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The Iron Cardinal

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“Sir, sir!” Steve ignored the young cleric that was right on his heels as he stormed towards Cardinal Stark’s private chambers. “His Grace isn’t prepared for visitors-”

“The sun’s been up for hours,” Steve snapped. “Is he ill, that he is still abed?”  He lifted his fist to bang on the door but was brought up short when it swung open before he could knock.  A woman was on the other side, hair clearly hastily brushed and tied back, face still slightly flushed from exertion. Steve noticed that her blouse was improperly buttoned and jerked his eyes away, gritting his teeth as he felt his face go red.  Already infuriated at being made to wait, he felt his anger irrationally tick higher.

“Er, excuse me, my lord,” the woman said, dipping a quick curtsey before edging around Steve and his escort.  The cleric that served as Cardinal Stark’s assistant took advantage of Steve’s surprise to duck around him into the room.

“Sir Steve Rodgers, Knight of the Order of Solomon’s Temple, is here to see you, sir,” he rushed breathlessly right as Steve pushed him out of the way to storm into the room.

“So I gather,” Stark said dryly.  He sat back in his chair, still wearing his richly embroidered dressing robe instead of his raiment and ran his fingers over the vane of the feather quill in his hand.  “You may go, Brother Peter.”  As the young cleric bowed and left, giving Steve a glare on his way out the door, Stark called out, “It’s probably time for you to leave as well, Jean-Paul.”

Steve stared, stunned, as a man a few years younger than himself came out of one of the doors behind Stark’s desk, looking more put together than the woman but his clothes were tellingly wrinkled.  He hesitated a moment when he saw Steve and stole a glance at Stark, but when Stark just shrugged he bobbed a quick bow and left.   Steve’s hands tightened into fists as his fury came back two-fold.

“What were those people doing in your private chambers?” He demanded as ‘Jean-Paul’ closed the door behind him.

“I was teaching them the word of God,” Stark said mildly.

“Do you actually expect me to believe that?”  Steve had to pace away before he committed violence on church grounds, unable to look at Stark sitting there unrepentant.

“Well, they were certainly calling out His name a lot.”  Steve was turned away, but he could hear the smug grin in Stark’s voice, could well imagine the way the man’s mouth would curl at the corners and his whiskey-brown eyes would grow darker.  Not for the first time he wished that Grand Master Molay had made someone else the liaison with Paris’s Cardinal Stark; every time he came here Stark’s impiety seemed worse than the last.

“You are unbelievable,” Steve hissed.

“You don’t believe me?” Stark affected a look of surprise. “Why not? What do you imagine we were doing in there?”           

Steve pressed his fingers to his eyes before his traitorous brain could start imagining anything. “You know we had a meeting scheduled today,” he said tightly. He heard the bell ring for the quarter hour and said, “For fifteen minutes ago.”

“And I’m here, aren’t I? I even have all of the letters of introductions your Grand Master requested.”  Steve heard papers being shuffled and tapped crisply on the desk and turned around. Despite his state of dishabille, now Stark was all business.  “He also asked for some investment advice, which I wrote up for him but would be more than happy to review for you in case he has any questions.”

“Very well.” With an internal sigh, Steve sat down across from Stark, sitting so stiffly his spine didn’t even touch the back of the chair.  He took the paper Stark handed him and started skimming the financial calculations written out in a cramped but elegant hand.

“Starting at the top…”

“You must have had an appointment with Sir Rodgers today,” Sister Virginia commented from the doorway shortly after Sir Rodgers had left.  As always, her habit and wimple were immaculately clean and pressed, somehow still crisp even though it was already past midday.  

“Why would you say that?”  Tony started shifting some paperwork to make room for her to sit for their weekly meeting.

She watched him with interest as he cleaned but didn’t offer to help. “Because after he leaves you always seemed so,” she gestured vaguely before tucking her hands back into the sleeves of her habit, “invigorated.”

Tony thought about that. “That's true,” he said thoughtfully. “For some reason when most people disapprove of me it makes me angry, but when Rodgers does it, it's just entertaining.”

“That's because you are a very contrary person,” Sister Virginia said. “It's one of the many, many reasons I keep you in my prayers every day.”

