Liturgy of Blood - Part IV

For as long as he'd lived at Metamor or anywhere in the world for that matter Charles had never thought he smelled a bouquet of roses any better than the one he clutched in his paw now. Of course, it was the wrong season for the thorny plants, but D'Alimonte kept a garden of them within the greenhouse that he maintained out of his personal time. Yet, the grasshopper performed a marvellous job, bringing out the brightest of reds, the deepest of hues of that luscious colour within each and every petal. Each tip was decorated with a dark maroon rim, the tone lightening as it drew towards the centre of the flower.

Yet the scent, ah the scent!, was the most gripping part. It reminded Charles of a million succulent kisses, each more precious than the last. As he savoured the benevolent odour, the rat found himself transported to a world of amorous sensation, where each new aspect only sent an electric thrill racing down his spine to collect at the tip of his tail. He was in a garden, surrounded by busts and statues of her blessed image, the rain gently sopping through the misty air, while the real visage of his love waited beneath the white cupola of a slender gazebo set beside the pock-marked lake. While he drank in the sweet scent of those roses, Charles was with her, his Lady Kimberly.

After the Patriarch had disappeared within the walls of the Keep, he knew that he would not see that most holy man again until the next day. The reason for this had to do with the fact that Kimberly had been working in the kitchens all day, as the Duke was intent on throwing a great feast in the Pontiff's honour. Of course, Matthias had not been invited. As he was no longer Head of the Writer's Guild, he was no longer considered part of the required intelligentsia for any visiting dignitary to meet. Thalberg had made that clear to him after his official announcement of resignation.

Yet, this also gave Matthias exactly what he wanted, a free evening. Since most of the Keep would still be rather boisterous with the presence of such a high official as the Patriarch, it was possible for him to have a few hours in which he could do just as he wished. And the rat's wish was to spend that time with the one that he treasured most in life, even more so than his Sondeck. Since they had known all day that the Patriarch and his men were coming, the kitchen staff would have had plenty of time to prepare the courses. So, he alighted upon the chance that his love would be in her room that early evening.

And to his delight, she was!

The oaken door which hid her countenance was drawn open at a pace too slow for the rat's heart, but his patience was rewarded as within a second or two, he glimpsed her face. From the most remarkable smooth rounded ears, down to the demure black eyes set astride her long narrow muzzle, ending in a brush of bright whiskers and her two long incisors beneath her stout tan nose. It was a cavalcade of beauty surpassing the distant mountains and forests or any corner of the globe.

Her muzzle turned up in a smile as she saw him, "Hello, Charles. I didn't know if I would see you today." Then suddenly, her nose twitched, and a bright flavour lit in her eyes. "Oh, what is that smell? Is that roses? Did you bring me roses?" She asked in delight, her whole body lifting even higher if it were possible.

Blushing, his own whiskers twitching in a flurry of excitement, Charles held out the bouquet tied together with gold-trim lace. Kimberly took them in her paws and brought the blossoms to her nose, burying the soft flesh in the dark petals. She breathed deeply, closing her eyes. Matthias could not say anything, only smile with his whole body as her ears flicked slightly, and her tail curled around one of her feet in bliss.

"Oh, they're beautiful, Charles," Kimberly finally said, reaching out to embrace him in a tight hug.

Matthias could not help but return the gesture, running his paws down her back as he did so, delighted to feel her this close again. Ever since the raid on Stepping Rock Manor, they'd been too busy to spend much time with each other. That, and they both still could only remember what had happened to another Long Scout named Craig Latoner, and the bedraggled state that the Lutins had left Caroline Hardy in. Whenever they had touched in the last month, Charles felt as if his flesh were still stained, and Kimberly had treated him so as well.

Not this time though. This time, the hug was pure, unadulterated by worry or doubt. Their embrace lasted for several moments, before finally they slipped to arm's width and stood gazing into each other's eyes. Matthias spoke softly, his face bright as was hers. "I knew you would like them. They are beautiful yes, but not nearly as beautiful as you."

