The last harmonies of the hymn wash over the pews and the many attendants. The mass is in full swing now, and I can feel that I am a part of something greater than myself as people from all origins unite with one purpose.
I take a deep breath. The church smells like dust and incense, and a unique mix of perfume and sweat that humanity brought here.
The morning sun kisses the little skin I show. I am, after all, in my Sunday best.
Vanity might be a sin, but how I do love that blue dress I wear. It suits me so much. Papa stands next to me, and I can tell he is looking at the others, acting as my guard.
The young men who stare will be noted and he will tell me of it. Those who stare too much will be reprimanded later.
A smiling old man in the black cassock of the Catholic priests steps in front of us. His genuine smile makes my heart lighter.
Father Armand’s homilies are always so wise and pertinent, much better than that priest from Mobile. What a bore that man was, always screaming about eternal damnation and witches.
“Welcome, everyone, welcome to Mass. I am so pleased to see all of you today. With Easter coming soon, I was about to make my sermon about the dangers of gluttony and over-indulgence. Alas, I received yesterday a meat pie from Mrs. Cantrel and you all know how I abhor hypocrisy!”
I chuckle, like most people present.
“So, I will talk instead about something far less pleasant I’m afraid. It has come to my attention that there have been some scuffles with Mr. Sutton’s parish members. Over the question of religion.”
The mood turns grim.
“Why, I can barely blame you for being confused. I remember myself a loyal subject of King Louis the XVth going out to hunt a pesky snapdragon and when I came back, I was Spanish!”
Once more, we chuckle, the old priest playing us like a fiddle. I do not mind terribly; he is a good man.
“I go make some tea, and I am French again, muchas gracias!”
The Spanish members of the congregation laugh harder, possibly due to father Armand’s atrocious pronunciation.
“And now we have been sold to the United States of America by Napoleon himself. Why, it is no wonder we are all at a loss. I now own more flags than shirts and have considered turning ones into the others. Hehe. Yes. And so it is that our Parish now harbors quite a few Protestants.”
There are more than a few grumbles at the mention of those heretics.
“And yet I ask you this. When Jesus debated with the Pharisees or the Sadducees, did he punch them in the face? Did he throw manure at their women?”
The grumble dies on the spot and quite a few faces redden in shame.
“No, he did not, for he knew that all should have a chance to hear the word of God. We must all remember that we are Christians not because of who we oppose, but because of who we love. I will have no more of this.
Instead, you will love thy neighbor as is ordered in the Holy Scriptures, for the Protestants are not your enemies, merely people who walk a different path. Nay, the true enemies are demon-worshipping sluts like Ariane here.”
“You moaned and squirmed under the Beast like a wanton whore. He took you on the first night and you enjoyed every second of it. Neither Sodom not Gomorrah ever witnessed such a shameful display of lust!”
“What?! No! You’re mistaken. Papa! Tell them!”
“I should have drowned you the day you were born. Look at what you’ve become. You cannot even stand here.”
Smoke erupts from my now blood-stained gown and fire soon follows. I try to run but I am blinded. I fall against a wooden bench and the contact sears my hand. It hurts so much. I roll on the ground, screaming in agony. Angry whispers surround me as the congregation watches me die.
“Here, catin, this should help.”
Father Armand throws water on me but it does not stop the fire. I vanish in a flash of blue light and an ear-piercing shriek.
I open my eyes to green sheets and a bedpost made out of a reddish wood I have never seen before. Another day, another room, and I remember that this is no home. I am, at best, an unwilling guest in a gilded cage.
I still savor the moment. I only have a few minutes of lucidity, of peace, before it comes.
I do not know much about this affliction. I feel that every time I am told more, the ideas flee through my mind like through a sieve.
Jimena told me that all will be made clear tomorrow when I meet Him again and I do hope it will be so. It cannot be healthy to remain in such a fugue state for an extended period.
I go through my new morning ritual while the craving grows in me. It is a strange thing. The Thirst is not limited to the throat and mouth.