“My immortal soul appreciates all your hard work,” Tony said dryly.  When the space was clean, he gestured for her to sit in the chair across from his desk. 

“That's all very well and good, but I hope your fleshly coil appreciates my hard work as well,” she said as she sat.  She took her messenger bag off her shoulders and started pulling out stacks of paper. “Here are all the reports you requested.  You might want to take a particular look at this one,” she said as she pulled one out of the stack.  

Tony read it quickly then frowned and read it again. “These numbers are at least 8% higher than they were last month and a good 10% higher than other hospitals,” he said. “The bastard is skimming.”

“That’s what I concluded as well,” she said.  “I already have a few replacements in mind if you like.”

“You are a Godsend.  Today’s also the day to-“

“Distribute the funds to the orphanages?” Sister Virginia finished.  “You mean, your favorite day of the month? Yes it is.”  She pulled out five purses, heavy with gold, and lined them up on Tony’s desk.  “This time, do try very hard not to blaspheme in front of them.”

“I was just trying to give them a leg up in life,” Tony said.  “You know, swearing is a highly respected skill-”

“Tony,” Sister Virginia said repressively.

“Fine,” Tony sighed with mock frustration.  “Mathematics, then.”

“Or you could teach them the Bible,” Sister Virginia suggested. “Since that is your job.”

Tony wrinkled his nose and waved a hand dismissively.  “Boring.  Is there anything else you need me for before I leave?”

Steve was still steaming an hour later, cutting into his food so furiously he threatened to hit the scarred wooden table under his trencher. “I don’t know why you let Stark get on your nerves so much,” Bucky said as they ate, crammed shoulder to hip with scores of laborers on their lunch break.  “He’s hardly the only impious priest in Paris.”

“But he’s a cardinal,” Steve said with a frown.  He struggled to put into words why Stark’s behavior bothered him so much. “Others look to him for guidance.”

Bucky snorted and rolled his eyes at that.  “It’s not as if he’s public about his peccadillos.  I think most of the gossip I hear about him is that he lets the wine flow a little too freely at his dinner parties and that he has half of the government in his pocket.” 

“If those were his only sins I would not be half so-“

“Sanctimonious?” Bucky suggested. “Pompous?”

Frustrated,” Steve said with a glare. “Pompous? Really?”

“Look, Steve,” Bucky said, wiping his eating knife on his handkerchief and putting both back in his pocket.  “People aren’t perfect. We make mistakes and we sin, and God knew that.  That’s why in His wisdom he told us that we may confess and repent so that one mistake won’t doom our immortal souls forever.  Right?” Steve nodded reluctantly, unable to argue with his logic. “So lighten up already and get over it.”

Steve huffed.  “I don’t think God meant confession to be for people to sin on purpose.  The point is that you try not to and confess when you make mistakes.”

“No, the point is that you sin in moments of weakness, then pray for God to forgive you your weakness and give you strength for next time.”


In any event,” Bucky said loudly over Steve’s protests. “The point is, it is for God to judge. Not you.”

Steve drained his cup of wine and set it down heavily on the wooden table, scowling at Bucky.  “I hate arguing with you.”

“Because I always win?” Bucky said with a rakish grin.

“Not always,” Steve muttered, and followed Bucky out of the restaurant. Steve well remembered the meeting he’d had with the Grand Master regarding Cardinal Stark.

"You will be the Templar Liaison with the Catholic Church in Paris,” Grand Master Molay said brusquely, straightening a stack of papers.  Steve was unsurprised at the assignment; he’d known that being stationed in Paris would mean a political posting rather than the combat ones he was used to. “The person you will be working with is Cardinal Antoine Stark.”

“What can you tell me about him?” Steve asked.

"He’s the first born son of Sir Howard Stark, Duke of Anjou. He has been in the church for over ten years and is arguably one of the most powerful men in Paris.”

First born son?” Steve repeated, surprised.  Usually men of the church, if they came from noble families, were the third or fourth born sons, people safely far from the line of succession.

"Yes.  Everyone knows there’s a story there but no one knows what it is,” the Grand Master said with a shrug. “He certainly isn’t in the church because he has a passion for Christ.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see soon enough.”

Then he’d taken one look at the man and gotten irrationally angry at him and that feeling hadn’t really stopped since. On their walk back to the Templar Keep, Bucky must have guessed the turn of his thoughts because before they went their separate ways he said, “Let it go, Steve. Just do your job and leave the rest to God.”

