Vitória, when she put her mind to it and took the time to do it properly, was good at reading people. She had been trained to read the ticks of expression, she could see when body language was contradicting words, she knew when a soul was burdened.
So her exuberance quickly fell flat when Lord Frederick returned to Tassato from the wedding in Kalino, with a heavier, tired step. She could see the tension through his shoulders, could feel the slight tremor in his hand when he gripped hers and held on to her fingers.
She led him into the closest room, sat him down in the quiet space, and watched from where she knelt beside him at his knees, as he slowly, methodically, began to remove his circlet and favours, as she took them from his hands and laid them carefully aside.
She had never witnessed Dawnish girding. It wasn’t something she yet understood except in theory; she knew the closest she could probably frame it to League sensibilities was as an actor would mask and unmask themselves — but always out of view of the audience. So it was both disconcerting and humbling to watch as Lord Frederick ungirded himself before her eyes.
Her mind leapt between just how bad it must be, that with each article of clothing or jewellery his burden doubled, then tripled. Expression cracking, shoulders hunching as if under the weight of the world as he began to tell of what he had witnessed, what he had seen. She held his hand tightly with one hand, while the other ran over his knuckles tenderly. How bad it must be — and how humbled she was that he was letting her see, that he trusted her enough to see.
Emotions flared and fired within her like an inferno, each heartbreak he related fuelling the blaze. She thought back to the letter that had arrived from him after he had left, at the emotions that had welled up in her upon reading them — ‘You are a better Loyalty priest, my Lord, than I ever was.’– but still she listened, saying nothing; she hadn’t forgotten everything she knew of that time. When his tears fell, she leaned up on her knees, wiping the sorrows from his cheeks, but saying nothing, just letting him talk, unburden himself.
‘If I speak, I’ll fuck this up,’ her mind berated her, ‘too cursed, too many problems, I can’t solve them all, I can’t offer solutions fast enough, though I would. Though I want to. Easier to just be here. Please don’t cry.’ Each tear that fell Vitória gently wiped, feeling her own well up at his distress. When he could not speak anymore; when he collapsed she was there to catch him, her arms encircling him, just holding him close, because it was all she could do.
She caught her reflection in the mirror across the room, watched her masked reflection stare back at her, shifting between the persona of the Bishop and the Lover, the Captain and the Squire. The shifts were erratic, unable to choose a Persona, and surrounded by the ever-shifting, blurring halo of Night magic that the curse represented.
Frederick shifted then, drawing her attention away from the mirror, and she pulled back from him, her fingers reaching up to touch her face — ‘no, I left my masks upstairs… good.’ — then she looked back into his eyes, weary and drawn and so lost, so despondent.
“Come with me?” Vitória climbed to her feet, holding out her hand for his, waiting until his fingers slid into hers before she led him off. She knew where to take him, and it wasn’t far.
The streets were darkening, lanterns being lit at the encroaching dusk as she passed along the Via Abrizza, leading Lord Frederick along the quiet merchant stalls. Her purse was significantly lighter by the time she had purchased enough to fill her basket, as Frederick followed obediently. When she had all she needed, she took his hand with a gentle smile and led him until they reached the elaborate facade of a chantry. Tugging him eagerly inside, she guided him into the gilded hall, passing down one side aisle before he could truly look around at the shrine.
Vitória carefully caught the basket in the crook of her arm, pulling a key from her pocket and inserting it into a nearly invisible keyhole, marked with a tiny red fox sigil amongst a painted mural of an Exemplar of Prosperity in League garb. She pushed the invisible door inwards, into blackness.
“Where are we going?” He asked, but she tutted until he followed, the door shutting behind them both.
“Follow me. There’s a staircase circling right, take my hand. Hurry, it’s almost time!” Her voice had a lilt of urgency to it, as she led him up a dark stone stair.
They emerged onto a private balcony, unlit but for the soft glow of candles far below, and the occasional bustle of the workings of the church. She pulled him down into a nest of comfortably arranged pillows and blankets. She curled up too, making sure he was comfortable, the basket set aside within reach, then leaned on her elbows to overlook the Chantry below through the thin metal railings.
“I still don’t see what we’re doing… where are–” She leaned over and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.
“Shh…. tomorrow, we will face your problems together. Tonight, we will just listen.” The sound within the Chantry settled, then a voice below began singing a hymn of Virtue, of a pilgrim struggling with Virtue. A second voice joined in melodiously after a moment, then another moment before a choir joined in the hymn, the music echoing up to the balcony as Evensong began.
Vitória remained silent, curled into the cushions and arranging Fred’s head into her lap; her fingers ran soothingly through his hair as she let the music wrap around them, praying it would be a comfort to him. Her words would make it worse, but her music, here in the heart of her congregation, that she could share.
The waves of music and singing filled his heart and down into his very soul itself. After the hard weekend repressing his natural instincts to sing the praises of the Way, in order to handle Suranni sensibilities and heresy without provoking a war the Empire could ill afford, it was restorative to bathe in the unrestrained praise of Virtue. He slowly picked at bits of candied fruits and small savoury pieces, his appetite still not with him, but he knew he had to force himself to eat something at least.
With his head in Vitória’s lap he could close his eyes and slowly, slowly that emotional wind could calm, here in the eye of the storm he could get a control of it and perhaps be able to face all his hard choices with a somewhat calmer mind.
As the singing reached a crescendo, praise echoing over the walls, he felt the power of Loyalty echoing in his soul. ‘Nothing extraordinary is achieved without great sacrifice’, he whispered, as a contented smile crossed his face, as his eyes closed and he fell into a light sleep with the final chords of Evensong ringing through the chapel, and Vitória’s fingers gently running through his hair.