At that, she smiled and hugged him again, burying her face in his chest. Charles could feel the prick of one of the thorns from the roses as Kimberly held them in her paws, but did not complain. "I'm so glad to see that you are here. I was worried you might be in the Kitchens all night too."

Kimberly leaned back slightly, never breaking her eyes from his own. "I was afraid of that too, but Thalberg wanted us to each take a break to clean up our rooms. He told me to go just a short while ago. I didn't have much to clean though." She waved one paw towards the rather tidy room behind her. Charles peered over her shoulder and saw the well-kept bed was already adorned with the winter quilts, all of them freshly cleaned of fur. Her mantle was dusted, as were each of the sparse furnishings within. Laying across one corner of her bed though was a velvet dress that he did not recognize.

"Is that a new dress?" Charles asked, pointing to the several folds of cloth draped on the quilt.

Kimberly turned her head to look and nodded. "I just bought it a few days ago. I wanted you to see me in it, but I haven't had a chance to wear it yet."

"Well, how long until Thalberg starts hunting you down?"

"He wanted me back in the Kitchens to help clean things up by seven."

Charles wiggled his whiskers in delight, drawing one of his arms across her shoulders and pressing slightly into her frame. "Well, that gives us two hours. Why don't you put that on, and we can go out to our favourite rock in the Western Garden. I'd like to buy some of Gregor's bread as well, I'm sure he's made a very special batch since the Patriarch is here."

She clasped her paws together in delight, the bouquet of roses still clutched tightly between her fingers. "Oh, that sounds wonderful! Give me a few minutes, and I'll be ready." She then leaned over and pressed her nose into the side of his cheek fur. It took Charles a second to realize that she was trying to kiss him. "Thank you so much for these roses that was really sweet of you!"

Matthias stood there, a grin plastered over his face. She'd kissed him! For a brief moment, he contemplated never washing that side of his face ever again., for fear he might remove that blessed touch. And then, returning to the moment, he realized that he was staring at a closed oaken door. Backing up a step, he waited for Kimberly to finish changing out of her work clothes into that evening gown. From what he'd seen, it was a rather inexpensive dress, but a nice one at that. Just the right thing for an evening stroll through the gardens and Metamor itself.

Gazing down at his own clothes, he knew he would certainly fit right in. The knees of both of his trousers were muddied from when he'd been kneeling in the Killing grounds earlier. Yet, his outfit had an overall dark tan cast, so it was only mildly noticeable. Yet, as he stared at those two imperfections, the rat knew he should have at the very least changed before he'd come to her door. Already, he felt embarrassed by his poor dress, knowing that his love deserved better from him.

After a few minutes, the door opened once more, and standing beneath the transom was a delight given straight from Heaven. Adorned in a lilac violet, Kimberly had spread her small paws across the front of the dress. The billowing folds of the skirt circled her feet, which were of course unshoed, with the hem ruffled lightly, more of that regal purple, though more bluish towards the end. The blouse itself crisscrossed her front in a V-shape, displaying a charming silver necklace against her upper chest and nestled snugly in her light tan fur. The sleeves drew the entire length of her arms, ending in gentle filigreed cuffs from which her paws sprouted.

"You look absolutely lovely! I feel as if I have just woken from death to be greeted by an angel!" Charles crowed in delight, unable to leave his eyes on any one feature for too long, eager to see all of it.

Her lips curled back in a smile, and her whiskers twitched pleasantly. The smile of a rodent involves the whole face, and to some it is quite a hilarious expression. To Charles, and his Lady Kimberly, it was one of sweet repose, an oft shared remark that needed no explanation.

"Thank you, I had hoped you would like it."

"Like it? I love it!" Matthias reaffirmed, stepping closer to her to gently run his palm across one of her shoulders, the fabric smooth beneath his touch. "I cannot wait to show you off! All the Keepers will be whispering about what a lucky man I am."

Kimberly smiled brightly then, hugging him closely, and then shutting her door behind her. "And they'll be saying the same thing about me."

