Liturgy of Blood - Part II

Patriarch Akabaieth slowly lowered himself into the damask cushions that adorned each of the two benches inside the palanquin. The palanquin was half-open on both sides, so that onlookers would be able to see their heads as they were carried about on the shoulders of the twelve Keepers. The benches lined the front and back of the gilded carriage, and the middle seat was supported by two upraised arm rests decorated with ivory castings of fin-de-siècle representations of animals. Laying his arms out across each, the old man smiled across the short space in the centre of the carriage to Duke Thomas who sat in the opposite chair.

To either side of the horse lord sat Thalberg, who's wide girth prevented any others from joining him to the Duke's left, and his adopted daughter Malisa and Father Hough to his right. The boy priest appeared to be only barely able to contain his excitement, and Akabaieth wondered if that was just the priest's second childhood showing through. The Patriarch could well imagine that many other Followers who had never been to the Keep would have thought this youthful servant of Abba a simple altar boy.

To his own sides sat two of the Yeshuel, and his assistant Vinsah. The middle-aged cleric had begged and cajoled him not to come on this foolhardy journey, but had supported him in every way once Akabaieth informed him the decision to go had been made. The Yeshuel of course were not likely to question his decisions unless they imperiled his life. They had strenuously objected to this course of action, as it brought them dangerously close to the border of Sathmore, and the Patriarch was horrifically unpopular in that Lothanasi dominated kingdom. Yet they too in the end had been by his side to defend his plans before the other priests.

And now before him was a menagerie of all that the Keep had wrought upon those that had lived here: two beasts that walked and talked like men, a woman who had been a man, and a boy who had also been a man. He could still feel the spot where the equine lips had graced the back of his hand. It had been a most unusual experience, as rarely did he feel lips quite so big or hairy. Still, never before in his life had he seen such amazing things as this. Truly, even Abba's hands were at work here among these people.

With a sudden lurch, the palanquin was raised by the twelve Keepers, and they made a slowly undulating trek to the castle at the other end of the Keep. It was quite a smooth ride, as with that many hands, or paws, most of the discrepancies were compensated for by the rest.

"I feel I should apologize, your Eminence," Duke Thomas began in his northern accent. "The news of your arrival broke this morning, and there was little I could do to stop the Keepers from preparing for it. So I instead decided to make it the affair they would expect. I do hope that you can understand, your Eminence."

Akabaieth nodded and smiled, the wrinkles on his face bunching together like familiar friends. "I have never been able to visit a town unnoticed without some priest or acolyte becoming overwhelmed with excitement and revealing my itinerary to another friend or brother. It is of little consequence, as I am used to it."

"Of course, your Eminence," Thomas nodded, while the remainder of his contingent sat quietly listening.

"Please, my name is Akabaieth. I only use the title for public gatherings. In private, you may call me Father Akabaieth, or simply Akabaieth," the Patriarch grimaced at the unwanted title, though somehow his face managed to convey a sense of joyful fatalism. "Do you tire of hearing ‘your Grace' or ‘my Lord' in all your day to day affairs?"

Thomas waggled his ears, and nodded his large equine head. "Yes, I do tire of those and any other honorific people have sought to bestow upon me. I am glad to see we are of like mind on the subject."

"Many prominent people do tire of those fussy titles. Some do not though. They are the sort who love their position more than their responsibility." He heard Vinsah give a sudden gasp at the casual dismissal he had levelled, and frowned slightly. "I have forgotten my duty, and I am ashamed of it. Let me introduce you to my confidants."

"No need to apologize, things were rather hectic out there." Thomas intervened, to which Hough nodded exaggeratedly.

Akabaieth did not object to the fig leaf that Thomas offered, but simply went on. "My fellow priest is Bishop Vinsah, he oversees most of the day to day affairs of the Ecclesia, as well as tending to my personal needs and itinerary. I could not do my job without him."

"It is not so hard, Father," Vinsah added, his cheeks a bit embarrassed at the praise given him. "I enjoy what I do for you and mother Ecclesia."

Thomas could not help but smile at Vinsah, who appeared to be even older than anyone else in the carriage except Akabaieth or Thalberg. The Patriarch shared that same grin, and continued on with the two green-liveried men. "These are Kashin and Iosef. They are my Yeshuel, my protection against those who do not like the Ecclesia or Followers. They are also my friends, for a man in my position has very few," the aged man finished, his voice edged with a slight tinge of remorse.

