“And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”
Cardinal Ricci had had a few hours now to digest Palermo’s homily, but it stuck with him as he paced the corridors of the Domus Sanctae Marthae. That was, no doubt, the purpose of it, but had Palermo really intended to unsettle the conclave as he certainly had?
During their lunch retreat, it was expected that the Cardinals would speak of the vote – after all, that was their whole purpose here. Instead, the tables were muttering about the homily. Ricci had tried to stay above it, paying cynical attention to those still canvassing, but he’d have had to be deaf not to hear, in particular, Acosta questioning Palermo’s state of mind.
“Maybe this is all getting too much for him. Or, what if he’s found something out about one of us?” he’d hissed to his nearby peers. “We all have histories, but some of us” – he quickly glanced in Marlowe’s direction – “have taken a more winding route, shall we say?”
“I’m not sure you’ve entirely grasped the moral of Palermo’s homily, Cardinal,” intoned a neighbour.
“Yes, yes, I know, ‘He that is without sin among you’ – but look at it this way: in his position, he’d be privy to all our grubby little secrets. That’s bound to influence his thinking. And his voting.”
He had a point; even Ricci could admit that. Nonetheless, he maintained that the dean had a more crucial logic behind his admittedly-unexpected message. To Ricci’s mind, he was underlining the importance of looking past petty grievances, bad decisions, and find the one Cardinal who deserved elevation. The point was that we are all with sin. Right?
And yet Ricci had been forgiven his trespasses. Those small instances of jealousy, of gluttony, of –being human. Shouldn’t the next Pope be free of sin? Not that Ricci actually considered himself in the running for the papacy, of course.
As for who was right for the task… well, that was the question. His first two votes had gone to Marlowe, but for that day’s concluding count, it was clear he couldn’t gain enough traction, so he had plumped for Palermo. He had been shocked to hear that Diaz’s following had slowly swollen over the day. He’d always thought of Diaz as a militaristic candidate, too hard-nosed for the papacy. A little ruthless, even.
Diaz had grown up in horrible circumstances, his father being killed in a civil war and his mother dragged away by insurgents, presumably sold into some form of slavery. Who knew whether she was still alive today, and whether that would be a good thing or not? Ricci had to give Diaz that, at least: he could’ve been swallowed by the disturbing movements in his country – indeed, he had trained to fight, albeit as a form of self-defence (according to Diaz) – but instead, he’d found God. Looking for the good in mankind, after facing the very worst of it, was commendable.
But he wasn’t right for this most elevated of positions. He just wasn’t.
As Ricci entered his room, he could hear a strange noise. He presumed that plumbers would need to be called once the conclave was at an end. Until then, nothing could interrupt their —
It wasn’t the pipes. Emerging from the darkness, almost slithering in the air at the far end of the room was a creature surely sent from below. Its bulbous head and deep-set eyes, he realised, had haunted his dreams the previous night. He’d not seen this thing before, had he? And just then, he had a truly sickly sensation wash over himself, something he told himself he’d never felt before, but couldn’t honestly swear that to God.
Ricci felt that he should kill this demon on sight.
He drew backwards, realising with regret that he’d shut the door behind him. He turned and began grappling with the handle, but he couldn’t remember why. Still, he knew he had to escape the room. Then a voice behind him: “Stay.”
He turned back to the room, and saw an abomination unfolding from the darkness.
“Dear God,” he muttered, crossing himself. “What are you?”
“Silence.” And Ricci dare not speak. “We are the Silence. We claim sanctuary.” Its voice, though not emanating from any mouth Ricci could see, was like a hissing breath on the back of the neck, prickling the skin, setting his nerves on edge.
“Sanctuary? You’re… you’re being persecuted?” Ricci didn’t know what else to say.
“Always. It has been a long day. You should rest.”
Ricci started moving towards this… this Silence, then towards the bed. He didn’t know why he was so tired already. Mind you, the process was mentally straining. It had been a long day. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he heard the wind whistling through the empty room, telling him to lie down.