Matthias laughed, and then the two of them walked arm in arm out of the castle itself, beneath the Ivy Causeway, and towards the town. The ivy had long since abandoned its flowers, but the bright green tendrils still curled around the marble entablature. The streets were mostly filled with Keepers cleaning up the last few messes still littering the cobblestones. That and the occasional group of soldiers from the Patriarch's caravan seeing the sights. Some of them appeared to be overwhelmed, while others possessed a thinly veiled look of disgust at the animal morphs sharing the streets with them.

Neither Charles nor Kimberly paid them much mind, as their destination was clear, and would not be hampered by the foreigners, at least not tonight. It did not take them long to make their way through to the steps of Gregor's bakery. The sweet aroma of delectable pastries and breads wafted through the windows and out the open door, causing every nose to turn as they passed, even that of the humans!

Inside of course, the smell was nearly overpowering, as every delight available made themselves known to their noses. Twitching in eager bliss, Charles knew that the cinnamon rolls were just fresh from the oven, while the apple filled croissants had been sitting on the heated counter for at least an hour. Thick moist slabs of his finest breads lined the shelves, loaf after loaf of scrumptious morsels making themselves known to the two rats.

"Charles, Kimberly," Brennar's voice sounded from the corner behind them. "I am surprised to see you here."

Turning on their paws, the two rats gazed at the tabby who was furiously scrubbing at a discoloured spot on the wood panelling. The interior of the Bakery was the cleanest Matthias could ever remember it being ever since he'd arrived at the Keep six years ago. "Hello, Brennar. Hard at work I see."

The apprentice nodded, his green-flecked eyes gazing across the shining parquetry. "It is not like it will do any good, as soon as anybody walks in here, I just have more to clean." He pointed to the dirty tracks they had brought in with them. Sure enough, there were two sets of rat paws marring the pristine surface of the tiled floor. In a low voice, Brennar added, his feline face carrying with it a bit of whimsy, "Gregor wants to impress the Patriarch, as if he'd actually come here."

"You can't blame him or anyone else for wanting to do that," Charles murmured, his voice also a bit playful. "Where is the capybara by the way?"

"He's working the oven, and he asked me not to let anybody distract him for the moment. Unless they were the Patriarch of course." Brenner pointed to the back room, the door of which was closed. "Are you the Patriarch in disguise perchance?"

Kimberly giggled spritely and even Charles had to laugh at that. "No, and it is a good thing to. The Ecclesia would not be well off with me for their leader."

Brennar nodded but didn't say anything more about that. He nodded his head to Kimberly and smiled as he continued to scrub at the discoloured spot. "You are looking lovely, milady."

She blushed happily, curtsying ever so slightly to the industrious cat. "Why thank you."

Brennar patted his paws against his pantaloons, the seam of which appeared rather fine for an apprentice. "So, why aren't you two following him around?"

"Who?" Charles asked, perplexed.

"The Patriarch of course."

"Oh!" Charles looked at Kimberly for a moment and then back to his friend. "Well, tonight is the banquet for all the important or interesting people at the Keep. I am no longer either, so I wasn't invited."

"And I have been in the Kitchens all day, but I've got a little break right now," Kimberly added.

"We hoped to buy some bread and eat it out in the gardens this evening, as there will be few left in the season quite so nice as this," Matthias explained, gesturing once to the rows of pastries lining the counter.

Brennar nodded, his long tail flicking back and forth from the seat of his trousers. "He should be out shortly if you don't mind waiting. He asked me not to sell any of his merchandise for him either."

"Has he let you make any bread today?" Kimberly asked suddenly, her nose twitching. Though the smell of cat did incite a sense of wariness in them both, the odour of the moist delicacies comforted their rodential instincts.

"Not today, and not the next few days either I'll wager. You know how dedicated a Lothanasi he is. Makes me wonder why he'd go to so much trouble to impress somebody he holds little regard for."

Charles laughed a bit then, running his paw across Kimberly's back as they stood there together, their dirty paws sullying the parquetry and making more work for the tabby. "Did he tell you why he wants to impress The Patriarch?"