At that, no one spoke for several seconds. Duke Thomas was forced to reevaluate what he knew of this man with that one statement. Gone were any image of a man who believed himself to be anointed by the Heavens to do as he pleased. Instead, he found what appeared to be a kindred soul in many respects. Also, he could see a torrential current swimming beneath that calm exterior.

"So, why are you here at Metamor?" Thomas finally asked. "Barely one fifth of the Keep's population is Patildor. Most of the rest are Lothanasi, your ancestral enemies. In fact, Metamor Keep is the traditional head of the Lightbringer faith, clearly the antithesis to your own Yesulam." He could not help but add an edge to his voice, but he wondered if such would simply be interpreted as an aspect of what must be to them a horrific accent. At times, it even took the Duke a few seconds to understand what his guests were saying.

"For those very reasons in fact, that, my good Duke, is why I am here." Akabaieth gazed out into the rows of houses and roofs along the street to either side, peering at the freshly cleaned panelling and mortar. "There is an old Pyralian saying that goes something like this, ‘Stab your enemy's flesh and he will retaliate. Stab your enemy's hand and he will retaliate later. But stab your enemy's heart and he shall never retaliate.' I want to do the same thing, but instead of using a dagger, I will use my words."

Thomas bristled slightly, as did Malisa and Thalberg. Father Hough appeared to be distinctly uncomfortable just then, looking first to the Duke and then over to the Patriarch, as if weighing his options. Kashin and Iosef of course sat still, their eyes ever watching that of the figures across from them. Vinsah was busy gazing out the carriage door, as if some distant storefront were more interesting than what was being said here.

"And just what do you mean by that, your Eminence?" Thomas added the title a trifle more gratingly than he ought. Yet the effrontery had been too much.

"Please, do not take my words the wrong way. I do not mean to preach or proselytise to Metamor Keep. I have seen enough of that in my time, and done enough it myself to know that when there is a hot heart, hot words only make the heart hotter. Your Lothanasi and my Followers are both hot in the heart. My words will cool their hearts enough that they may begin to love each other as brothers."

Thomas breathed deeply for a moment, already, his countenance returning to normal. Hough appeared to be quite relieved. "Then you have come to the wrong place, for here at Metamor, we celebrate both faiths, and there is already quite a bit of brotherhood between them."

Akabaieth shook his head then, a distant look glinting his eye like a sapphire. "I do not mean for Metamor. I mean for this message to be spread about every corner of the northern continent. I mean to spread my message of love between our people to the courts of Sathmore just as well as the courts of Pyralis. My own people will be reluctant, but I know that in the end, they will find they've no choice but to do as I instruct.

"I am weary of war, of the bitter hatred, and of the constant struggle on both sides. I for too many years partook of that awful cup, drinking down the blood of Lothanasi, convinced that I was doing the will of Abba. I was wrong. I was horrifically wrong, and only by the will of my Father can I be cleansed of that taint. That is why I am here. I am here to right the wrongs my people have committed against the Lightbringers, and hopefully to help us all start on that road to peace."

Thomas blinked, and took another breath, unsure of what to say in return. Finally, he said all that would come from his lips. "I hope you can succeed. I apologize for thinking ill of your motives."

And at that, the Patriarch chuckled merrily, his gravelly voice giving way to a brusque laugh that was immediately amicable. "Did you really think I came here to convert Metamor to the Patildor? I suppose in a way, I have come to convert hearts, but mostly those in other lands." His face became distant, beatific as he peered out past the gambled rooftops to the Keep wall, and past to the mountains in the distance. "I have always wanted to see the Jewel of the North, and I knew that this would be the last chance I would ever have.

"I am an old man, nearly ninety years in age. I will not live out another decade. If I had not chosen now to right my wrongs, then I never would have another opportunity. We Followers believe that Abba will freely forgive our sins, but we also believe that we must do our best to make amends for them here in this world. After all, what good is forgiveness if it does not change the heart that is forgiven?"

"Well spoken," Thomas agreed. "Upon hearing all that you have said so far, I would be willing to support you in any way that we could. But we have our own problems to worry about, and can pay little attention to the affairs of the Southern midlands, not to mention the Kingdoms of Sathmore and Pyralis."

