Liturgy of Blood - Part I

Word has a tendency to travel rather quickly at the Keep. Most especially when the rumour happens to be about one of the leading figures in the cosmopolitan life, and even quicker when it revolves around the Duke or one of the other nobles in the Valley. But the news that the Patriarch was going to be arriving that afternoon spread so fast that it would cool the hottest of wildfires in embarrassed shame.

The Duke had known of this for over a month of course, and had quietly begun their preparations. It was just over a week since the Autumnal Equinox Festival, and so many Keepers were tired of excitement, and had already returned to the normal casual pace of life at a castle in peace. The harvest gripped the farmers in Lorland and many of the other farming communities, while by midday the timber and engineering crews would be out finishing up the last month of their duties before the snows would begin falling. Everywhere, the scent of men and animals at work filled the air.

And it only intensified that morning. At the request of his eminence, Father Hough and Duke Thomas kept the visit a secret for as long as possible. This was the first time in several generations that the head of the Ecclesia had travelled through the Midlands, and they did not wish to alert elements in that country that were not favourably disposed to the Followers that such a tempting target was passing through their demesnes. And so, only a select few knew of this visit, the Prime Minister, Father Lothar of the Ellcaran diocese, Steward Thalberg, and Raven hin'Elric who had the unenviable task of insuring the Lothanasi did not take advantage of this event for mischief against their Patildor brethren.

Of course, this was until that morning, when Father Lothar arrived with a small entourage from Ellcaran - the nearest city of the Midlands - and asked the gatekeepers if the Patriarch had arrived yet. When the Metamorians had asked what he meant in bewilderment, the new priest explained why he was there. This caused a few of the guards to begin spreading the news, at first to check with their superiors if such an envoy was to arrive. The guard captains in turn checked in with the watch-master, who took the matter in some haste to George the patrol master, Misha Brightleaf, head of the Long Scouts, and Steward Thalberg, master of the Duke's household. Meanwhile, those same guards were telling their families and friends of this amazing news, and they in turn took it to all they saw on their daily rounds, while frantically trying to clean their steps and homes, as well as groom their children and themselves.

Not all greeted the news with delight; many Lightbringers soon began to file into Raven's offices complaining about the head of their rival faith coming to Metamor. Both the priestess and Merai had their paws full reassuring their adherents that this would in no way interfere with their practices and festivals. A few Lothanasi simply refused to leave their homes, wishing nothing to do with the Follower celebration. Some simply continued about their business as if that day was no different than the day before. Others joined in the preparations, not to be left out of any festivity. And some, like the Keep's baker, cleaned up for entirely different reasons.

Brennar found himself wondering why Gregor was having him clean off the steps with a scrub, as well as the floor and counters of his bakery. The news of the Patriarch's arrival that afternoon had reached their ears only an hour after their shop had opened for the day. The capybara had instantly become another person, no longer was he the slow waddling rodent with the slight paunch. Now, he was a whirling tornado intent on gathering every piece of dust or grime and hurling into the heavens and out of his store.

Grimacing, the tabby scratched a bit of the dirt from between his fingers and stared at his master who was inspecting his efforts and shaking his head feverishly, repeatedly demanding he scrub again. "I want this floor to shine! I want the Patriarch to be able to shave by looking at my floor!"

The parquetry was already glistening, or so Brennar surmised. His eyes shone in consternation back at him every time he peered at the pattern. "Why do I have to keep cleaning?"

"The Patriarch will be here this afternoon, don't you remember?" Gregor asked in astonishment of his apprentice.

"I thought you didn't want to have anything to do with the Phergolds." Brennar had always considered himself a rather devout Lothanasi, but the capybara's fervour made him feel quite insufficient at times.

"Well, the Patriarch is coming here anyway. And when he does, I want him to find the most well-run bakery with the most delicious breads available on the entire continent. And I want him to know that it was run by a Lothanasi too!" Gregor declared, glancing back towards his ovens which were already full with that morning's dough. Glancing back at his scrubbing student, he then added. "I thought you were friends with several Patildor. Why the pejorative?"

Brennar thought of Matthias who always stopped to talk to him and ask him of his apprenticeship whenever he came by to buy bread. "Well, people are people, be they Patildor or Lothanasi. But priests are not cut from the same sheet. They are a different breed altogether."

The baker laughed heartily at that, and then bustled on back to his ovens, calling out behind him, "Just make sure that those floors are sparkling. We've a lot of work to do this morning."

The tabby let out a soft grouse as he ran the cloth across the wooden tiling, breathing an unpleasant curse down on all dignitaries as he did so.

Of course, they weren't the only ones madly preparing for an event that was only hours away. The kitchen staff was busy amassing the large feast that Thalberg had demanded of them. The alligator had quietly stored up a large quantity of ingredients, most rare and expensive just for this occasion. But this necessarily meant that to cook so much he needed every available hand and paw. So Lady Kimberly and Bernadette found themselves with their paws deep in saucers stirring the creams and gravies that would complement the several course dinner.

Stirring a particularly buttery broth, Kimberly watched the rest of the kitchen staff scurry about from oven to shelf, and from counter top to stove, making sure that each course was begun in its proper time. Bernadette shook her head as if it were nothing unusual. "When was the last time we had somebody this important come to the Keep?"

