Liturgy of Blood - Part VII

Prince Phil arrived just moments before Thomas had decided to start the banquet with or without him. Most of the guests who would be there were already sitting in their spots sharing a bit of idle conversation. Yet the most important of them all, Patriarch Akabaieth was waiting in the wings with Duke Thomas before he and his companions would enter. It was not until Thalberg gave them the signal that all of the guests had been assembled that the Pontiff walked boldly into the room full of Keepers.

All the assembled rose at his entrance, announced by another fanfare of trumpeters, whose dramatic chord rose to the high vaulted ceiling over head. The crystal chandeliers turned and shuddered at the sound, their delicate frame nearly giving out at the resounding harmony. Akabaieth walked across the thick red carpet towards the large end of the table. A high backed chair waited for him, as well as three others for Vinsah and the two Yeshuel. Thomas strode in afterwards, taking the seat at the head of the table, only slightly more opulent than what had been prepared for Akabaieth.

The fanfare subsided as they were all standing at their seats. Thomas raised one arm, and smiled to the crowd, "Please, let us sit and enjoy this meal together, friends and countrymen, and our honoured guests. You are all welcome at this table."

There was a brief but polite applause before those gathered found their seats. Akabaieth happily sat down in his, his legs having begun to trouble him from so much walking earlier in the day. He wondered how many courses they would have before the toasts would commence. He hoped it would not be too many, as he always ate at least one thing from each course, to honour those he visited. It would not do to eat too much after all.

Gazing across the table he could see two snow white rabbits, one of whom appeared to be rather clumsy, and was receiving assistance from the other hare. The voice of the Duke interrupted his thoughts, "Your Eminence, I would like to introduce you to his Highness, Prince Phil of Whales."

A smile crept across Akabaieth's face, as he held out his hand towards the hare, across the table. "I am honoured to meet the scion of the Whales royal line. I had not expected to find myself so fortunate as to encounter any of my kinsman on this journey."

Phil held out a paw, and it was just that, a paw. Akabaieth shook it firmly though, betraying no concern over its shape. The rabbit rocked his ears in surprise. "You hail from Whales as well, Your Eminence? But there is very little Patildor presence in that kingdom, how did you come to be the Patriarch of a faith alien to your homeland?"

A warmly clad rat lay a tray of breads in the centre of the table before them, each smelling fresh and wholesome. Akabaieth reached in and selected a small loaf, and with the serving knife, spread a bit of the cream across its surface, before taking a bite. It tasted slightly of cheese, and had proven an altogether delightful morsel. "I am also curious as to how the son of the King of Whales has become a Metamorian. I did not think it the practice of most to send their sons as diplomats. Who sits on the throne now? When I was a boy, Antrepides was King, but he was already old by then."

"That was nearly eighty years ago," Phil stammered, but excited by talk of his homeland. "His grandson, Tenomides now sits on the throne. I am not his true son, he adopted me as he had no legitimate heir."

The Patriarch's eyebrows rose, his hands pausing in the act of lifting the bread to his mouth. "You were adopted into the Royal line? But that has never occurred in the last several centuries in Whales. How came you to be an exception to this tradition?"

Phil did his best to shrug humbly, though the gesture was barely perceptible on his lapine form. "Tenomides had no heirs, and we had cultivated a strong relationship in the years that I served under him."

"Ah, then how did you serve our King before your adoption?" Akabaieth leaned in closer, licking a bit of the butter from his fingers as the rest of the table around him listened in on their conversation. By now, he was used to this sort of treatment. Vinsah would often interject when he felt the Pontiff was being to open about his life, but so far, he appeared to be more interested in satiating his stomach than censoring his master's conversation.

"I was, and still am, the Fleet's Master of the Fire actually," Phil replied, rather modestly considering the importance of such a position. The other rabbit was gently massaging his shoulder with one paw, as if to restrain his enthusiasm.

Akabaieth dropped the piece of bread from his hands as his face went ashen. "You command the Fire for Whales?"

"And employed it several times actually, does this upset you?" Phil asked, his face turning down slightly in a frown, despite the fact he could offer little expressive quality in his features.

Thomas looked back and forth between the two, the slice of bread clutched tight in his hoof-like hand, his mouth waiting. Both Iosef and Kashin were blissfully unaware of the sudden pause in the conversation, eating their fill of the breads as if there were no more courses to the meal. Vinsah idly rubbed one of his fingers across his plate, his eyes mixed with sudden worry, as if he had not expected the Patriarch's reaction. Even Thalberg appeared uncomfortable, as he sniffed at the bread, afraid that somehow it may have been tampered with for a fleeting moment.