“Fine,” Steve said grudgingly, trying to put Cardinal Stark from his thoughts. Back at the Tower, Steve followed Bucky back to the Grandmaster’s office to report on his meeting with Cardinal Stark.  He was given new instructions then dismissed, but when he returned to his chambers he was too restless to read or meditate, so he collected his sketchbook and some charcoal pencils and went for a walk.  There was a park along the Seine that had beautiful flowering trees this time of year, so Steve set his feet in that direction and tried to clear his thoughts.  It worked, for the most part, until he caught a glimpse of a profile that seemed familiar crossing the street.

Frowning, he looked again; from a distance, it certainly looked like Cardinal Stark, but he was wearing a very simple cloak and robes instead of his normal richly dyed and impeccably tailored vestments.  Curiosity piqued, he followed Stark around the street corner, staying half a block behind as he tried to figure out where he was going.  They wound through the streets and away from the water to end up in one of the poorer but still respectable districts of Paris until Stark stopped in front of a large plain brick building.  Stark knocked and wasn’t kept waiting long before a tall, lean monk answered the door, bowing respectfully as he welcomed Stark inside.  Steve waited until the door closed before he went closer to investigate the plaque mounted beside the door.

“St. Mary’s Children’s Home,” he read aloud.  He stared at the plaque as if it would reveal the reason why Stark was visiting but suddenly had a vision of the door opening again and Stark discovering that he’d been followed, so he turned on his heel and made his way back to the water.  He found a place to sit in the grass and idly sketched the river scene, but his thoughts kept going back to Stark and the orphanage.  The only thing he could imagine was that Stark had an illegitimate child that he couldn’t acknowledge because of his position in the church; the fact that the child was at an orphanage instead of with its mother hinted at some sort of scandal or tragedy. Stark must have loved the mother deeply, for him to take the time to visit the child in person and risk discovery.

With a frown, Steve’s pencil stilled as he realized that he had sketched a child sleeping on a man’s shoulder, thumb tucked into its mouth.  Aggravated at his own thoughts, he colored in a goatee on the child to match Stark’s pretentious facial hair and slammed the book closed.

“Looks like I’m going to meet your Cardinal Stark,” Bucky said a few days later after matins. He held up a cream-colored piece of paper and Steve recognized the neat, sloping handwriting on it. “He’s holding a dinner and the Grand Master has charged me to go in his place as his trusted advisor.”

“He’s not my Cardinal Stark,” Steve said automatically then raised his eyebrows. “Trusted advisor? Sounds like a promotion from aide de camp.”

“It’s just for the night,” Bucky said, tucking the invitation away. “He couldn’t go so I volunteered.  I want to meet this guy you keep complaining about. Are you going?”

“I hardly think he’d invite the liaison to the Grand Master if he’d invited the Grand Master himself,” Steve pointed out.

“You could be my guest.” When Steve looked reluctant, Bucky took his elbow and pulled him to the side.  “In all seriousness, I would like you there. You’ve been traveling in these circles more than I, and I’ll need someone to watch my back.”

Steve frowned. “I’m sure I don’t…” But then he realized what Bucky meant. A social gathering held by Cardinal Stark would likely have all the most important people of Paris there, and fortunes had been made and broken at such dinners. Bucky would have been on the fringes of such events as the Grand Master’s aide de camp, but this event would effectively thrust him into center stage. “I’m not sure how much help I’ll be, but I’ll do my best,” he said finally. “I’d rather face a hundred Saracens in battle than have dinner with a dozen nobles.”

“I don’t blame you. A Saracen will only take your life, an aristo will take everything but,” Bucky snorted. “It’s a couple of days from now so we would have time to get new clothes and go to the bath house so we don’t offend anyone’s nose with the smell of honest sweat.” Steve’s face must have done something suspicious because Bucky narrowed his eyes at him. “What?”

“I already have clothes for the dinner,” Steve said, running a hand over the back of his neck. “After our first meeting, Stark had a new tunic and surcoat sent to my rooms.”

Bucky’s raised his eyebrows for a moment and then he shook his head. “And let me guess, you shoved them under your bed and never wore them?”