Kimberly's question caught the mouse off guard for a moment, and so the shorter of the two of them nearly dropped the saucer pan she was clutching firmly between her paws. "Oh, dear me, I don't remember. It was many years before the curses that much I recall. We use to have a lot of dignitaries pay us a visit. We were quite the hub of the much of cultured civilization in the old days. We were the titular head of the Midlands and the Lothanasi for many years, despite how far away both are. Now," her gaze fixed upon the bowl in solemn contemplation, "now we rarely even hear word from them."

She perked up quickly though. "It is good to have guests once more. I always like to watch the dishes come together like this. Besides, we may not get to sit at the table with them, but we get to sample the food first anyway!"

"Dipping your paws in the batter again?" Kimberly asked in amusement, her own whiskers twitching with delight at the thought. She had been to one nice dinner half a year ago. Charles had not ever requested to take her again, mainly because she said she did not want to. The truth was more subtle. How she longed to dine finely with the rest, but she was so afraid of what had happened last time. Loriod was dead, but the embarrassment he had given her still stung deep.

"Oh, admit it, you do it too," Bernadette favoured her with a wink, and then licked at the tip of one of her claws, the thick, creamy, brown sauce disappearing onto her tongue. "Oh, this is nearly ready. You should try a bit of it."

Kimberly sighed, and set down the bowl she was working over. Dipping one claw into the warm batter, she scooped just a bit of the viscous fluid out, and quickly sampled it. Her eyes rose in delight at the meaty flavour, still free from the exotic spices that would be added later. "That is quite delicious!" She quickly dipped her claw in again and giggled in pleasure at the taste. "Oh, I do agree, this is quite ready!"

"How is yours coming?" Bernadette pointed with eager claws at the milky béchamel sauce in the earthen bowl.

"Oh, let's check and see," the rat grinned, her eyes beaming with delight at their innocent mischief. Dipping that one claw into the creamy whiteness, she drew out the buttery substance and licked clean her furless digit. "Oh, I think it needs just a tad more milk, what do you think?"

Bernadette liberally applied a sample to one of her small fingers, and savoured the delightful aroma as well as flavour for a few moments before replying. "Yes, I agree, just a bit more milk."

Kimberly reached for the pitcher on the counter and poured just a small addition to the sauce, and continued stirring until the substance was just as blended as before. Poking her fingers back into the béchamel sauce, she closed her muzzle around them completely. "Oh my!" she exclaimed, letting her paws fall limply to her side in ecstasy. "This is simply perfect!"

Bernadette of course, had to agree after making yet her own sample. The two rodents giggled in delight then, satisfied with their work and their fun. And though they did not see him, Steward Thalberg continue to watch them, unable to help himself. The feeling of excitement at such a prestigious guest had warmed his heart as well. But if they continued to sample the delicacies with such abandon, he might have to remind them who they were for. Even so, he had quite a lot of things to worry about, the playful mischief of two small women was hardly significant next to them.

One of Thalberg's other concerns centred around the decorations that would need to be assembled for the Patriarch's arrival. The Keep staff were wildly organising the vast array of emblems, tapestries, cloths, vases, paintings, statuettes, and pottery that it had in storage around the Halls of the Keep. Of course, given the variable nature of the Keep, this was no easy task. Instead, they simply tried to make any passage they happened upon reflect the fine taste that had been gathering dust for the last seven years.

In charge of that operation was the Keep's archivist, Malqure. The ibis as always wore his grey-liveried suit, with his wings folded across his back. Unlike most bird morphs at the Keep, Malqure had some use of his hands, though not to the extent that he would have liked. So, instead of moving the various priceless heirlooms himself, he directed a score of others in moving them out of storage and dusting them off.

"Be careful with that! It's fifth century Kelewairian, completely irreplaceable!" he shouted to one child who was holding the saucer by the narrow handle, and dangling it upside down while rubbing it over with an already dirtied cloth. The victim of his latest exhortation cupped the saucer in both hands then, and continued, stifling a chuckle at the frantic ibis.

Malqure did not altogether appreciate his transformation, as his duties as Archivist often required him to sift through old mouldy boxes of goods in forgotten storerooms of the Keep. His hands were, while capable of some things, rather inefficient. Plus, his long narrow beak made things even worse. One time several years ago he had been inspecting the Elvquelin plates that Duke Sedgewick purchased over a generation ago, and had accidentally tapped them with the sharp point of his beak, cracking one of them completely. That affair caused him no end of grief, for he could not let himself forget it.

"Where do you want these cloths?" one of the other Keepers asked, clutching a box of flimsy gossamer silk.

"Take those to the dinning rooms, and spread them out across the main tables. I don't want a bit of wood visible after you are done!" Malqure gestured with one wingtip in the direction of the dinning halls, and the Keeper scampered off quickly. "Don't drop those! They are worth more than you make in a lifetime!" he shouted after the aide.

A sudden shout of alarm made him turn on his talons, showing him a sight that made him gasp in freakish terror. In the centre of a pile of dropped tapestries and rugs, each hand woven by people long since dead, was a Keeper trying to hold onto a few more of the priceless decorations. "Pick those up now! I want you to straighten each one out again and check for any damage."

While the man did as instructed, Malqure reflected that things were not going so badly. A few mistakes, but everyone was excited, and was having a hard time staying focussed, himself included. It just felt that every minute or so, despite everything else being handled properly, another calamity was befalling his precious treasures.