"Ah yes, this Nosaj fellow."

"Nasoj, Father," Vinsah corrected.

Akabaieth nodded. "Yes, that is it."

"We've only just in this last year completely recovered from his invasion seven years ago. We can ill afford any southern campaigns as he may strike again at any time."

Malisa nodded at that, though her brow was curiously creased. "Thankfully, we haven't seen any serious activity south of the Dike in nearly four months, excepting a minor raid on Mycransburg late in the Summer."

"Do you think he could attack while we are here?" the Yeshuel with the grey lock of hair dangling in his face asked. It took Thomas a moment to recall that the man's name was Kashin.

"Highly unlikely, reports indicate that he has no significant troop buildup near the Dike. Even if he is planning an attack soon, he won't be able to move that many Lutins to Metamor for at least a month. Since nothing we have indicates that there has been any serious changes up north, it's highly unlikely that he is even planning anything presently." Thomas at first wondered why Malisa was being so free with strategic information, though it only took him a moment to realise why. The Patriarch was not trafficking with their enemy, and was from a land so far to the South, that they had no influence in this region of the world outside the smattering of churches in the northern midlands. It was basically useless information for them

Kashin nodded solemnly though, a wave of relief crossing those chiselled features. The other Yeshuel, Iosef, was similarly expressive. Yet their master, Akabaieth, remained calm as he always appeared to be. Thomas found it hard to believe that this man had not been devoted to peace throughout the rest of his life.

"It is good to know that we are safe in your lands for the few days we shall be with you." The Patriarch said nothing of what would happen should they stay longer, and the Duke could not blame him for it. Yet it did still surprise him, for their guests had not once mentioned the curse or appear shocked and appalled at their bestial visages.

"Now, one thing you've not mentioned yet is what you want to do during your stay. You mentioned speaking to the citizens of Metamor, but what else had you hoped to accomplish while you are here?" Thalberg remarked softly, his long narrow crocodilian snout quite supple despite its length. "I have arranged for a banquet tonight, but beyond that, I am not sure what you will need."

At the mention of a banquet, Akabaieth appeared to be injured. "I was hoping to avoid many of the formalities such as exquisite dinners, but I will hardly decline what you have lovingly crafted in my honour. Our intent was to stay for three days, where I could hopefully spend my time coming to know this great city and its people, before I spoke to as many who would listen the last night. I still wish to do this, only it seems I will not be able to do so tonight, and that is just as well. My men have come through a long journey, a day of rest will do them good."

Thalberg nodded then, his gleaming yellow eyes working over the wrinkled figure in the seat across from him. "I have prepared quarters to billet your soldiers, and cleaned the stables out for your knight's steeds. I was not sure just what your Yeshuel were, so I arranged for them to be sleeping within the rooms made ready for you, your Eminence."

Kashin smiled slightly then, as did Iosef. Akabaieth waved a tired hand. "Please, it is just Akabaieth. I thank you for your foresight, as you have done just as I would have liked. I would like for my men to be allowed access to all that Metamor has to offer them. For many of them, it is the first time they have left the lands of Pyralis. It is unlikely they may ever see such a magical place as this again in their lives."

"Excuse me," Malisa then asked again. "I was under the impression that you Patildor did not approve of magic."

Father Hough chuckled a bit at that and said, "Well, some magic is certainly worse than others." Thomas grunted in assent at that.

The bright smile slipped slowly from Akabaieth's face as he pondered the question. "It is true that the Ecclesia has taken a dim view of the practitioner's of magic. Many priests of my faith feel that those who study such arts are people who only wish to control the world about them, in essence to play god on this earth. These magicians are thus susceptible to the temptations of greater and greater power. Clearly, as you can attest, many of them have succumbed to these temptations, and are drunk with their power, and seek only to expand it.

"Yet, the Ecclesia has also traditionally supported and encouraged those with natural gifts to pursue and cultivate them. We feel that they are blessings from Abba, and that to ignore them is to spurn a gift from Eli. So, most of the current thinking in Yesulam is that magic in itself is simply another expression of Eli's presence in the world. It is just another of His glorious creations. Like all things, it can be turned to good, or evil.

