Liturgy of Blood - Epilogue
he sun sparkled brilliantly off the waves as the quinquireme Iros, ceremonial flagship of the Fleet of Whales pounded her way along the coastline. Rarely did she venture so far from home, and a veritable squadron of lateen-rigged fishing coasters and small trading vessels clustered around to wonder at her size and bulk. Iros was really not suitable for fighting- she was far too slow come about and rather clumsy in stays. But she was a symbol in green, gilt and orange, a visible expression of the long arm of the Island of Whales and her ability to strike shrewd blows anywhere there was enough water to float a ship. Even if she did only leave port for ceremonial purposes these days.
And, of course the fact that she had once been Fleet Flagship of another kingdom's navy spoke volumes in and of itself. As did the fact that the kingdom in question simply did not exist any longer.
Presently trumpets sounded and the great drum that gave time to the rowers ceased its eternal beating. "Iros" slowed then and stopped, becoming a mere plaything of the waves despite her impressive bulk and polished brightwork. The rag-tag assortment of small craft around her backed and filled their sails to hold position at a respectful distance, their crews all aloft in a mass of gesticulating and pointing humanity. Then three small and inconspicuous black lumps soared skywards up Iros's colossal standing rigging, only to burst open together as one in a display of perfect seamanship. And then quite suddenly Iros was adorned by three great Ensigns. First, of course was the tricolour purple white and red of Whales, emblazoned in the centre with the Royal seal of Tenomides. Immediately under it flapped the flame-orange banner of the Master of Fire. And, flying on a brand new halyard immediately alongside the banner of Whales flew proudly the bright green pennant of the Ecclesia, surely for the first time being flown from the masts of a ship of war. Then a dirgeful note issued forth from the trumpets, and the flags were lowered into the half-mast position of mourning.
On this day, at exactly local noon, every ship in the Fleet of Whales was lowering its flag as well.
Iros drifted slowly to leeward for a time as last minute preparations were made. Then a small raft covered with flowers was uncovered and a sea-anchor was made fast to Iros's bows. The men in the small craft were abuzz with excitement. It was clear that some sort of very special ceremony was about to take place.
Across the waves, standing alone on the nearest ship was a tightly dressed figure watching, his eyes memorizing every event, casting them into illusions to weave upon his return to Metamor. Murikeer Khannas had requested such a position, and so was one of the few Metamorians able to attend the burial ceremony. Disguised by a clever illusion that his years in isolation had managed to forge, he was intent on observing all that transpired this day, so that he might show his fellow Metamorians what had been done with the body. He saw nothing that happened on his ship though, only the Iros.
Meanwhile, aboard Iros herself strict discipline was maintained. In perfect symmetry dozens of white-clothed seamen ran aloft to man the yards and the rowers were assembled hats in hand on the vast maindeck, which they had spent all morning swabbing and holystoning to the most perfect whiteness. And then the chief mourners appeared from belowdecks. There were a dozen robed priests of different flavours and varieties, all wearing black somewhere on their persons, the central figure of which was just a child. And among them strode confidently a white rabbit in a simple yet resplendent blaze-orange uniform, accompanied by a gorilla in full-dress Marine blues with more decorations on his chest than anyone aboard had ever seen before.
Despite the deeply instilled discipline of the Service, an audible "ah!" swept for just a second across the deck before dying under the withering glare of dozens of petty officers and master's mates. The rabbit was, after all, ultimately their commanding officer and subservient only to Tenomides himself. It was his plan that had won Whales the ship they stood on, and his resourcefulness that had turned a certain national disaster into a decisive victory. He had not been aboard a Fleet ship in almost a decade, though his sad transformation at Metamor was as story widely told. Phil had somehow been brought aboard without being seen, though the scuttlebutt had been flying all day. And there he was, before their eyes!
The priests formed a line along the break in the quarterdeck as the great ape solemnly helped the Master of Fire climb up onto the rail. It was clear that he was about to speak. Yet, he remained silent a moment more while the child, the central priest among the collection, walked slowly forward to the raft festooned with bright flowers. His small body, only that of a boy, was sure to cause whispers among the crew, yet at this moment, none were voiced.
It was Father Hough of course, whom Phil had requested perform this small gesture. Reaching within the folds of his robes, the boy produced a bit of hemp, one that all sailors immediately recognized for the training rope given to children who wished to be seamen. Reaching the side of the small raft, Hough placed the bit of hemp within the central most ring of flowers, showing each the knot that had been tied within it. A square knot, the very last the deceased had ever worked.
The priest slowly made his way back to the break in the quarterdeck, joining his fellow clergy, eyes sombre, bearing a great pride within them though. He gazed upwards once to the orange-clad rabbit, and nodded. Phil returned the gesture, and then his own gaze settled on the crew before him, passing over every face with a measure of respect and concern.
