Elisa stood silently and bowed her head.
One could not read the expression on the former saintess' face as she listened to the words of the pope.
It was only when Pope Emmanuel mentioned that her personal guards would be transferred did a stormy expression appear on Elisa's face.
"I will invite the saintess' new personal guards to please approach the platform," Pope Emmanuel spoke firmly.
Claire got from the front row and dropped her hand away from the hilt of her sword. She took a few deep breaths in order to compose herself.
This was the moment.
This was the point in the original Claire's memories where her decision would seal her fate.
She saw her subordinates walk towards her from the corner of the hall with mixed expressions on their faces.
Her second in command Markus on the other hand had a greedy glint in his eyes which made Claire frown.
Claire nodded at her squad and approached the raised platform with slow purposeful steps.
She deliberately followed the exact same actions as the original Claire.
Pope Emmanuel nodded in approval as Claire bent her knee respectfully and bowed her head towards him.
Saintess Marie watched the holy knights below the raised platform.
The beautiful silver haired woman warmly smiled, and the entire hall seemed to light up in her presence.
The rest of the holy knights stood silently behind Claire waiting for their captain's next move. No one could have expected what was going to happen next.
In the original Claire's memories, she would accept the transfer without complaint and in the process, she would lose everything.
And not just her… Elisa would be sent from heaven to hell.
Even without the request from the original Claire, Sui Li did not want that kind-hearted girl to suffer.
This time Sui Li was going to make a different choice.
The short haired warrior had a cold expression on her face as she spoke with not a hint of hesitation in her voice.
"Your holiness," Claire spoke calmly.
"My knights and I are unable to serve as Saintess Marie's personal guards. We have sworn an oath to protect Elisa and this vow applies whether or not she is the actual saintess."
"I cannot in good conscience accept this transfer request as it goes against my faith and against the promise that I made before Lord Varion."
Claire's plain refusal exploded the calm atmosphere inside the hall and sent shockwaves through the hearts of the believers and members of the church alike.
The gentle smile on Saintess Marie's face disappeared for a brief moment but no one noticed as their attention was solely focused on the kneeling knight.
In the front row the crown prince stared at Claire with a confused expression on his handsome face.
Elisa stared down at the floor with her hands still clasped together but could not stop her lips from curving upwards.
Claire turned around and saw the hesitant expressions on the faces of her subordinates.
They clearly did not agree with her decision, but her prestige was enough to stop them from speaking out.
Pope Emmanuel frowned as he observed the faces of the congregation who were watching the show.
It would be a tremendous blow to Saintess Marie's reputation if none of these holy knights chose to serve at her side.
Why was Claire Blanlyn being so difficult?
Didn't she realise that she was protecting a fake? The real saintess was standing right before her eyes.
Pope Emmanuel had no choice but to reveal his final card. The old man cleared his throat twice before addressing the knights,
"Those who serve as the personal guards for Saintess Marie will be temporarily awarded the rank of 'Commander.'"
"It is the will of Lord Varion for Saintess Marie to be appointed as the next successor of the church and hence your previous oaths can be considered invalid."
"Should you refuse this honour then I will have no choice but to select the saintess' personal guards from the Holy Corps."
There was a tense moment of silence in the hall as the pope finished talking.
Claire's eyes widened as she heard the generous offer from the pope.
In the original Claire's memories there was no such scene but then again, she was already changing the future so perhaps this was to be expected.
Still… this was unprecedented.
Paladins at the rank of 'Commander' were first tier knights without exception and none of the members of her squad qualified.
She was a tier two knight while the rest of her men were tier three and tier four. They were strong without a doubt but not at the level of a true powerhouse.
Claire glanced at Elisa who refused to meet her eyes. The former saintess' hands were trembling slightly as she tried to hide them inside her robe.
"I'm sorry your holiness but my answer is the same," Claire spoke solemnly.
There was an immediate uproar in the hall as the upper rank members of the church looked at her as if she were mad.
This was an opportunity of a lifetime and she refused.
A grizzled veteran shook his head in disapproval as he gazed at the kneeling figure.
Claire Blanlyn was a talented prospect, but she clearly did not realise the true meaning behind the pope's offer.
This was a second chance.
An opportunity to take back her rejection and rise up the ranks of the church.
And she wasted it.
He was not the only one staring at Claire with disapproval and several upper rank members revaluated their impressions of the young paladin.
"I see then… very well…" Pope Emmanuel spoke with a disappointed expression. He waved his hands to dismiss the knights when a loud voice suddenly echoed through the hall.
"Your holiness I wish to accept!"
Claire turned around and saw her second in command step forward with ambition burning in his gaze.
"Captain Blanlyn does not speak for us," Markus spoke clearly as he gestured to the knights behind him.
The rest of her squad were clearly emboldened by his gaze as they quickly agreed with his act of rebellion.
"Your holiness it would be my honour to serve at Saintess Marie's side!"
"I wish nothing more than to serve the will of Lord Varion!"
"Please your holiness… allow us to accept this position!"
Claire's face hardened as she realised that the reasoning for her decision was being completely ignored by the members of her squad.
Nothing she said now would persuade them otherwise.
On the raised platform Saintess Marie stepped forward and whispered a few words into the pope's ear.
A gentle smile spread across Pope Emmanuel's face as he addressed Markus and the other holy knights that had chosen to accept.
"Saintess Marie in her generosity has agreed to have you all serve in her personal guard! The transfer ceremony will take place in two days' time," Pope Emmanuel declared.
"There will also be a separate ceremony tomorrow to raise your ranks to the 'Commander' position."
Markus bowed his head respectfully and the rest of the holy knights followed his actions with excitement gleaming in their eyes.
Claire slowly rose up from the floor and stared expressionlessly at the pope. There was no rage or hurt on her face as she witnessed the betrayal by her own squad.
Perhaps it was because she was not the original Claire.
"As for you holy knight Claire Blanlyn…" Pope Emmanuel suddenly addressed the knight who defied his will.
"You will remain as Elisa Berierse's personal guard for the rest of her life.
"In recognition of your service to the church I am assigning the both of you to travel to the City of Galrannor."
"Elisa Berierse will assume the position as the head of the church's branch in the city."
The City of Galrannor…. on the surface this sounded like a promotion. To become the head of a temple was a great honour for any member of the Varion church.
But the City of Galrannor was located near the outer regions of the continent and frequently suffered from monster attacks.
It was a barren hostile place. In other words… this promotion was actually an exile.
They were both being indirectly told to leave the capital city and never return.
Claire furrowed her brows as she stared at the pope and the new saintess.
"I understand your holiness. It is an honour to be entrusted with this mission to protect the innocent and spread the word of the Lord," Claire replied calmly.
Pope Emmanuel nodded and then gestured for her to leave. Claire did not complain and slowly walked over to Elisa who stood quietly.
"Shall we go milady?" Claire respectfully whispered.
She linked her arms with the former saintess and carefully escorted her out of the hall.
Elisa's body seemed colder than usual, so Claire gently draped her cloak over her body. They walked with their heads held high.
Claire made sure that Elisa left the hall with the same grace and dignity that she had when she entered.
Her piercing blue eyes coldly stared at those who looked at the former saintess with wrong expressions.
For a holy knight, Claire's fierce appearance more resembled a dangerous beast bravely protecting her young offspring.
No one dared to be disrespectful, and it was only when the two figures had left the hall that the whispers started again.
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