"I can hardly imagine though, that I would need to council the Patildor here at Metamor about the good and evil intrinsic in magic." He chuckled at his own joke, and was soon joined by the others in the palanquin.

"Things are changing throughout this world," Akabaieth added, his good humour suddenly vanished and replaced by something more transcendent, yet subtle and ominous. "And so we too must change and embrace those things that will help us survive. Magic is just another tool, we see that now, or at least we are beginning to appreciate this fact. Before I began this journey, I let my body be fortified under the watchful powers of a Pyralian healer. I could never have made it otherwise.

"But there is more to these changes then just the Ecclesia's growing acceptance of magic. The world is groaning under the weight of the times." Vinsah snapped his eyes over to the Patriarch in surprise. It was quickly apparent to all the others in the carriage that the priest had thought what was being said was some fears that had been promised would be left private. "It is not a feeling I can explain. Nor do I really understand the nature of the groaning. Yet I know it is there, like some unseen predator whose stomach has been empty for days, and the hunger gnaws on him as he would the bones of any animal he happened across." Akabaieth shook his head then, closing his eyes and rubbing at his temple. "Forgive me, for it is so hard to express, and so few share my feelings."

"We are rather cut off from the rest of the world as I said," Thomas murmured, drawing one thick black finger across the stubble of fur on his long chin. "Just what has been happening on the rest of the continent these days? We lost one of our brightest diplomats a short while back to bandits, and have heard little news since, aside from the occasional missive from Whales."

Suddenly, Akabaieth brightened. "You have heard news of the Isle of Whales? It has been so long since I have seen that glorious land. Tell me, who is the new King?"

Thomas blinked in surprise, as did everyone else, including Vinsah who was still recovering from the earlier revelations given by his master. "Well, why don't you ask Prince Phil that tonight at the banquet. He is the adopted son of their current ruler, King Tenomides."

"You have a scion of the royal house of Whales here at Metamor?" Akabaieth's face had stretched so far into a grin, half of his wrinkles had disappeared.

"Well, yes. He is away at Lorland watching over that land, but he will have returned to the Keep in time for the banquet this evening, as I said." Thomas peered curiously at his guest and asked, "What is your interest in Whales?"

"Ah, it is my homeland." All four of the figures sitting opposite the Patriarch blinked several times in surprise. Thalberg's jaw nearly dropped open in shock, and his jaw had quite a far way to drop. Akabaieth either did not notice their amazement, or was so used to the reaction that he paid it no attention anymore. "But as you said, we shall discuss all of that at the banquet this evening. You wished to know of the rest of the Northern continent."

The Pontiff took a deep breath, rubbing his chin thoughtfully before draping his hand back across the ivory arm rest covered in depictions of various animals. "Trade with the Southlands has become more difficult these days, as the Southlanders have become quite agitated about something. They do not say what though, only turn their heads in the direction of the setting sun and spit ruefully, or so I have been told. Yesulam conducts much of its business through Eavey on the northern coastline of the easternmost portion of the Southlands, so we see quite a few Southerners in our great city.

"This unrest has spilled over into many of the noble families of Pyralis. In the last three years, two internecine wars have broken out in western Pyralis, though neither were long lived."

Thomas suddenly asked, a curious moue crossing his equine features, "They wouldn't happen to be involved with the du Tournemire family would they?"

Patriarch Akabaieth blinked a few times, and then turned to his aide, "Vinsah?"

The priest shook his head after a moment's thought. "No, the Marquis has only one heir. He had another son, but the infant died during childbirth along with his wife several years ago."

"Ah, I was merely curious." Thomas waved his dark brown furred hand negligently. "You were saying, Akabaieth?" Despite their familiarity, he began to find his tongue tripping over the Patriarch's obviously foreign name. It might have just been easier to use his title, the Duke thought glumly.

The old man continued as if he'd never been interrupted. "In addition to that, groups of fanatics have popped up all over the northern borders of Pyralis, as well as in the Midlands. Many have been a reaction to what Nasoj has perpetrated, but not all of them are so. Others are rejecting something subtler, we have not been able to determine quite why they exist yet. The best news though is that the border between Pyralis and Sathmore has been quiet for many years now. That should make my message easier to give at least.

