noble women were sometimes vulnerable to religious hysteria - a fact that the Monsignor had taken advantage of before.  He looked upon her with eyes the color of frost, taking in each nuance of her movements, cataloguing them for future consideration.

            She turned slightly to face him, allowing the dim light of the candles to bath her in a warm glow. DiCendia had to suppress a smile of anticipation. She was rich - as evinced by the gold she wore around her throat and wrists - and she was striking. Her dark features rested within a flawless pale face, the beauty of which further encouraged the greedy thoughts creeping into his mind.  Immediately, the Monsignor began to wonder how she would taste when he took her on the altar.

He continued his inspection of her, letting his eyes run the length of her form and back again. The gentle swell of her breasts, rising up to the curve of her pale neck. Pale neck? He mused, and the thought caused the Monsignor’s glee to fade. He realized that this visitor was not a potential victim. Well, the prospect wasn’t as certain as it had been a minute ago, but diCendia liked to keep his options open - even if his tastes preferred living prey to that of the undead.

            Anja Skolnikov regarded her companion steadily. She had heard the Monsignor was a striking individual, and she had to admit that the reports were correct. It wasn’t his appearance - although his white-blonde hair and habit of wearing darkened spectacles even in the dark confines of the church were unsettling. Rather, his demeanor was what Anja found most striking. DiCendia was entirely self-contained, absolutely focused upon the current situation. Each movement was controlled and precise-nothing was wasted.  The habit of focus was something that came to all elder vampires, eventually - although Anja as still finding it difficult, herself.

            “I think so, Monsignor.” Her hand lingered a moment at the base of the cross before it fell, pausing only a moment to inspect her perfectly-formed nails. Shaking her head slightly to clear her thoughts, Anja returned her attention to diCendia. Her brother, Gregor, had charged her with making the initial contact with this unconventional churchman and she didn’t want to destroy the situation by feeling rushed - or distracted. “I’ve come to give my confession.”

            Their eyes met for the briefest of moments as the Monsignor offered a hint of a smile. Oh, have you now? He thought silently. Some kindred clung to old habits but, in his experience, those who came to the confessional were looking for a chance to boast, rather than repent. The Monsignor cared little for anyone who wasted his time.

            “Although I should admit that I’ve sought you out in particular.” She added after a short pause.

            At least she’s telling the truth in that. The Monsignor nodded. “Why?”

            Anja suppressed a smile of her own. Too much anticipation could be ruinous.

“Penance.” She replied simply. “I hear you’ve got a deft touch for it.”

Her glance had become calculating, touched with a tinge of greed .The Monsignor chuckled.

 “If you enjoy paying for your sins, that rather defies the point.” And she wouldn’t be the first…nor would I be the first to benefit by it… diCendia prided himself on self-honesty.

            “That’s all right.” Anja shrugged. “I don’t feel particularly guilty about what I’ve done.”

            Maybe you will, later.  Again he allowed his imagination wander for a moment. It was obvious that this kindred was looking for some amusement. So be it. The Monsignor had a few special things he reserved for thrill-seekers.

            “I’ll be the judge of that.” The Monsignor warned his companion. “Let me hear your confession, first.”

            This might take a while, Anja thought maliciously as she followed the priest to the confessional.

 

            An exhausting hour later, they emerged from the confines of the small chambers, both deep in their own thoughts. Even by the Monsignor’s broad standards, Anja - for she had given her name to him, finally - had been reveling in a life rife with wickedness. Not that he was condemnatory of debauchery, particularly not amongst his own kind, but Anja had reveled more than most. Rather than boasting, diCendia realized during their discussion that his companion was trying to initiate an acquaintance, although her reasons had yet to be discerned. This piqued the Monsignor’s curiosity. Even amongst his fellow Giovanni, he had few acquaintances, and certainly no friends. Why would this stranger seek him out? If she wanted to play sinner-saint games, he wasn’t the only kindred in the Vatican.

            Anja hoped that she hadn’t pushed matters too far. The Monsignor’s reputation suggested that his attention would be difficult to capture and keep. Given the man’s rumored age and dedication to unconventional entertainment, she worried that diCendia had been bored by their conversation so far. Of course, if he had been bored, I doubt he would have encouraged me to go on for so long, she thought.

            A small smile curved his lips as the Monsignor caught a wisp of what she was thinking and he began to consider an appropriate course of action. Something just unusual enough to capture her attention in turn, he thought.

“I doubt that even you will live long enough to say enough rosaries for what you’ve done, child.” He murmured as they sedately padded along a richly carpeted aisle.

