Eleanor, Duchess of Montresor, snorted at a young girl and waved her back a pace or two with disgust, holding a lacy square to her nose. "Heavens, child, are you ill? What do you mean, coming here and coughing at me like that?"
The girl, who had never done anything more unfortunate in her life than be more naturally comely than Eleanor had ever been in her days of best beauty, and poor enough to be willing to take a well-paying job even if it made her miserable, backed away obediently with another slight curtsey. "Please, ma'am, I thought you would want to know. The Vatican was closed and all the tourists expelled. They say... they say there is a woman there ... some say she is of the Massri family... claiming to be a goddess and calling for God to appear." She knew the early notice would be enough to avoid a beating for not bringing her the lastest gossip instantly, but only hoped it would be enough for an extra coin or two in her pay, if her mistress remembered. Her family was entirely dependent upon her salary, so anything she could do for the cantankerous and capricious Duchess might help them immeasurably.
Eleanor's plucked-chicken eyebrows raised nearly to the edge of her wig, causing layers of caked-on makeup to crack and flake off, sliding down the slopes of her nose and cheeks and drifting gently onto the vast front of her dress. "Well... that IS interesting." Her jowls jiggled as she chewed at nothing while ruminating on this news, an unconscious habit the girl thought made her look like a gigantic, ugly sheep. Once she made a decision, though, the Duchess of Montresor was lightening-fast, thrusting a bundle of correspondence at the girl with an impatient wave. "Here! Take these and post them immediately. Dab a bit of perfume on that top one.Now go! Instantly! And tell Jakob I am not to be disturbed until dinner." She turned back to her writing desk and began inking a new missive so furiously the nib of her pen bent and she hurled the unreliable instrument across the room.
The girl took the packet with another genuflection and exited quietly, closing the door behind her and passing along the warning to the expressionless doorman. She stopped at Eleanor's dressing table for the ordered perfume, and, smiling slyly, quickly dabbed a generous amount of each of the dozen or so perfumes onto the letter. Her work would not be checked and she hoped to save another poor soul from the grasping talons of the Duchess' machinations. Nodding to the butler, she slipped out onto the street and set a course for the nearest post office.
A weary, middle-aged woman nursing a glass of harsh red in a Roman taproom was telling the harrowing story of her journey on the seaside road between Nice and Sanremo when she heard the rumors of a Massri appearing in the Vatican. Blinking with surprise, she recalled the directive to deliver her message to Rashida Massri, in Rome. Well, the Vatican is in Rome, so technically... Tossing a few lire on the table, she drained her wine and headed to her motorbike, wanting this commission over and done so she could return to her family. It was good to get away from their squabbling from time to time, but this had been a long trip, and she longed for their company again.
As the buzz circulated around Rome, the faithful flocked to St. Peter's Square, armed with rosary beads and faith, there to pray for their Pope, His Holiness Peter II, to be strong against the heathen. Watching closely for signs of unrest, the Swiss Guard ringed the perimeter, ready to control or protect the crowd should... whatever... happen.
Sam's fur was warm under her hand, but his purring presence only made Rashida miss the Duchess Kittington even more: the thought of her warmth, kindness, and wisdom, more fully revealed by the time they had shared within the helmetcat's body, was a comfort to the neo-avatar. With Ma'at's absence came a keen awareness of the absence of others, too, friends all. They have become very dear to me. I hope... the 'other' is taking good care of them. Maybe someday I'll see them again.
The clear sounds of an opening door and pacing tread echoed through the cavernous space, approaching slowly. Rashida remained immobile, head high, despite the lack of Ma'at's presence. An elderly man dressed entirely in scarlet entered her vision, flanked by two Swiss guards looking moderately nervous through their determined attempts at poker faces. The man stopped before her and nodded courteously, dark eyes bright with intelligence beneath thick, snowy brows.
"I am Cardinal Mancini, Vicar General of Rome. These gentlemen insisted upon accompanying me, though I would prefer they did not. I welcome you to the Holy See, madam." He fell silent and looked at Rashida meaningfully. She noticed he had not addressed her as either "Lady" nor "Massri". No assumptions, I see.
"Greetings, Cardinal Mancini. I am known as Rashida Massri in this place. I bring warning and counsel regarding a grave threat to this world and others." She didn't know precisely what Ma'at would say, but that seemed a politic enough thing to begin with.
"Indeed? I was informed that you insisted upon speaking to God." The man was polite, but taciturn. Rashida could not blame him. This was as much a game as the poker she used to play in college, but with much higher stakes.
"There are forces in play that will require all the gods of this world and their adherents to work together to save Earth, Cardinal."
"Excellency," growled one of the guards, "You will address the Vicar General of the Holy See as Excellency."
Startled, Rashida paused for a moment, barely able to wrap her mind around the concerns of formalities when all of reality could hang in the balance. The Cardinal waved one heavily-veined hand slightly, almost dismissively. "Peace, Heinrich. The Lady Massri may not be familiar with our customs."
A smile curled the very edges of Rashida's lips. "Indeed, Excellency, I meant no disrespect. You may address me as..." She paused, letting the silence grow to uncomfortable length, then completed her smile. "Rashida. The matters I would take up with the Church are far too important to stand on formality. You know my family and its reputation. I am one of the... newer members and am not here lightly. You must hear me."
"Do you speak for your family then, young lady?" the Cardinal asked warily, trying to find his political footing.
Golden light grew around Rashida and the voice that issued from her echoed strangely. "Young? I was ancient before your kind walked on two legs, Cardinal. Convene your high council, quickly, and summon your God. We have no time to waste with formalities and games."
The guards knuckles whitened as they held their halberds ready.
Ma'at had returned.