“Of course I never wore them,” Steve snapped. “He only did it to get under my skin.”

“Right.  Well, good thing you’re above such petty behavior,” Bucky said dryly. “Come on. If we hurry we can get in a few rounds in the training salle before I have to meet with the Grandmaster.”

“Sir Steven Rodgers and Sir James Barnes of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” Brother Peter announced, escorting them into a room bright with candles and drenched in the tantalizing scent of the food that was still making its way from the kitchen.

“Sir Rodgers!” Stark said with every appearance of pleased surprise. “I did not realize you were acquainted with Sir Barnes.”

Bucky bowed over Stark’s hand, brushing his lips respectfully across Stark’s ring of office. “Since we were children,” he said. “We joined the Order together and have been to hell and back. He’s like a brother to me.”

“Friendships like yours are a blessing,” Stark said with a smile. “Please, have a glass of wine while we wait for the other guests to arrive.”

Steve and Bucky bowed in thanks and moved aside to make room for other guests who were waiting to be announced. “Well, this hardly looks like a den of iniquity,” Bucky said under his breath as they took a glass of wine from the servant. Among other discrete display of Stark’s riches, the room was tastefully appointed with intricate tapestries to keep out the cold and an impressive triptych on the wall displaying scenes from the life of Christ. “As orgy rooms go, I’m fairly disappointed.”

“He doesn’t do it here-” Steve snapped, then stopped himself when he saw Bucky smothering a grin. “Funny,” he grunted, taking a sip of his wine as his eyes were drawn to Stark before he forced them away again. “So what exactly did the Grandmaster want you to accomplish at this soiree?”

“He wants to expand the church at the Castle to house some relics we brought back from Jerusalem, but he needs approval. He was hoping I could put out feelers to see how people felt about it before he approaches people more formally.”

Steve suppressed a sigh and took another sip of wine, already regretting his decision to come. More intrigues and political maneuvering; it was enough to make him wish to be back in the Holy Land.

As more people arrived, he did his best to maintain polite conversation, but he knew that if he hadn’t been there with Bucky he would have made his excuses a long time ago.  At least when dinner was served Steve finally had something to do that would give him a good excuse to avoid conversation. At the head of the table, Stark was talking animatedly about something, hands gesturing expressively as he explained something to his neighbor, a Marquis who had trapped Steve into a conversation about hunting dogs that had lasted an interminable fifteen minutes before Steve had been able to escape.

“What in God’s name is that?” Steve said, staring down the table at the utensil in Stark’s hand. Bucky lifted his head from his meal and followed Steve’s gaze down the table. He made a thoughtful noise as he chewed, watching as Stark held his steak steady with the exotic, filigreed silver utensil as he cut and then used it to carry his food to his mouth. As he swallowed, Bucky looked down at his own plainer wood utensil. “It has two prongs,” he noted, looking back and forth between the two.

“I see that, but why?” Steve watched but couldn’t see how Stark’s two-pronged utensil was any better than everyone else’s sharpened wood or metal spears.

Stark must have caught them looking because he held up the utensil as if surprised by their curiosity, pretending to be unaware that the whole table was staring. “This is a fork,” he explained, and there were low murmurs of interest from the table. “My mother’s family is from Italy, and a distant cousin sent it to me. Isn’t it interesting?” Someone asked a question about it, drawing Stark’s attention away, and Steve rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to his food.

“A fork,” he repeated with disdain. “From Italy. I knew Stark wasn’t going to get through this dinner without doing something outrageous. He can’t stand not to be the center of attention.”

“I don’t know why you complain so much,” Bucky said mildly. “He’s been nothing but a gentleman all evening. You make him sound like a dissolute, pretentious wastrel.”

Steve glanced over to where Cardinal Stark was explaining something to some visiting nobleman from the Kingdom of Arles, eyes bright and smile wide. “For one, that isn’t Stark,” he muttered, turning back to his food. “He’s…” he trailed off, trying to find the words. “It’s too much. He’s trying too hard.”

When he looked up, Steve saw Bucky studying him thoughtfully. When Bucky took a breath to speak, Steve braced himself, but all Bucky said was, “Well, I suppose you would know,” and then turned to speak to the man on his other side, leaving Steve to wonder what exactly he meant by that.