And then, Akabaieth reached down and picked up the rest of his loaf. "When I was a young boy, I used to play on the wharfs, pretending to be a sea captain with my friends. It had always been my dream."

Phil sat quietly, a sudden look of sympathy crossing his blue eyes. Akabaieth continued, the years melting from his features as if he too were just as young as he was then. "I studied all that I could of seamanship and battle and tactics, hoping to impress the Fleet Commander enough to allow me into the Academy when I came of age. I never had any other thought for my life except that. My Father of course forbade me to do so; he wished me to be a diplomat just like him.

"He carried me away from Whales with the rest of my family when he was appointed the court ambassador to Breckaris on the southern shores of Pyralis. That had been my very first, and last trip on a vessel of any size built by the hands of men of Whales.. I can still remember it. I talked to all the sailors, inviting them to show me the techniques and the skills I would need as a sailor. In the two weeks it took to make the journey, I mastered all the basic knots as well as the calls. And even then, My Father scolded me for spending so much time with them, and locked me in his quarters much of the time below decks, and set me to reading treaties and trade agreements.

"I spent the next thirty years of my life in Breckaris. When I was of age to join the Academy, I managed to procure an application without my Father's knowledge. I needed his signature to officiate the document, but I of course by that point learned to forge his handwriting." Vinsah turned to his master, eyes wide with shock. Phil was already enrapt by the tale, and said nothing. Thomas stopped chewing yet again in shock that the leader of one of the largest faiths in the world would admit to such attempts at falsehood now. "I knew that if I were caught, I would be expelled, but I did not care at that point. Being in the Fleet of Whales was all I had ever wanted my entire life up to that point, and my Father was going to callously take that dream away from me.

"And he did too. Before I was able to send the application in, he discovered what I was at. He made me tear that document into pieces and throw them on a fire. That night, I watched all of my dreams die. I went to bed that night, tying and retying the knots I had learned in a bit of hemp I had purchased at the market and kept beneath my pillow. I can still tie each and every one of them, but I am afraid at my age, they are hardly strong enough to pass muster."

Phil nodded, his ears standing erect, his face even cuter than before, if it were possible. It was a face that Thomas had long begun to recognize. There was no question about it, Phil loved a good tale, especially a true one of hardship and loss. Anything that made the hare feel for the teller was enough to capture his imaginations. Even the Duke found himself hard pressed not to envision a young boy with tears standing in his eyes, working over a bit of rope, weaving the ends in and out in a vain attempt to recapture something that had been taken away from him.

"I tried joining the Navy of Pyralis as well, but since I was not born in their land, they would have nothing to do with me. And then the day came when my Father announced to me that he was going to secure a diplomatic position for me in an even remoter land from Whales, and my hatred of him was complete. Yes, I hated him at the time. It took me a long time to forgive him for doing what he had done to me. Speaking of it now brings some of it back, but I believe I understand why he did what he felt he had to do."

"Father, please," Vinsah murmured, looking quite uncomfortable.

Akabaieth laid a hand gently upon that of his aide's. "My youth is fraught with folly, Vinsah. I will not hide that fact, especially not from my countryman."

His aide looked away, taking a quick bite from the bread. Most of it had been passed about the tables by now. In another few minutes, the second course would begin. "I know I have never once been to Whales since my childhood, but I have always treasured it as my homeland and my country, despite all the places I have lived in the last eighty years."

"I have heard it said that you are named Akabaieth," Phil murmured quietly. "How is it that you do not have a Whalish name?"

The old man smiled. "But I do. My birthname was Apadares, but I changed it when I became a Follower. That happened shortly after my father told me of that diplomatic appointment he was arranging for me. One of the things he liked least about living abroad was the heavy emphasis upon the Ecclesia, at least in Pyralis. My Father was your average man of Whales, completely cosmopolitan, with little regard for things supernatural or mystical. So, I joined the Ecclesia to spite my father and to infuriate him. Once I had done that, he disowned me, and threw me out of his home."