Brennar nodded then, finally giving up on the discoloured patch of the wall. "Gregor wants to show him how good the fruit of a Lothanasi's labour can be. Or something to that effect. It's not like he is going to convince the man to switch faiths or anything!"

The tabby then gave Matthias a curious grin, the ends of his lips curling up in delight, showing them the long narrow feline teeth. "I heard an interesting rumour a few days ago, it was about you Charles."

"Me?" Matthias asked in mock surprise. Though he did not relish the fact, spreading rumours about his activities this last Spring was a popular past time among the Keepers. Thankfully, since joining the Longs, he'd managed to stay out of sight, so no new deeds had been added to the litany of his amazing feats lately.

"Yes, I heard that you've been visiting Raven hin'Elric at the temple every couple weeks or so these past two months. Are you planning something you haven't been telling the rest of us?" Brennar joshed, poking a claw towards his side playfully.

"Oh nothing important," Matthias said, trying not to think about the awkwardness that would bring at his next confession. "Simply asking a few favours of Raven, that is all."

Brenner winked at him, his green-flecked eyes alight with merriment. "Are you sure you aren't planning to convert? You'd make a good Lothanasi."

Laughing, Charles set his paw on his friend's shoulder. "I have as much chance of that as does the Patriarch, my friend."

"More's the pity!" a voice called out from behind them. Turning on their heels, they saw Gregor, dressed with stained apron across his front, come strolling out the back door. A hot wave of earthy air washed over them, bringing the scent of several newly baked flavours with it. "Not only are you dirtying my floor, but you are dampening my boy's spirits!" Though the words were said rather brusquely, Matthias knew it was all part of the capybara's unique blend of charm. "What can I do for you two heathens today?"

Kimberly had at first appeared uncomfortable by the Baker's tone, but upon hearing Charles laugh yet again, her whole body was set at ease. Brenner waved them on, and so the two rats walked up to the counter, behind which, the capybara paced, cleaning some bit of dough from his whiskers. "We were just hoping to buy something."

"Well, I'd hope so! I don't run this place just to let people come in and chat!" Gregor announced dramatically. It was as if he were rehearsing lines he'd use when the Patriarch came by to sample his wares.

Kimberly pointed to one of the cinnamon rolls drenched in a thick, white frosting. Charles nodded his head earnestly, having hoped to snag one of those pastries as soon as he'd smelled them. "We'd like two of your cinnamon rolls. How much are they going to cost us? And I was hoping for something a little less than our converting." Matthias winked at his fellow rodent, who finally let out a broad chuckle.

"Of course, you mean something in terms of money, do you not? That will be one silver for the both of them."

Charles was half tempted to haggle the price down a few coppers, but they did not have all night. So he fished the desired coin from his pocket, and plunked it on the table, the coin spinning on its side a few times before settling down tails up with a metallic ringing sound. Gregor scooped the coin back into his paws and then selected two of the largest of his pastries, and handed them to the two rats. The frosting was still warm, sweet, and sugary, and so a bit of that dribbled onto their paws as they took them from Gregor.

"They smell delicious," Kimberly remarked, smiling to the other rodent. "I hope the Patriarch likes them as well."

Gregor smiled then, nodding his head respectfully towards her, "If you are taken with them, Lady Kimberly, what matters what some priest from the south believes?"

She blushed at the complement, licking a bit of the frosting from her thumb before it spilled onto her dress. The two of them turned and walked back across the floor, grinning at Brennar who was already wiping up the dirt from where they had trod on the parquetry. Before they were out the door though, the tabby said, "That is a very fetching dress you are wearing, milady."

Kimberly turned, and curtsied once more, somehow managing to keep the pastry aloft. "Thank you! I hope Gregor will let you do some baking again soon. I rather liked your last batch of raisin bread."

The tabby brightened visibly, and there was a definite swagger to his step as he moved from spot to spot cleaning up the paw prints. Charles laughed again, licking at the frosting himself, savouring the thick, sugary flavour. "I told you that you have good taste," he remarked, nuzzling into her neck fur a bit as they walked back down the streets of Metamor towards the Western gardens. "And these rolls taste very good!"