As if on queue, the boy let out a gasp, and his eyes met Malqure's in an instant. The delicate piece of pottery he was holding in his small hands had shattered beneath his forceful dusting. The ibis could feel his wings flutter in agitation, before letting out a horrific squawk of frustration. This was going to be a long day, he realized.

And he wasn't the only to think so. Tucked away in his private chambers, Duke Thomas Hassan V prepared for the excitement and the ordeal that involved when such austere guests should arrive. His hopes of a quiet entrance for the Patriarch had been dashed, and he was not sure how it had happened. The plans that Father Hough and he had arranged involved a very casual assembly, one designed to mask the head of the Ecclesia's true nature. The Patriarch in his letter had expressed a desire to see the Keep as it is on a regular day. That had been completely spoiled.

"Watch it," he murmured softly as a small snag was torn free from his mane. "My mane is very sensitive."

"As you've told me before," his son, turned daughter, turned Prime Minister replied as she continued to brush out the deep black hairs of his mane. He had asked her to help him bathe and attire himself presentably, as it gave them a chance to discuss matters at the same time. Besides, father and daughter had so little time to be just that anymore - the affairs of state and running a kingdom weighed heavily on both their shoulders.

"So, what is his title again?" Thomas asked after realizing his daughter had not said anything else.

"His Eminence," Malisa replied, working the metal-tined brush through the coarse horse-hair. "And don't forget to genuflect and kiss his hand when you greet him. In his own land, he will be used to ordering Kings."

"How could I forget?" the horse remarked, wincing as one last knot was drawn out of his mane. "How many men did Hough say His Eminence would be bringing with him?"

"Only a dozen footmen, eight knights, three of his personal aides, and four men he called simply Yeshuel. That is twenty-eight altogether, including His Eminence of course."

"Have we prepared the guest chambers for all of his men?"

"Kyia helped in that, though we've been stocking and decorating them all morning. By this point I am sure they are grander than your own." With one sweep of her arm she gestured to the finely furnished mahogany cabinet that sat beside his wash basin, a heated pool over two metres wide in the centre of a marble tiled floor that was overlain with thick woolen carpets. "Compared to him, you live spartanly."

Thomas grunted once as Malisa rose to fetch his surcoat. It was a bright blue brocade, with frills at every loose end of fabric. He imagined he appeared more like a peacock wearing it than he did a horse. "I consider myself rather frugal for a noble."

"That you are, father, that you are," his daughter nodded in reply, helping him slip into the ostentatious garb. It was quite warm beneath the several layers of cloth, but Autumn had already begun in earnest, and so he knew it would serve quite well. "Although, you probably should spend the money to have the tailor make you something else for these occasions."

Thomas ran one of his thick hands across the front, mussing the filigree slightly. "You are probably right about that." He looked up in time to a humourous smirk flee his daughter's face. "And what of the rest of the preparations for His Eminence?" He sincerely hoped that the Patriarch was the sort who abhorred titles, as he feared it would become old in his mouth soon enough.

While Malisa updated the Duke on the present status of the frantic scrambling to make the Keep presentable for the Patriarch's arrival, others were actually taking steps to ensure that he did arrive. Misha Brightleaf had heard the news early that morning, and had immediately sent a message to the Duke to confirm it. What he had received back was an apology signed by Thomas himself for not having informed him prior to the day of arrival. It had also given him explicit instructions on how to go about his business.

And so the Long House was mostly empty, except for a few of the Longs who were busy sweeping, dusting, and straightening out the place. Caroline was along the upper balcony working away at the stained-glass windows, running a small chisel through the collected grime. His grey eyes brightened at her appearance. Her physical injuries from a month back were fully healed, though he had no desire to send her on any more missions quite yet. Nor had she expressed a desire to return to that life.

The knot of memory tightened his stomach, like a bad piece of meat, covered in mould and degradation. His eyes alighted upon the grin across her muzzle, and suddenly the tightness fled. Things were improving. Slowly, but she was recovering, as were they all.

A gentle poke in his side snapped him from his reverie. "What?" He barked in surprise, turning on the rat who was giving him an obtuse glare.

"I thought you said you were going to help me unroll this carpet?" Charles pointed at the deep green cloth that they were unfurling. It had been sequestered in one of the storerooms in the Long House. So far, they had never seen a need for it, as it was terribly unwieldy. Yet Misha had wanted to decorate the Hall in the colours of the Long Scouts. And so he had asked Charles, who had been busy straightening the armoury, grumbling about the fact that he had not been sent to oversee the Patriarch's arrival, to come assist him.

"Oh, of course, sorry, I got distracted," Misha murmured quietly, pressing his shoulders against the thick bundle. The carpet was spliced in several sections, otherwise it would have been completely unmanageable.

"I noticed that," Matthias remarked, though he did not appear to consider the fox's inattentiveness to be in the least way a crime. In fact, his nonchalance about the whole affair helped set his friend at ease. It also made him consider the reason why they were going to such lengths this morning.

"You've travelled a lot, Charles. Have you ever seen the Patriarch before?"

The rat shook his head regretfully. With a final grunt, they rolled the rest of the carpet out, and then buckled the cords just under the end of the carpet beneath the masonry in the predesignated spots. The stones in each spot were purposefully loose, but when snug against the carpeting, it was impossible to tell. "No, I've never had the pleasure." His face brightened then. "I cannot believe he is coming here!"