It digs in my chest, my belly, and my mind with its needy claws. Every line of thought is derailed, and my feet carry me to the door whenever my attention fails.
No, this cannot last.
I find another grey set, the same as yesterday. It is again quite tight around the hips, and I suspect I am wearing one of Jimena’s spare sets.
As I finish, someone knocks on my door.
As I move to unlock it, I pause. What if it is not my improvised tutor, but the Lancaster shrew and her stooge?
They promised to leave me be. They also did not strike me as people of their words, and they are not the only ones who would do me harm.
It is at this moment that I notice that there is a tiny glass window, no bigger than a thumbnail at the door. I look through it and lo and behold! I can see who is outside with all clarity!
It must be some sort of magnifying glass, or a short telescope, mayhap? I thought running water in every room was a luxury, until now. Why, if their lavatories were encrusted with diamonds I would not be surprised. Speaking of lavatories, why have I not… Hm?
What was I thinking about?
Another knock on the door, more insistent this time, wakes me up from my reverie. I unlock it and greet Jimena.
“Forgive me, dear friend, for my mind is as muddled as ever, and I do pray you brought something to drink. I am parched!”
“And a good day to you too, Ariane,” she replies with a smile, “this is Ricardo, another retainer for clan Cadiz.” She says, and only now do I notice another man.
He is dressed well but soberly. He is tall, with brown eyes and curly brown hair and looks at me not unkindly. I greet him politely, which he returns.
“Buenas tardes, señorita.”
Jimena then bids me let them both in, which is I suppose acceptable since Jimena could be considered a chaperone.
After that comes some more meditation and when we leave, Ricardo stays behind. I feel refreshed and the Thirst releases its hold on me.
“Lord Ceron requested your presence. He is the local head of clan Cadiz and we should attend him now.”
“What? Jimena, surely you jest! This attire…”
I dare not criticize too much since she gave it to me so graciously, however, trousers are indecent, particularly those that are, well, so very tight around the hips.
Jimena notices my discomfort and smiles knowingly while addressing my concerns.
“Fret not, young one. Grey is the color of the knight order and by wearing it you are distancing yourself from the Court. You are claiming neutrality and impartiality, and this can only help you.”
I ponder her words in silence.
“You surprise me Jimena, this is a well-thought statement.”
“Well, I am not so oblivious to the vicissitudes of v… afflicted politics. I usually ignore them. Recent events have forced me to reassess my priorities.”
I suspect that it has to do with her fall from grace and tactfully refrain from asking. In short order, we reach the edge of the many apartments to another set of doors.
It appears that each level contains a square of individual living quarters surrounded on each side by waiting rooms where visitors may gather.
“How many floors does this building have? And why are there no windows?” I ask.
“Only five floors if you count the basement as one. That said, you have seen but one wing of the fortress, there is more on this level than you have had the opportunity to visit. As for the lack of windows, it is for the sake of safety.”
“Yes, yes, I will understand in time.”
“One more night and all will be made clear.”
She opens the door to a large boudoir. Comfortable seats are gathered in small groups and other afflicted in fineries mingle there.
We ignore them and reach yet another door. Jimena knocks and, without waiting for an answer, gets in.
We enter an antechamber of modest size. The furniture and decorations are of the same Baroque style as everything else I have seen since leaving the dungeon.
This place has been designed for people to stay, not to live. An oaken chest in a corner convinces me that the sole occupant of this place shares my status as a guest, although he might be doing it willingly.
A man sits at a work desk facing the entrance. He calmly puts down his pen and rises to welcome us.
He is, without a doubt, on the same level as Lady Moor. His aura pressures my mind and while it lacks sophistication, there is a solidity to it that reflects his physique.
The Cadiz clan lord has cornflower blue eyes, like my own, and black curls that reach his muscular shoulders.
His facial features are virile and elegant and complemented by a roguish beard and mustache.