She giggled at that, taking a bite from hers, closing her eyes as she did so. Charles watched her face for a moment as she chewed the sweet delight, running her tongue over every one of her teeth, not allowing a morsel of the taste to escape her. "That good, huh?"

Nodding, she took yet another bite, skipping slightly across the cobblestones. Charles laughed yet again, and followed right after her, diverting to the terrazzo walkways of the gardens soon enough. The bright fronds of the early autumn growths swayed to and fro in the light wind that was always blowing through the valley. Most of the flowers had already been moved into the greenhouse, but the bushes were still in full colour, and the array of hues alighting each tree were the charm of the season.

Nestled between several trees, each bearing yellow and orange leaves, were the familiar rocks that they would always sit at on their walks. Thankfully, the stones were dry that day, as Charles did not want to sully Kimberly's beautiful new dress. Holding her paw, he gingerly helped her find a nice place to sit, her tail laying behind her, dangling across the smooth stone, while the skirt bunched up about her knees. Charles took the space next to her, the rock cold through his trousers.

Turning towards the western mountain line, Matthias could not help but admire the great tracks of forest clinging to each face, as well as the gleaming sunlight reflecting of each of their boughs. Most of the woods along the mountain faces were coniferous, and so they retained their bright green hue throughout the season. That was until winter arrived and covered them in a blanket of white snow. Charles could not wait to show his beloved that sight, for it was one of the most serene that the rat knew.

Licking the last of her cinnamon roll from her fingers, Kimberly smiled up at him, her frame ebullient. Charles cleaned off his own claws then, the savoury flavour of the pastry still fresh in his mind, and returned the gaze. "This is lovely, Charles. I'm so glad that you stopped by."

"As am I!" He laid his paw in her lap, gently enfolding her own paws within his strong grasp. "I feel like I haven't seen you in month."

She turned away, sudden unwelcome thoughts making their presence known. "I don't want you to end up like Craig."

Charles clutched her even tighter and licked at her cheek fur. "I won't be."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because, nothing could ever keep me from returning home to be with you." He reached inside his coat pocket and drew out a slip of folded parchment. "I wrote a poem the other day, would you like me to read it?"

Her face brightened, and she turned back to peer delightedly at him. "Oh yes!"

Matthias grinned and turned his body towards her, his tail curling behind him in delight. The late afternoon sun cast its rays across the parchment he held, lighting the words up with the vermillion flame.

"Whence came the morning's beacon?
And why dost the birds do call?
Is that a lady weeping?
Or something grander than all?

Not the cry of a woman,
Nay, more dulcet than any bird.
A song that rides across the land,
It is that, that I have heard.

Wake now, oh delightful air!
Sing ye tones carried on the wind,
Come and rest upon my ear,
And my misery rescind.

Lost voice, be ever with me,
Mend my heart, so painfully tore.
Lift me from rest by this tree,
Oh comforter, guide me more.

I follow thee, oh lost voice,
Ye child of the morning sun.
Upon your path I rejoice,
Treading until the race is won.

Never will, never can I stop.
Your voice always moves my feet,
As each tone I dare not drop
Is more reason for my heart to beat.

And when the journey is done,
And rest is given to me,
I gaze into the face of the sun,
And who do I see but thee?"

Kimberly could not help but smile at the recitation, before finally reaching across the gulf and drawing Matthias into a tight embrace. "Oh, that was lovely, Charles. Thank you."

The rat smiled, glad to be with his beloved, holding her just as she held him. He breathed in her scent, rich with the flavour of the pastries and the roses, and the crackling yellowed leaves about them. "Whenever I leave you, all I can think about is your face and the sound of your voice. It will always bring me back to you, no matter the distance, and no matter the gulf. Death cannot keep me from you, my Lady."

She buried her face in his chest, unwilling to let go. Charles held here there, staring at the late afternoon sun. With the golden aura surmounting each tree top, and the snow-capped peaks silhouetted by that radiant star, the rat knew that it was going to be a beautiful evening.

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