The noblewoman bristled at his choice of address. He knew her name, after all, and she didn’t care for his patronizing air - the only one who could get away doing that to her was her brother. Keeping her goal in mind, Anja held back her intended response and, instead, bowed her head in a show of deference that was entirely fraudulent.

The Monsignor was not fooled however, he was quite certain he had the measure of this woman, now, and he knew what to do. He halted their progress beside a statue of Mary, which stood half shrouded in shadow within its niche. A fat candle, standing on a waist-high sconce, illuminated the Blessed Virgin and kept complete darkness at bay.

“Instead - “ he paused. “Give me your hand,” he asked abruptly.

Anja didn’t bother to hide her surprise,  “Instead what?” she asked, curiosity creeping into her voice.

“Give…me…your…hand.” The Monsignor repeated, his voice dropping low, barely audible. After a moment’s hesitation, Anja held out her right hand.

            He stepped behind her, gracefully grasping her forearm with one hand, and encircling her waist with his remaining arm. The last thing he wanted was for her to run. Silently, he placed Anja’s hand above the candle that stood beside them and held it there.

            Reacting as any kindred would when facing fire, Anja tried to pull her hand away, only to discover that the Monsignor was far stronger than his compact frame implied. Implacably, he forced her open palm down until it almost touched the candle’s flame. Almost immediately, the distinctive odor of burning flesh curdled the air. You wanted penance, the Monsignor thought grimly as he resolutely held Anja in place. The silence was broken with a soft, almost inaudible, popping sound as the skin began to burn.

            Rather than fight the Monsignor, Anja’s attention turned inward as she struggled with her instincts. The burning pain as her palm began to blacken was a significant distraction and rotschreck threatened to release the Beast that lay hidden beneath her calm exterior. In the back of her mind the threat of her brother’s displeasure was also prevalent - as was the punishment that would accompany his anger. A soft growl escaped from deep in her throat, but Anja set her jaw and stood firm, watching her skin burn and split from the heat.

            Unseen, the Monsignor smiled over Anja’s shoulder. He had observed her victory over the initial urge to flee, and he wondered how long she would last. Given how she braced herself against him, he suspected that she might last quite a while - relatively. If she escaped him, he decided, he would not see her again. He had no interest in weaklings.

            Permeating through the smell of burning meat, a more familiar scent demanded diCendia’s attention - blood. Glancing downwards, the Monsignor noticed that Anja’s left hand was tightly clenched into a fist. Her nails had broken the skin and the vitae he smelled dripped thickly from her fist, to dress  the ground in a minute crimson pool. The priest wondered if this was a genuine accident or if Anja was trying to provoke him - indeed, it was provocative. At the moment, it didn’t matter. It would take more than the sight and smell of blood to distract him from his task. Anja was not the first bleeding penitent he had held. Nor, he mused, will she be the last.

            Anja’s resolve was beginning to crumble. Her hand was cooking like a Sunday roast and while she derived some enjoyment from this apparent contest of wills, the discomfort was becoming too much - even by her standards. She bit her tongue hard enough to taste blood  - willing to injure herself rather than break the silence between them. The taste of vitae only renewed her desire to flee and she shook violently as she struggled once more.

            “If this hurts you so much,” the Monsignor whispered. “Imagine how the flames of hell will burn.”

            Anja had to admire the rhetoric, but the admiration was fleeting - swamped by the excruciating pain of her charred flesh. A fine sheen of blood-sweat broke across her brow, marring her porcelain skin only slightly.

“Forgive me.” Anja spoke through gritted teeth, her words barely audible.

            It was the Monsignor’s turn to be momentarily amused. It was not the response he had expected. No pleas for mercy, or threats of retribution. Maybe this ancilla was more serious about penance than she knew. A subject to be taken up later, through vigorous inquiry, no doubt. DiCendia looked down and realized that she was in danger of permanently losing the use of her hand. Reluctantly he relinquished his grip upon her arm, although he kept his other arm about her waist. Anja quickly snatched her hand away from the guttering candle and let it fall to her side as she winced in pain. The hurt would take a long time to heal - as all burns did.

Glancing at the bare expanse of throat and shoulder, the Monsignor decided against tasting a little of what so thickly scented the air. Such an indulgence could be saved for another evening…

            “Do not heal the wound until fourteen days have passed.” He ordered. “Christ carried his wounds that long, I am sure you can bear the same.”

            Anja nodded. She was sure that she would be seeing the Monsignor again after those fourteen days. He released her from his grasp. “Remember this night child, go hence and sin no more,” he commanded. His manner was reserved once again - although a hint of amusement glittered in his gaze.

            Anja favored him with a short bow - the closest she would ever come to acknowledging a superior - and strode out of Saint Angelione without another word. Her brother was waiting for her report. 

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