"Me either!"

Charles sported a distant look for a moment, and then favoured the fox with a slightly displeased grimace, though that could only last a minute before the joy of such a momentous occasion overwhelmed him. "I only wish I could have been out there in the woods to make sure he arrives safely with the rest of the Longs."

Misha waggled one claw to the rat, a chuckle hiding in his throat. "Now, you aren't quite a Long yet, Charles. Almost, but not quite."

"Yes, master," Matthias gave him an exaggerated bow, and then turned back to the storage chamber to retrieve the next section of carpeting. Misha couldn't help but notice how clean the rat's tail was this morning.

Of course, this was unlike many of the Longs, who were travelling through the woods by the road to Metamor, scouting to ensure that the area was free from malcontents. They each had an area that they would patrol, until they saw the Patriarch's caravan. At that point, they were to shadow its movements, while the next nearest Long went to alert the others, and so word could be passed along to the Keep well ahead of time.

Finbar found himself at the very end of this chain, watching the road from the edge of the woods, well concealed within the brambles and bright colours of the early Autumn leaves. Yellows and oranges, and all hundred shades between mixed to form a rusty mosaic, completely hiding his dun coloured body. His own thoughts were a jumble of elation and concern. He'd been tucked away behind those elms for nearly five hours, and so far not a creature had stirred along the road.

The road towards the South was lined by hills and trees for the first ten miles from Metamor. After that, the forests thinned out to sparse copse here and there along the river banks that crisscrossed the road. The hills remained though, and so naturally any thoroughfare would make many turns. Oftentimes, those bends made wonderful ambuscades, but with the authority of Duke Thomas and that of his predecessors, that problem had mostly been eliminated. There were a few stragglers who used the cover to trap unsuspecting Keepers, but it was rare.

And so Finbar stared at the bend half a mile away, wishing that something would come around it! The sun was perched high in the sky, signalling the clarion call of midday. The Patriarch was scheduled to arrive early in the afternoon, but if he did not appear soon along the road, it could be more towards evening. With the Autumnal Equinox past, the days were shorter than the nights, though as of yet he could not tell.

Finbar had just pulled out a bit of bread and meat from his knapsack when he heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats. Stirring in his perch, he scanned the hillside, and within moments, the sight of men on horseback was clear. He sighed as he watched the procession continue around the bend. Six knights in gleaming armour heralded the convoy, though they displayed no discernible banner. They were followed by a small contingent of troops, some carrying spears, others swords. They were followed by a single large carriage, whose only accoutrement was the silver and platinum gilding along each crease. Behind them was another set of troops, and two more knights. There was a man dressed in a tunic marked by a white crucifix behind the team of horses pulling the carriage.

"Excuse me," a voice called from behind him in a strange accent. Finbar spun on his heels, his reflexes quick, and his musteline body supple. He had a javelin in his paw before he'd even finished turning about. The figure that had come up behind him was a man dressed in the same fashion as the one behind the carriage. His was standing with his feet shoulder width apart, and had his thumbs hooked through his belt at either hip. A lock of grey hair spilled across in front of his chiselled face, more reminiscent of the statues that Finbar had seen about the halls of Metamor than one given to any mortal man. He did not appear to be armed.

"Who are you?" Finbar asked, his body tense with the surprise.

"My name is Kashin, and I take it that you are from Metamor?" His lisp was one that Finbar had never heard before. Still, the bright white crucifix in the centre of his otherwise lime tunic did set the ferret's mind at ease. Clearly, this individual was with the Patriarch. Yet how had he snuck up like that?

"Yes, do you accompany the Patriarch?" Finbar asked, still clutching the javelin between his claws.

Kashin nodded once, and then tossed his head back, the lock of hair falling back over his ear with practised ease. "His Eminence requests that you join him for the remainder of the trip to Metamor. He has never seen any quite like you, and is very interested in asking you of your home before he sees it himself."

Finbar lowered the javelin, and opened wide his mouth in surprise. "Me?" was all that he managed to say before the weapon finally fell from his nervous grasp. Kashin favoured him with a sudden knowing grin, crossed the space between them as silently as Misha ever had, and snatched the javelin from the air before it had struck the soft earth.

"Yes, you. If you would just come with me." Finbar stumbled after the man, blinking as he stared at the javelin in the man's hand. As if he knew exactly what the ferret were thinking, the man bearing the crucifix upon his tunic turned, and handed it to him. "I believe you dropped this."

"Thank you," Finbar managed to say, clumsily following after this ghost of a man. The Patriarch wanted to talk to him and ask him what Metamor was like? Where could he even begin? The Long Scout spent the rest of his journey to the carriage pondering that very question, and finding few answers.

Neither of them noticed the dark cloaked figure hiding just a few ells away. Nor had Lisa Ringe, who had been watching from just around the next bend. She was able to send the message up the line of Long Scouts to the Keep itself, where the news was received with even more panicked frenzy. Michael, and the rest of the timbermen, had been busy all morning repairing a few broken down houses, as well as assisting with the general maintenance. It had been heavy work, but they used much of the same materials that had just been taken down after the Autumnal Equinox Festival.