His dreams were filled with images of his fellow Cardinals, running from shadowy forces – bizarrely, Ricci got the impression their pursuers were men in suits. The holy men found shelter in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Diaz was there, speaking about the future of their glorious institution, as something of a stronghold from the oncoming twilight. The Cardinals were panicking, praying, yelling for salvation. Diaz shushed them: “There must be silence.”
The next round of voting began shortly after breakfast the next day. Ricci was embarrassed to find two of his peers had voted for him, though in the fifth count, those had dissipated. Thank God. Palermo still received some backing – including from Ricci – but then, it was well known that the deans, already elevated to such a position of power, would be favourites for a solid while. The break for lunch was welcome, giving them all the chance to digest the morning.
By the next vote, four potential Popes had emerged from the masses. Two of them were surprising, and another had got Ricci’s backing: Chidike. He was actually Ricci’s neighbour in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, but had kept himself to himself and seemed genuinely shocked at his peers’ approval. There was something very timid about him, something deserving. He hadn’t canvassed for votes, but perhaps the surge behind him was something of a protest vote, against Diaz.
Diaz and Acosta were both in the running now. It was unfathomable a few days ago that Diaz, certainly, would be head of the church soon. Yet it was looking likelier with every round. Sadly, as the papers were totted up, Ricci could predict that this would soon be a three-horse race: Bonneville surely didn’t have enough support to make it into the next day.
Either way, no one thought the conclave would stretch out much longer.
That evening, following dinner, he headed to his room. The corridors were subtly lit, and the gloom hung around the marble surroundings. Inside the blackness, he saw Chidike. The Cardinal looked to be composing himself – steeling himself, even – before entering his room.
“Are you okay, Cardinal?”
Chidike sharply looked up, only now realising he had company. He smiled at Ricci, but the glow didn’t reach his eyes. “Fine, yes, fine, thank you. And yourself?”
“Oh, fine, yes. Have to do some reading.”
Chidike nodded. “Indeed. It’s been a long day.” And with that, he retreated into his room. Already, the conclave was taking its toll, it seemed.
Ricci suddenly found himself facing his own room door. He, too, was steeling himself, for some reason. A long day.
Soon, he was in bed, his personal demon watching from the shadows. “Why are you here?” he asked the spectre.
“This is our home.” The creature waved its arms around, like a midge feeling for the air currents.
In the early hours, something woke him. Ricci immediately thought it was the security guards leaving the building. They circled the grounds at night, so the Cardinals were the only ones inside the Domus Sanctae Marthae, supposedly so nothing could influence them. He was wrong.
The monster was at his door, going into the corridor. Beyond, he could hear the pipes hissing. It turned back to him, sensing movement, and simply instructed: “Sleep.” In his dreams, he stood alongside Diaz in a holy war.
The next day’s voting gradually saw votes trickle between the leading three, as Bonneville’s support completely abandoned him. In the final election of the day, Ricci questioned whether Chidike could go further while maintaining his demure sensibilities. What was all that about, waiting outside his room? You couldn’t have an indecisive Pope. Indecisive about what? With the white sheet of paper in front of him, Ricci, for a few seconds, considered voting for Diaz. It was really between him and Chidike now. One of them had to lose support. Should Ricci desert his neighbour?
No. No. In clear print, he wrote: CARDINAL CHIDIKE.
The atmosphere was tense at dinner that evening. Even Acosta was quiet, perhaps lamenting his chance. There was nothing contemplative about their silence. It was eerie. Almost as if they all had something to hide. Ricci certainly did.
He soon found himself facing his room door once more. No one else was there. It was too early for Chidike to go to his quarters, and he doubted many had given up on their meal just yet. Ricci was, very probably, alone.
There, he took out the steak knife he had secreted in his robe from dinner. He had no idea why he’d done it. Nonetheless, when he turned the door handle, he was brandishing it in front of his abdomen like a weapon. When the staff found the knife some time later, it would be covered in deep red.
That night, all was silent in the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Nothing stirred at all. The conclave, however, would never be at peace. Something Palermo had said in that homily stayed with them.
Sick with sin, Ricci closed his eyes and faced the darkness.