"There have been the usual famines and droughts that occupy any number of seasons and years like unwelcome guests who will not leave. But aside from this strange feeling I possess, and has been mirrored in the nervous actions of many living near the Splitting Sea, there has been little to warrant such doom-saying. Perhaps, as I hope, it is just fertile ground for the message of peace I wish to proclaim here at Metamor, and in every city that I shall visit this next year."

Thomas nodded at that, his ears twitching at the sound of the trumpeters outside the palanquin. Quickly glancing out the side of the carriage, he could see that they had arrived at the end of the town, and were about to cross through one of the gates leading to the castle grounds proper. "We'll be at the Keep itself in a few minutes, so we should probably continue this discussion at the banquet as well. Would you like me to escort you to your quarters once we arrive? Or is there something more that you wish to do?"

The Patriarch lost his distant expression once more, and pointed towards the town itself. "Vinsah, how many Keepers have followed us through town?"

The priest peered outside the palanquin, and blinked a few times as he counted quickly. Leaning back in, the Bishop brushed a bit of the grey hair from his eyes. "I would say that most of them are still following us."

"Then, I wish to mingle with them once more before you show me to the rooms you have prepared for us." Akabaieth appeared to enjoy that prospect. "Tell me, Duke Thomas, do you often mingle with your people? How often do you go among them as a friend, and not a ruler?"

"Rarely," admitted Thomas sourly. "I would like to do so more often, but the burdens of running a kingdom sometimes allow me no freedoms. Is it true that the more power you obtain, the less freedom you have? It has seemed that way to me, and I do not even covet anymore power than I already have!"

Laughing pleasantly, the Patriarch nodded emphatically. "We are of like minds. In Yesulam, I am known by my face and voice, and so cannot walk among the people as one of them. I always hope to do that in other cities where I am not as well known, but I have never succeeded so far yet. Do you know that I have not been able to simply go into a market to buy bread in over three decades? I miss the simple pleasures in life such as that. It is, as you say, the loss of freedom granted by the rank of office. Power is it's own prison. In the south it is often called fin halaes morada, or The Prison Unsought."

"I am sorry that things did not work out for you here, then. I had no idea that your secrecy was so important to you," Thomas was truly sorry now, for he knew exactly how the man must feel. Indeed, they were kindred spirits in many ways.

"It is of little import, as I have said. Besides, in a city where few will be struck with awe at my presence, I may be able to see more than I could in, say, Salinon."

"For people like us, freedom is hard to come by," Thomas sympathized. "I shall do my best to offer you as much of it as I can."

Akabaieth favoured him with his grand-fatherly smile yet again and then shifted slightly in the seat. "Thank you, Thomas. You are a most gracious host, putting up with a nostalgic old man such as myself."

"It is my pleasure," Thomas corrected, offering him a smile of his own, though it was a bit exaggerated on his equine muzzle so that the man might not miss it behind the animalistic visage.

The trumpeters let lose another blast, and the palanquin came to a sudden stop. After a few moments, the Keepers that had carried them from the Killing grounds lowered the long poles to the ground, setting them down once again. "Well, shall we go and mingle with our people then, Akabaieth?" Thomas extended his hand towards the old man as he rose from his seat, his long, black, flowing tail flitting between each of his richly dressed thighs.

Reaching upwards, the Patriarch took the strangely shaped hand in his own gnarled version, and was helped from his seat by the two Yeshuel at his side. "It would be a great pleasure." And then the two of them stepped out from the palanquin to the cheers from the throng of Keepers who had gathered about the formation of knights that had escorted them through the town. The Red Stallion had been their vanguard, while the Patriarch's own Knights took up the rear, and the Keepers walking with them covered their flanks. In its own way, it had been a grand procession the likes of which had been absent from Metamor for half a dozen years.

Stepping across the poles that held the palanquin aloft, Thomas reached over to the nearest of their bearers and offered him a comradely handshake. The bull morph appeared surprised, yet delighted at the same time, and returned the handshake with fervour, despite their misshapen hooves for hands. Thomas looked back and could see that the Patriarch had already waded once again into the sea of bodies, the two Yeshuel never even one metre from his side. Laughing to himself, the Duke of Metamor followed him in, taking notes from a master of the art. Yes, they were indeed kindred spirits.

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