Now however, they were busying themselves whitewashing many homes that had become yellowed with dirt and grime over the summer. Though it was on the cusp of October, he was still terribly hot from exertion. Looking to either side of him along the cracking wall, he saw that Lindsey and Lance were equally ill at ease after a day's labour. Lindsey had removed the plaid flannel and slung it over one shoulder, leaving only his undershirt, which barely concealed the matting of thick red hair over his chest. Lance had simply never bothered with the shirt at all, relying on his coat of fur. But at this point, even that was too much for the moose who began to facetiously remark that he was going to have it all shaved off.

"So, how far away did they say the Patriarch was?" Michael asked, for what must have been the fifth time already.

"Four miles I think," Lance replied, scratching at his antlers. The velvet was finally beginning to come off, and it put the moose in bizarre moods at times.

"Probably only three at this point," Lindsey pointed out as he dabbed a bit of the whitewash over a small fissure in the wall's surface. Behind him, the sound of other Keepers sweeping out the streets and cleaning through the gutters along either side overshadowed any but their own words.

"How many more houses do we have to paint? Are we going to do this for every house in Metamor?" Michael asked with some trepidation. His arms were beginning to get sore. Being so short, he often had to reach far over his head to cover all the discolourations.

"Well, the Chief doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down yet, so we'll just have to see." Lindsey remarked, glancing one house down the road to the bull morph who was also helping with the work, his black hooves spattered with the white paint.

"Well, if we want to get cleaned up before he arrives, we better not do too many more," Lance suggested hopefully. "I mean, he isn't going to let us greet the most powerful Patildor in the world looking like a bunch of slobs, is he?"

Lindsey grunted. "I sincerely doubt it. After all, Tathom's a mess too."

Michael chuckled at that, and then with one stroke of his paw, finished his section of the wall. "Well, I'm done here. Shall we move onto the next one?"

The other two timbermen nodded reluctantly. "Might as well get it all done with. Somebody should tell him that the next time he comes, to warn us well in advance."

"I'll drink to that!" Lance crowed in delight, and then shrugged his shoulders as he carried the pail with him. "Once I have something to drink that is." They shared a laugh at that, and then moved on to the next wall in the endless series of them at Metamor.

For the Keepers, appearance was important, and so like the timbermen, each in their own way tried to improve their homes, and clean up the streets about them. None of them had any idea if the Patriarch would pass down them and see their handiwork, but they would not take the chance that he would not. Yet, for some, the sake of appearance was taken to a strange degree. Decked in full ambassadorial garb, Ambassador Yonson was hatching quite an odd one at that.

Weyden wondered just what he'd been thinking when he'd asked Larssen that question. Being Captain of the ambassadors guard, a collection of four men, and two former men, he was dressed with as much as his hawk body could wear. Larssen however, if he took the ambassador up on his suggestion, would need to wear very little.

"You want me to do what?" Larssen asked, bending over slightly. Being a giraffe did have its drawbacks. For one, very few of the ceilings within the Keep were large enough to accommodate his standing height.

"I want to ride you down the main concourse of the town when we greet the Patriarch. Not in your full form, that would be too ostentatious. Just large enough to give me a bit of prominence in the display. Duke Thomas will not be greeting him on foot you know. His entourage will come by horse drawn carriage or a palanquin. At this point he has no choice but to do something bold like that. Well, if he is going to be bold, I want to be bold as well." Yonson gesticulated with his paws as he spoke, his long tail curling and uncurling in a frenzy of excitement behind him.

Larssen appeared dumbfounded, and being the loyal guard that he was, sighed and lowered weapons to the ground. "I suppose it would be for the best. But won't you need some ceremonial barding for me? I'd rather not go naked aside for a saddle into the crowds. And how will you find a saddle to fit my back?"

Yonson waved his paws dismissively, turning his golden eyes on Maud. "Find the ambassadorial banners; they are somewhere in my cache. I think we can drape them over his sides if we tie the ends together."

Maud nodded, her frame tight fitting in her uniform, just as she appeared to like it. Weyden had never asked her why she so liked being a woman; perhaps he ought to sometime.

"Weyden," the lemur called, turning to him. "Take Larssen down to the armoury and see if you cannot find him a saddle that will fit over his back when he's about the size of a large horse. Nothing too big now. The banner's are only a metre high, so nothing shorter than that either."

"Of course," Weyden nodded, turning to his fellow guard, shrugging his wings helplessly. Larssen shook his head, the bright yellow and black spots appearing a bit duller all of a sudden.

"And Larssen," Yonson added, drawing both their gazes. "I'll be giving you a substantial reward for this. I do greatly appreciate your sacrifice." That cheered the giraffe up immensely. He even bragged about it all the way down to the armoury, at which point he had to shift to a more animal shape, and thus lost his voice. Weyden did not mind that in the least.

Of course, not everyone wanted to be at the Gates when the Pontiff arrived. Most of the Lothanasi intended to be elsewhere, usually sequestered in their homes, or busy with their craft. Some, like Murikeer Khannas, went into hiding when they heard the news. The skunk, having been at the Keep barely a month now, was quite sensitive to the very notion of such a man's appearance at Metamor. Not just because he was of a different faith, but also because he was still accustoming himself to large crowds again. The Autumnal Festival had given him quite a stir, he'd spent it at Glen Avery with Llyn to avoid the crush of people. This promised to be even more of a circus.