"As I had no home anymore, the only place that would take me was the Ecclesia, and so I became a priest soon afterwards. I threw all of my energy into that, my hatred for my father as well. I did some very terrible things in those days, and I am still atoning for each and every one of them. But, I was noticed, and so, it was inevitable that I would rise among the ranks of the Ecclesia. I do not think I ever stopped wanting to serve my homeland, but I knew that it was not to be. And now, at this age, I will never see her again, I am too weak to make the crossing in even the best of seasons. Though, I wish that I could at least set foot on one of our vessels at least once more. Just once."

Phil blinked several times after the Patriarch had stopped speaking, looking first into that old face, and then down at his plate and his paws. And then, he returned to meet the old man's gaze, his own steady and firm. "I'm expecting a ship from Whales at Menth in just over a week. If you wish to wait a few extra days, not here at Metamor of course, then I can arrange it for you."

The Patriarch blinked in surprise, and then delight as once more the lines disappeared from his face, and the grand-fatherly smile became that of a young boy's. "Could you really arrange that? Would you do that for an old man's sake? An old man who has too recently fantasized of his lost youth."

The rabbit nodded, the rocking of his ears a symbol of his delight that he doubted Akabaieth understood, but those familiar with him would know well. "It is hardly an imposition on my account. And if it gives you some measure of happiness, then why not? Being a former Fleet Admiral, and the adopted son of the King himself does has its privileges."

"Father, that sort of delay will set our trip to Ellcaran back several days," Vinsah pointed out. "They will be quite worried if we do not appear at the appointed hour."

Akabaieth closed his eyes, an expression of weariness passing over his face, the age seeping back into the lines and creases. "Vinsah, my good and dear friend, the priest of the Ellcaran diocese is here at Metamor, we only have to tell him and he will understand and change the arrangements accordingly. And I have not smelled the sea in over two months. I tire of this air, I need salt in it. It just is not right otherwise."

Phil nodded his head in understanding. "A truly Whalish sentiment! I will send a dispatch to the Proctor from Whales in Menth this very evening. I'll notify him to expect your arrival and instruct him to afford you every courtesy."

Akabaieth nodded in thanks. "And would you be so kind as to keep my identity a secret? Nobody in that town is expecting us, and it would be pleasant to arrive inconspicuously for once."

The rabbit rocked his ears once again, finding yet another sentiment in common with the Pontiff. "Of course. I will draw up a note for you to carry to our Proctor. I am sure he will be quite astonished to find that he has the head of one of the most powerful faiths in the world on his hands!"

Thomas chortled at that, his laughter booming across the ceiling. "I'm glad to see you are getting your wish, Akabaieth."

The Patriarch appeared to be genuinely giddy at the prospect, his hands curving over themselves, as if he were tying one of those seaman knots. His eyes passed upwards as another servant brought in the next course. A large gold platter was carried in and laid in place of the bread dishes. The tray was filled with greens of every variety: lettuce, cabbage, celery stalks, cauliflower, broccoli, as well as cucumbers sliced crossways, and zucchini cut lengthwise framing the whole entourage. Egg whites dotted the surface, while the yolks had been crushed and sprinkled overtop the bountiful arrangement. Even a few mushrooms laced the collection, but they were hardly abundant when compared to the rest of the feast.

The two rabbits began scooping large portions onto their plates, their faces ravenous with hunger. They conspicuously avoided the egg whites, but took bits of most everything else. Kashin sampled one of the zucchini slices, dipping it in a bit of chunky white sauce that was set aside. He nodded then, and continued to feast, a rather amused expression gracing his countenance. Duke Thomas took nothing, but instead waited for the servants to come around again and fill his polished silver goblet ringed by sapphires along the base with the wine. He sipped a little, the bristles upon his muzzle glistening with a few drops of the amber liquid. "Marvellous! It is an apple cider, Akabaieth, you ought to try some of it. My personal favourite."

Akabaieth nodded to the blue liveried servant, the same feminine rat that had carried in the tray of bread from before. "Would you kindly fill my glass?" He held out the goblet, just as fine as the Duke's own. It also appeared to be mostly unused. The Patriarch doubted that they had been used once in the seven years since the great battle had isolated the Keepers from the rest of the world.

The servant bowed her head, and brought the brass pitcher over and poured out the sweet smelling liquid. The scent of apples was rich and slightly warm as well. Akabaieth smiled, gripping the goblet in one hand. "Thank you. What would your name be?"

The rat looked astonished that he had asked her for her name, and stuttered uncertainly, though politely, "I'm Kimberly, your Eminence."