"Men of Whales," he began in a high-pitched voice that was very strange to hear on a ship of war. "It is good to be at sea again with you, but I wish the occasion could have been a happier one. For today we are here to bury a great man. It was his earnest hope, he told me once, that he might be buried at sea in the manner of a Fleet officer and Brother of the Guild of Fire. This man was a fellow traveller to us all, a man of peace and principle. And he was born a son of Whales. Thus, it is our duty and our honour to give this final gift. Especially as he never asked another.
"Akabaieth, born Apadares of Whales, rose to become Pontiff of the Ecclesia, a religious order that wishes harm to no man. His clerical life was dedicated to peace, and he was murdered most foully on a mission of peace. But these bare facts do not give the measure of the man. Akabaieth was gentle and wise, kind and strong inside where it counts. I am very proud to have known him, and only wish our paths might have crossed sooner. As well they might have had his childhood dream of joining our great Fleet come to pass."
A pair of large tears welled up in the rabbit's eyes, but his voice continued strong and pure, if not quite in the rasp that the men were used to hearing from their officers. "I am proud also to have been Akabaieth's countryman. While our Service is dedicated to the making of war and indeed even this ship we stand aboard is a trophy of war, we do not seek conflict. Our nation is one of traders and our first mission is to protect these traders. Never have we fought a war of aggression and never have we sought to enrich ourselves unfairly at the expense of other lands. Trading can only be profitable in an atmosphere of peace, and I like to think that the Pontiff's childhood helped colour his later thinking."
The Master of Fire stood for a moment in silence, as if he was seeking words. But when he continued his voice was steady. "Only twice before have non-Brothers been ceremonially buried at sea by ships of the Fleet. On each of these previous occasions the man honoured was a great warrior or leader who stood by us in an hour of need. Some have questioned my wisdom in allowing Akabaieth this privilege. However, in my heart I know it is deserved. For is peace among all nations not Whales' greatest need, and is it not right and proper that we should honour a man who stood so forthrightly for what we all believe in? Who died in service to us all?"
No one answered Prince Phil's rhetorical questions, of course, so he continued. "It is now my sad duty and honour to commit the mortal remains of Akabaieth, once Apadares of Whales, to the Fire and to the Sea he once so yearned for. Captain of the foretop, haul away!"
And with that the flower-draped raft that had waited silently on the maindeck was raised silently into the air, then eased out over the great ship's side and gently lowered until it kissed the waves. Then, the ship's side was manned as it slowly began to fall off to leeward. Three times the trumpets blasted in salute, and then the raft was cast off.
"Captain Argoson," Phil said with quiet dignity that seemed oddly in character with his lapine body. "Get us underway and bring the ship about, if you please."
"Aye aye, Sir," he responded, formally lifting his hat in an elegant salute that was rapidly going out of style. Then he turned to his first officer. "Man the oars, Peter."
"Man the oars, aye aye Sir!" he replied. Then he turned and began bellowing out his orders. "Larboard watch! Man the oars! Make secure the sea-anchor!"
Half the men on the maindeck went tumbling down into the hull of the huge quinquireme, where they gathered into the groups of five to an oar that gave the ship its designation. The sea anchor was hauled in, and presently Iros was a living thing again, white wings dipping in unison to the endless beat of the great bass drum.
"Starboard oars, avast!" cried the First Officer, and as one the men on the ship's left side ceased their toil. And as a result Iros began circling around to face the bobbing raft that was Akabaieth's coffin. At the ship's bows, a plumber's nightmare of brass pipes with a fire burning fiercely under it began to whistle. When it reached a certain note, everyone aboard knew, the world's greatest Fire projector would be ready to issue forth.
The First Officer timed it well. Iros was charging downwind and was just out of range of the raft when the note became just right and held. A man in an orange uniform identical to Phil's came striding up to where the rabbit solemnly stood. "My Master and my Brother," he addressed the lapine formally. "Would you do our ship the great honour of firing the projector with your own hand?"
Phil's eyes narrowed for just a second, then he nodded. "Yes, I suppose it is fitting."
There was just time for the pair to make it to the bows before the critical moment arrived. The Master of Fire hopped up onto a little stool that had been provided especially for him, and sighted along the highly-polished brass barrel. And then he took the lanyard in his teeth and pulled firmly.
Liquid Fire erupted in a huge torrent, the flames for a moment dwarfing Iros herself and the roar sounding like the enraged scream of a huge primitive beast. Raw fierce heat blasted back along the deck of the great ship, and the clerics standing near the stern went wide-eyed in shock at the sheer power of the display. Even forewarned, they had simply been unable to conceive of the power of the chemical demon that was the trademark and the monopoly of the Fleet of Whales.
And when it was over, there was not a trace of the little raft left to be found. Akabaieth's remains were quite simply no more.
Iros circled the site three times in salute, the little fleet of onlookers now showing far more respect and maintaining a greater distance. Then with his own forepaws Phil removed a Medallion of Fire, symbol of the Guild, from its Royally sealed container and cast it upon the waves. Forevermore, the name Apadares would appear on the Roll of the Brotherhood among all the rest, without distinction.
And somewhere a young boy smiled as his dream at last came true.
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