And so he turned to the one place he knew would afford him sanctuary from the pressing agglomerations of flesh. Tucked between two large stacks of books and tomes of varying colours and sizes, he whittled away the hours reading through the histories of Metamor Valley as well as learned essays on magical practices of the northern kingdoms. He'd set one of his witchlights on a small pedestal before him, and aside from the flame in the sconce a few ells behind him, it was his only illumination.

The scent of the pages, and of a bit of dust was strong enough to overshadow his own scent, though just barely. Reaching out with one black paw, he turned the well-kept page, his blunt claws gripping it gently. It had been so long since he had held a book so old, that the first time he'd sat down with a grizzled tome, he'd accidentally tore several of the pages with his claws before he'd found the knack of it. The corners of his muzzle turned up in a musteline grin at the memory of that. So much of his first days here in the Keep were worthy to be told as stories to delight children and friends years from now.

He'd almost managed to forget the coming celebration when a familiar scent began to tickle his nose and make his whiskers twitch in expectation. Glancing past the old words, he could see a supple form weaving in and out of the stacks of books in this far alcove of the Keep library. "There you are," the voice said in irritation. "I've been trying to find you all morning," Llyn added as if somehow he had committed a terrible offense.

"I'm just here, catching up on some reading," Muri remarked softly, a slight churr in his voice. Despite his reasons, he could not find it in himself to blame her for her worry. In fact, he felt a bit ashamed at having given her no warning of his obfuscation.

"Why now? Don't you know that the Patriarch is coming to the Keep?" Llyn stared at him in bemusement, but there was a distant quality to her voice. Muri could tell that the mink was barely containing her excitement so that she might lecture him.

The skunk nodded, not saying anything for a moment as he closed the book with a whump. Particles of dust flew into his face, nearly bringing him to sneeze. "You know how I feel about humans, and there's going to be an unholy mass of Keepers there to meet him. I'd rather not be a part of that." He did not mention that the idea of witnessing the arrival of the most powerful member of the Follower order held no great awe for him. Indeed, it left a cold lump of unease like a stone in his stomach. Llyn and Charles had convinced him that the entire Patildor faith were not inquisitioners, but he still had no wish to be a part of such a monumentous occasion for that faith.

Llyn cast her eyes down in disappointment. "I know. The very least you could have done was tell me that you were hiding back here. Do you know how long I've been looking for you?" He winced and finally asked. "Since just after sunrise when I heard the news. You are awfully good at hiding, Muri. Especially for a skunk."

"You still found me," he winked playfully at her, and she swatted his muzzle with her paw. Gently though.

"I'm going to watch the Patriarch arrive, so I'll be in the town square in case you need me."

"And I'll be here," Murikeer murmured softly, rubbing his muzzle with one paw in mock injury. "Come find me when he leaves!"

She did not say anything else, for which the skunk was glad. Turning to his books, he pulled out the next volume, and began to lose himself in the words of one long since dead. Idly he wondered just how much longer it would be before the Patriarch did arrive. Finally, he shrugged slightly. Whenever the Pontiff did show, it would be of little difference to him. They would never invade his sanctuary of old tomes. It was probably the one place in the Keep not frenetic with activity.

But of course, all of that activity came to a head only a short while later when Finbar, with a deliriously happy expression came bounding through the gates announcing the Patriarch's imminent arrival. Sure enough, only a few minutes later, the caravan of knights, troops, and the single carriage turned around the last bend in the road and began its march up the ridge towards the main gates of the castle walls. Behind those walls, arranged in the killing fields just outside the city were the two hundred and more Followers living at the Keep, as well as many of the other sects who had come to see this respected man's arrival. Nobles who had been alerted were waiting as well, decorated in their most expensive garb and attended by as many of their servants they could display. As promised, Yonson sat in the saddle behind the long yellow and black neck of Larssen with his long striped tail twitching in excitement.

However, as customary, Duke Thomas had provided the most garish of welcoming parties. A large eight-seated palanquin was at the ready in the road behind his personal carriage. The long staves were tipped with golden ferrules, and there were four altogether supporting the carriage. A dozen of the larger keepers stood at the ready to carry the litter back to the Keep in grand style. Normally, Thomas would not have ever dreamed of asking any of his fellow Keepers to carry him on their shoulders, but neither did he have such esteemed guests as the leader of one of the largest faiths in the known world.

Charles found himself wedged in between Misha and Llyn as they stood to one side of the main road, their hearts beating quickly in their chest. Matthias hoped for any glimpse of His Eminence as the moments trickled by. Llyn, whom Charles had only met a short while ago, was also just as excited. Misha did not appear to be so, though the expectation was clearly visible in his grey eyes. Caroline was standing nestled against the fox, her eyes peering down the road in wonder. This was the closest she had come to leaving Metamor in over a month.

A line of trumpeters played a dramatic fanfare then as the first of the Patriarch's party crossed the threshold and beneath the portcullis inside the castle walls. The cornets were all brightly polished, gleaming in the afternoon sun like a row of finely cut diamonds set in a pavé. Charles tried to stare past the knights, who were carrying green banners, the only mark upon them that of a white crucifix, but was unable to see anything quite yet. He shifted on his paws, cursing his height as several taller Keepers leaned in the way.

The six knights at the front of the caravan each stopped just metres before Thomas's own Knights of the Red Stallion, who bore their colours proudly, with nary a mark to blemish their armour or barding. Then, in a barely visible motion, the Patriarch's knights directed their steeds to the sides. The horses obeyed, walking sideways a few steps in precise unison. The dozen soldiers following after moved betwixt the two lines of knights, they laid down their spears, and drew their swords from their scabbards at the same time. Brightly gleaming steel shined in the afternoon air with yet another peroration from the trumpets as the Patriarch's carriage crossed beneath the portcullis and into the killing fields.