"Thank you, Kimberly. Would you stay a moment? Kashin, please take the pitcher from Kimberly." The Yeshuel stood to his feet and took the heavy carafe from her hands. She appeared uncertain, an anxious expression crossing her features. "Prince Phil, I notice that you have not used your glass. Are you going to have anything to drink?"

The rabbit did his best to shake his head. "No, apple cider upsets my stomach."

"Do you mind if I borrow your goblet then?"

"By all means." Phil looked to Clover, who nodded slowly then, her less animalistic paws handing the brass goblet to the Patriarch.

"Kashin, would you please pour some of the cider into this glass?" Akabaieth held the goblet aloft, his face one of mystery. The Yeshuel did as instructed, filling it halfway as was custom, and then stood waiting. The grey lock of hair had once more fallen across his face, giving him a dishevelled appearance.

The Patriarch held out the glass. "Now, Kimberly, it would honour me if you would accept this bit of luxury. Take this and drink of it for my sake. You have worked hard on my account. You deserve to taste the fruit of your labours."

The rat blushed mightily in surprise at this gesture. The other servants who had worked the rest of the table stood watching, some in jealously, some in surprise and awe. Kimberly did take the goblet though, and bring it to her lips, her whiskers twitching as she smelled the rich aroma of the apples and the alcohol-laced cider. She did not mention that Bernadette and she had already sampled the cider not one hour ago. But then, it had not been warmed. The heat filled her tongue as did the taste, and her fur practically stood on end with the pleasure. Finishing off the last of the cider in the goblet, she handed it back, her paws quavering from the delight. "Thank you, your Eminence."

The Patriarch smiled at her, taking the goblet and wiping his napkin across the space she had drunk from, as if it were an old habit. "My name is Akabaieth. It would honour me if you would call me by that, Kimberly."

She appeared to be flustered, but nodded uncertainly anyway. Thomas and Phil watched in silence, both of their faces betraying none of the pride they felt in seeing this man, one of the most powerful in the world, step so low as to exchange his name with a servant, especially one that appeared to be nothing more than common vermin! Kashin stood by with the pitcher still in his hands, suppressing his mirth, though not very well as a smile crept onto his thin lips.

"Thank you, Father Akabaieth." And then she stopped and took the pitcher back from the Yeshuel. "It is a joy to meet you."

Akabaieth smiled broadly. "It is a joy to have met you. I am just an old man, but you are a beautiful young woman. I would think that any man would be honoured to meet you, Kimberly."

The rat's whole body glowed. She bowed swiftly, and with a smile creasing her cheeks, she glided from the room as if she had wings. Akabaieth returned to his goblet, sipping at the cider. While Kashin returned to his seat behind him, the Patriarch gazed up at the horse lord. "You are right, this is indeed excellent cider. Not too hot, but just warm enough to bring out every bit of flavour."

Thomas did not appear inclined to discuss the quality of his larder though. "Why did you do that? I've never had a visiting dignitary do that before, or at least, not in a long time." He cast a side glance at Phil. It was obvious that one other had done something similar in the years previous. Thalberg sat in his seat impassively considering all before him, letting the others talk, yet there was also a delighted look to his yellow eyes.

"When you are as old as I, the trappings of status lose their meaning. I find more pleasure in one honest smile than I do all the pomp and ceremony that comes with being the Patriarch. Most of my hosts are put quite ill at ease when I do that as well. For so many of them, their servants are an invisible portion of their lives. From what I have seen so far, that is not the way things are here."

Vinsah leaned forward slightly, a grin crossing his lips. "Last year, while we were visiting the Duke of Marilyth, he did the same thing, only the servant had been too thoroughly embarrassed to confess his name."

Akabaieth laughed a moment at the memory. "Ah yes. I then asked his grace what the servant's name had been, and the poor fellow could not tell me. None of them sitting at the table even knew. It had been a quiet dinner the rest of that evening. When I returned a few months later, the Duke called all of his people by name, without hesitation."

Thomas let out a loud burst of laughter then, holding his goblet high. "You are nothing like I expected, Your Eminence. Pardon my use of your honorific, but you deserve it more than most. Many in this world are born to the nobility by blood. But there are many others to whom it comes from their heart, and not a lineage."

"Well said," Akabaieth nodded, sipping at the warm cider once more. "I have met many hearts in my time. It is a shame that more often than not those with nobility in their lineage have lacked it in their hearts. It is a great relief to find it in two such men like yourselves." He gestured with his wrinkled hands towards both Thomas and Phil. The rabbit had a bit of broccoli stuck between his teeth, and appeared a bit silly as he bowed his head respectfully at the statement.