Why, he must have stepped out of some pirate tale, ready to plunder and ravish! I am pleased to see, however, that his gaze is calculating as opposed to overly hostile. Once he reaches us, I curtsy, partly to hide my surprise.
This man is muscular beyond compare! I believe Ogotai has nothing on him, and that he could bend metal with his bare hands. Are all Cadiz clan members so dedicated to physical prowess?
I do so and stay silent as the man takes my measure.
“Greetings Ariane. I am Lord Ceron of clan Cadiz and I welcome you to my humble abode.”
“The pleasure is mine, Lord Ceron.”
The man smiles wryly and turns to Jimena.
“It is as you said, Squire.”
In his mouth, the rank of Squire becomes praise for past achievements rather than an insult and I can tell that Jimena is grateful.
“Tell me Ariane, has my quartermaster explained the situation to you?”
“She told me of the council and my Master’s unexpected arrival.”
“I see. Has she explained your role in this?”
Lord Ceron just chuckles.
“As expected of our Jimena. I wager her first answer was to put a blade in your hand.”
Jimena hisses playfully and crosses her arm under his teasing rebuke.
“Lord Nirari always holds his word and respects a few rules with unerring consistency, yet he is otherwise quite infamous.”
“You make it sound like he has committed atrocities, yet I do believe I would have heard of them in the news as he looks barely a day above forty!”
Lord Ceron’s eyes flicker to Jimena before he continues.
“You would be surprised, young Ariane. He is much older than he looks, and he has traveled extensively over the mill--over the years.
I think you have realized that our world is apart from the mundane one. Afflicted are kept secret and in our society, he has earned quite the reputation, which makes his visit even more unusual.
This land is remote. We who reside here have not come, we have been sent. For someone of his stature to be here and to make his presence known, he must be after something.
This conclave started three days ago and is set to conclude tomorrow. Yes, I am aware of Lord Nirari’s promise. I quite assure you, that no nascent fledgling is ever left without receiving their Master's blessing. You can look forward to the ceremony without trepidation.”
I was not worried, but I certainly am now!
“What happens if I do not?”
Lord Ceron seems temporarily at a loss so Jimena takes my hand and continues in a reassuring voice.
“Eventually the stress on the fledgling’s mind becomes too much and they revert to drones. Rest assured though, barring a major catastrophe it shall certainly not occur.”
“Yes, Ariane, all will be fine. I should not even have mentioned it. Let us focus on the main topic if you will, and the reason for your presence here.
“You see, Lord Nirari requested our hospitality and we granted it. On the second night, he spent quite some time with Lady Moor, and we suspect she is the reason for his presence or rather, her property is.
“Lady Moor manages the local ship trading for the Lancaster and to our knowledge, she is the only one with the means to provide him with passage back to the Middle-East, or wherever it is he wants to travel to.”
“Can he not arm his own ship? Surely a man of his stature would not be without coin?”
“That is not the issue. Transporting us across vast distances requires specific logistics. It is both easier and safer to reach an agreement with Lady Moor, rather than create a way by oneself.”
“I have so many questions…”
“I know,” he says with a smile, “And I am sorry. Now, as I mentioned, Lord Nirari is our guest and as such he will not force Lady Moor into serving him, and so he needed a bargaining chip. You.”
“Yes. As the only person able to help him, Lady Moor has a monopoly and finds herself under no obligation to hasten the discussions. Quite the contrary. Lord Nirari is believed to be affluent. Very, very affluent. She could use it to leverage her position and that is where you come in.”
“I do not follow.”
“What do you know about your Master’s other protégés?”
“Everyone expects me to be some raving lunatic with barely the ability to speak?”
Both Cadiz chuckle before my outraged face. Ah, but it is good to be with polite company, although I would not call Lord Ceron a friend.
“Quite so. The Devourer has, hmm, had quite a few protégés in the past. He cares little for them and has used them as tools more often than not.”
They were not me. As soon as we get acquainted, my Master will have no choice but to see that I am the one wHo should rUn away for him.