Charles took a gasp of breath as the soldiers filtered with practised precision between the green liveried knights and the carriage drew forth into the space left by their absence. It was hardly an imposing structure, seating at least six to eight people comfortably inside, while two men wearing the same green, though a slightly deeper hue, with the white crucifix upon their chests sat behind the equestrian train. In the faces of those two men, Charles could have stared for ages, as they seemed timeless, almost reflections of Abba Himself.

Duke Thomas moved to the forefront of the Red Stallion; Malisa, Thalberg, and Father Hough right behind him in their own ceremonial garb. The Princess and now Prime Minister as well was decorated with an airy blue dress even more frilly that the great azure cavalcade that her father wore. Yet with that, she bore the mantle that Posti had once carried upon his broad shoulders. The varicoloured epaulet dangled to the middle of her upper arms. Thalberg meanwhile wore his traditional crimson robe pulled tightly about his scaly chest. Underneath the robe he wore several other vests, each of a deeper hue of scarlet, until the last next to his dark green hide, which was a rich maroon tucked against his neck. Hough wore only his ornate dalmatic over the priestly white alb that was his custom. Charles doubted that the boy had anything finer than that.

Matthias held his breath as he turned then to watch the carriage. The two men of oddly powerful presence disembarked the carriage and stood at either side of the vehicle. Two other similarly clad gentleman who possessed similar countenances came out from the doors on either side of the carriage, and began to unfold the roof, which levered away easily. The first two men then tilted forward the front of the carriage, revealing the Patriarch standing there inside, arms held out wide, and with a face older than he could believe, though it wore a smile broader than a child's.

Almost immediately, the entire collection of Keepers that were afoot knelt to the ground, including Duke Thomas. About him on all sides, the rustling of fur and the quiet creak of leather could be heard, and though he did not see it as he could not take his eyes away from the Patriarch, his knee rested in the earth through his hose. The Knights dismounted and did likewise. Charles dug his claws into the earth, wishing that he had taken the time to have ornate boots made for just such an occasion. The trumpets let loose one more fanfare, and then they succumbed to silence. It was a very exciting moment with the cheers of each of the Followers clutched firmly in their breasts.

Without saying a word, only smiling that ancient smile, one that had seen more than any man should, yet still found peace in himself, the Pontiff climbed down the steps. He was aided by two of the men who bore no weapons, yet carried a presence unlike any Charles had heretofore felt deep in his breast. His Sondeck yearned to meet with them, like a lodestone signalling North. Yet his eyes followed the subtler presence of The Patriarch as the ancient man crossed the ground to stand before the kneeling Duke. His robes were white, speckled with golden flecks across the dalmatic draped over his shoulders. He wore no headpiece, and the circular bald spot amidst the white of his hair shone brightly in the afternoon sun. There was so much shining on that field that the Keepers had to blink to take it all in.

Matthias watched the leader of his faith stand before the Duke, a twinge of humour crossing his cheek as he regarded the assembled Keepers and all that had been prepared for him. The two men at his side appeared slightly uncomfortable for a moment, and then the Patriarch extended his hand towards the genuflecting lord of this land like a child who had forgotten an undesirable chore. Taking it in his beast's hands, Thomas brought the wrinkled flesh to his supple equine lips and touched the two together for a moment that threatened to stretch into infinity.

And then Duke Thomas released the hand, his posture perfect, not even the slightest quaver as he let his hoof-like hands fall before him. And then, the Patriarch spoke a few soft words, yet Charles heard them in his ears as if the man had whispered them there. "Rise, my children, and ye children of Metamor." It was not a beautiful voice, there was a gravel to it that made it hard to understand, even though spoken in an accent that was very familiar to the rat. Yet, nonetheless, it was a commanding one, despite the gentleness of it.

Thomas was the first to stand, his hooves circled by bright golden anklets with a central figurine at the forefront. Matthias guessed it to be the stallion head of the ducal crest. The rest of the Keepers rose in a wave about him, though the Patriarch's own men were the last to rise, each appearing as reverent as if they had been the ones to kiss the Pontiff's hand.

"Welcome, your Eminence," Thomas said in a voice loud enough to be heard by all. "Welcome to Metamor Keep!"

The Patriarch smiled again. "I am honoured to visit your amazing kingdom, my good Duke."

"I've prepared a palanquin to take us to the palace. If you'll be so kind as to come this way, your Eminence." Thomas gestured to the litter where the twelve large Keepers waited eagerly to bear their burden.

The Patriarch turned his head from side to side and favoured the horse lord with another simple grin. "If it would not be too much to ask of you, my good Duke, I would like to mingle with my people before we adjourn to your splendid palace."

Thomas appeared to stutter for a moment, but a broad smile filled his face suddenly, one that Charles knew was totally genuine. It was as if the Pontiff had surpassed some unspoken test. "Of course, your Eminence. You honour us with your visit."