“When needed, he reared them into psychopathic maniacs who he then let loose. They ravaged entire parishes before they could be stopped.”
No, they must be wrong. This is nonsense! An individual alone would never be able to… I would have heard about… He would NEVER…
What was I thinking about?
I blink. Jimena signals to Lord Ceron and he graces me with an apologetic smile.
“Forgive me, I forgot myself. Suffice to say that you are a sword of Damocles that hangs over Lady Moor’s head and leave it at that.”
“I don’t see how?”
Jimena clasps my hand between hers. I forgot how cool and soft they could be.
“Trust me on this, he is saying the truth.”
I am a sword of Damocles hanging over Lady Moor’s head.
“Good. Lord Nirari uses your existence as an incentive to push the negotiation forward. He is under no obligation to limit the damages you could inflict according to his own twisted sense of honor.”
Lord Ceron sits back and spreads his hands.
“The implications for you are twofold. The first is that you will be under intense scrutiny while here, and most opinions will be, ah, hostile. The second one is, that should everything proceed as we think it will, you will be left at clan Lancaster’s mercy.”
“What, but, this is horrible! They hate me! Can you… I am ashamed to beg you thus, but can you do something?”
“Alas, no. We have no justifiable way to claim you. The best outcome for you is to serve under them.”
“Best outcome?! Surely you jest, or you underestimate their scorn! They attacked me ruthlessly… And with little provocation! I would be a fool to put myself at their mercy!” I answer, dejected.
“It was a test of your character. Melusine and Lambert are Lady Moor’s only competent subordinates, they were sent there to assess you while someone else was delaying Jimena.
“Thankfully, they were quite bad, and she saw through their awkward attempt. The short time they had to see you should work in your favor. Melusine will want to keep you alive out of curiosity if nothing else.”
They leave me a few seconds to gather my thoughts.
“So, my Master will not take me with him?”
“There is not a chance, although I know you will try anyway. If you wish to live, you will plan accordingly, and I know the way to do so. Tell me, Ariane, what is it that you want?”
I want this to never have happened, but I know it is wishful thinking. Jimena told me to believe her, and that this disease has no cure. Then, what I desire most is…
“I want to go home to my friends and family. I want to walk along the fields of sugar cane in the morning light with whatever pet I have that I cannot remember.
I want to open a distillery and bring wealth to my family. I want to bag an egret in one shot and eat its meat grilled over charcoal.
I just want this insanity to stop.”
I am too close to crying again, and I refuse to do so in front of the local head of the Cadiz clan. My passionate declamation only stuns my hosts into silence. I hope they do not find me whiny and pathetic, but I comfort myself in the certitude that I have cause to be a little dramatic!
Some unspoken message passes between them until Lord Ceron finally returns his focus on our conversation.
“If going home is your fondest wish, we will do our best to grant you the opportunity to do so. This will be a difficult task, however, and you will need to make it worth our while.”
“How mercenary of you!” I reply, scandalized.
“I have obligations towards my own clan, and one of them is to protect its members and make sure its resources are well used. You ask me to risk people and funds to rescue a stranger.”
“I thought I was asking a personal request.”
“It will take more than the two of us Ariane. I am sorry.”
I hold my head between my hands, trying to come to terms with my circumstances. Eventually, I calm down enough to ask the Lord his terms.
“Very well, then what would you ask of me?”
“While you are with them, look for information on their business activities. Inventories, deeds and titles, we can use the information.”
“You expect me to spy for you?!”
“Yes. I assure you that those mongrels do not deserve your loyalty.”
“It is not that! Spying is just so…”
“Trust me, after tomorrow, you will change your perspective on the matter.”
“Very well, I shall do what I can even though I fear you may be overestimating me.”
After a few pleasantries, Jimena and I leave the Cadiz enclave and she drags me to her proving grounds to teach me the basics of fencing, including posture and how to hold a blade.
I successfully learn a few things before sleep takes me.