The Patriarch smiled yet again, even as the three other figures from the carriage disembarked and joined their vicar. "You honour us with your hospitality." He then turned from the horse king, his face never once showing any signs of concern at the bestial nature of his host, and walked towards one side of the crowds. Charles watched with a bit of dismay as he turned to the other side of the road, being quickly surrounded by the Keepers there, each of them eager to simply touch the man or his robes. The two green liveried men stayed near him at all times.

Waiting, his whole body eager, the rat watched the other members of the Pontiff's caravan. One of the unarmed green liveried men, his bodyguards most likely, walked up to the Duke and exchanged a few words, before turning to Thalberg and engaging in animated discussion. The last of the four, this one with a strange grey lock of hair that was perched precariously on his brow, threatening to topple over and obscure his eyes at any moment, was standing in the middle of the road, simply watching them. Matthias gazed back for a moment, and then realized that those ivory orbs were fixed upon him, whereupon the rat broke the rapport, slightly startled.

While Duke Thomas and Malisa talked with the three other priests who had accompanied the Patriarch, and his eminence was wading through the sea of jubilant Keepers on the other side of the road, Charles took the time to see who had made an appearance. Yonson was standing beside the giraffe, chatting with the head of his own guard, a hawk who bore no discernable expression. With a bit of surprise, he realized that there were no other important nobles present. Not even his good friend Prince Phil had put in an appearance, though Charles immediately chalked that up to the rabbit being away at Lorland as he was often wont to do.

And then, Misha was poking him in the side, just as the rat had done to the fox earlier that morning. Snapping his head back up, Charles saw the Patriarch flowing across the road towards them. Llyn was barely able to stand still as the white robed man approached, though Misha possessed a calm demeanor in the face of the head of the Ecclesia. Charles knew that, like Oren, Misha belonged to a different sect of the Followers. Yet unlike Oren, the fox had the temerity to attend Service that Father Hough gave.

Up closer, Charles was finally able to make out fine details of the Pontiff's countenance. His vision as a rat suffered at distances, a fact that frustrated him at times. Now, he could tell that his eyes were a pale blue, bordering on a light grey. Those eyes were framed by a series of wrinkles that reminded Matthias of some of the older Sondeckis who had cared for him in his first days at Sondeshara. As he passed into their group, Charles could see a positive glow to the man's cheeks at every Keeper he spoke to. And he did not pass a single one of them by without saying a few words and clasping hands. Nor did he flinch when that hand was a paw coated in fur, scales, or the awkwardness of a feathery wing.

Finally, he found himself in reach of Abba's vicar, who he was sure was the holiest man alive. His tail curled about his hind paws, tightening around one ankle from his nervous trepidation. Llyn was even worse, stammering out half-formed phrases of respect and delight as the Patriarch smiled affectionately, much like a grandfather might do for a beloved grandchild. Even the two bodyguards flanking him at all times appeared to gaze at each of them like they were their children.

And then Matthias found himself confronted by this ancient man, his shaking paw extended. "I am so honoured, your Eminence," he managed to stutter. "Truly, Abba shines upon you and all those with you."

"Abba shines upon you as well, my child," the man smiled again, curiously. "Tell me, what is your name."

"I am Charles Matthias, your Eminence."

The Patriarch then took his paw, gripping it in a gentle yet firm embrace. "I am honoured to meet you as well, Charles Matthias. Your prowess with pen is not unheard of in my land." And then he had passed on to greet Misha and the rest. Matthias still held out his paw though, afraid to bring it back towards himself, for fear the power that he had just felt would vanish. His whole spirit was filled with a sudden calm, as if he had been temporarily transported into Heaven and the vision was slowly being drained away by the material finiteness of his present existence. The fact that the Patriarch had just complimented him on his writing did not even register with him then.

And then that man with the grey lock of hair was before him, gazing curiously down the two feet necessary to lock eyes with the rat. "Excuse me," he said in the familiar southern accent that Charles himself once bore. "May I inquire after your name?"

"I'm Charles Matthias, and you?" The rat asked, finding his own lisp returning after all these years.

"My name is Kashin. I am one of Patriarch Akabaieth's Yeshuel." the man added, though the name was only vaguely familiar to the rat.

"You protect his Eminence?"

He nodded then, a secret smile gracing his lips. "I am a bit curious though as to why one of your kind would be this far North."

"What?" Charles asked, quite surprised. For the man had not spoken in the tongue of the Midlands, but of Matthias's homeland.

Kashin glanced back to his charge, who was nearly at the end of the line of Keepers assembled, and then once more to the rat. "I shall see you again, sir Matthias." Charles watched the tall figure's back for a moment, before he felt Misha's tug on his sleeve.

"Who was that?" the fox asked him lightly, rather distant expression on his friend's face.

Matthias shook his head. "I'm not sure."

However, before either could pursue those thoughts further, The Patriarch had once more returned to the centre of the road, flanked on all sides by the four Yeshuel, and escorted by the three other priests. Father Hough, standing just behind Duke Thomas, appeared eager to join that company, but refrained from leaving his position. Approaching Thomas once more, the Patriarch nodded in consent to the unspoken question. Quietly, the group of them walked towards the palanquin, where the once more excited Keepers waited to hoist them on their shoulders and bear them to the Keep. However, Akabaieth turned one last time, and spoke in his gravelly voice. "Eli's blessing be upon all of you." He made the symbol of the cross, and then joined the Duke once more.

And at that, the trumpeters did finally let forth another chorus of magisterial splendour to match the cheers raised by the congregation of Followers on the field.

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