"And speaking of the nobility, I am curious as to the other guests. Could you please tell me who shares this table with us?"

Thalberg finally spoke then. "Due to the secrecy of your arrival, or the intended secrecy, I had to wait until this morning to send out the invitations. So many of the nobles in the Valley could not make it. The amphibian and the man sitting just past your guards are Lord and Lady Barnhardt; they are the only Patildor among the nobility in case you are interested to know. I made certain they would have a chance to meet with you. Now, the odd looking creature talking with them is Zhypar Habakkuk, the present Head of the Writer's Guild."

Akabaieth waved one hand to stop him. "I am sorry, I've never been very good with zoology. What is an amphibian?"

"The newt," Thalberg said, pointing at the rather slick sheen of the figure sitting just beside Iosef. He appeared nervous, casting his bulbous eyes towards the head of the table every minute or so. He wore a rather dark green doublet and hose, with jade brocade, that blended well with his splotchy skin. "He has to immerse himself in water at least once a day for about an hour or so or his skin dries out and cracks."

Vinsah appeared mystified. "The man beside him is his wife?"

Thalberg nodded. "They are quite happy together in fact." Kashin chuckled at some untold joke as he continued to eat the zucchini he had snatched. Vinsah, still appearing quite troubled looked to the Yeshuel with a questioning look. The grey haired man leaned over, and whispered quietly into the Bishop's ear. The older man's face blossomed as bright as a rose then, and he furiously dug his fork into a few leafs of lettuce and shoved them into his mouth.

Akabaieth looked at his protection curiously. "Just what did you tell him?"

Kashin shrugged, and smiled. "Just that amphibians don't physically copulate to reproduce."

The Steward nodded his large crocodilian snout then. "That is true. They are like fish in that regard. The female lays eggs, and the male privately inseminates them afterwards." Vinsah chewed even louder at that.

Akabaieth cast a glance at Lord Barnhardt, and noticed that the newt was studiously focussing on what the strangely shaped animal morph was saying. Even so, he caught grins of amusement from both Lady Barnhardt and Habakkuk. They had obviously heard what was being discussed and thought it highly amusing. The Patriarch shifted a bit in his seat, sipping at the cider again, sharing a few of his aides sentiments on the matter. "Then again, I was probably happier knowing little of zoology."

Thalberg, Thomas, and his two Yeshuel chuckled then, and even Phil and Clover rocked their ears in merriment. Finally, the alligator spoke again, his voice once more smooth. "Anyway, let me continue the introductions." The Steward then rattled off a list of names and duties, ranging from the mayors of the town just outside Metamor's walls as well as that of nearby Mycransburg, some of the commanders of their armies, and a few other civil service positions of importance. The Keeper of Duke Thomas Hassan's household finished by remarking in a seemingly mirthless tone, "And they have all been listening in on every word of what has been said. In two days time, every noble in the Valley will know that the Patriarch and his aide are rather uncomfortable discussing matters of zoological reproduction, among other things."

Vinsah snorted. "I imagine some of them have quite good ears."

Thomas nodded. "A blessing of the curses for many of us, I suppose you would say." He then appeared thoughtful for a moment, and turned to the Pontiff, setting his goblet down, and crossing his hands on the table. "And that brings to mind something else I've noticed about you, Akabaieth. We have discussed a great many things, but the one thing that you have never mentioned, nor even hinted at, is that many of us here at Metamor are no longer recognizably human. Why is that?"

Akabaieth shrugged helplessly, as if he had been reminded of an unpleasant duty. "What is there to say, really? Most of the world still fears what you have become. Many parishes of my own faith I am ashamed to say look upon you as demons, or at the very least, people forcibly succumbed to their power. I believe you to be just as human as I. I have always believed it in fact. Perhaps that is part of my Whalish upbringing creeping out, I cannot say. I just wish that more in Yesulam and throughout this world of ours agreed."

"If you have always believed us to be humans, why has your Ecclesia not officially sided with us?" Thomas pressed.

"As I said, I wish more in Yesulam felt the way I do. I do not have nearly as much sway over the Followers as the Patriarch's a hundred years ago did. Now all things must meet the approval of the council of Bishops in Yesulam. My voice swings many of their minds, but I am afraid that at present it is not enough. That is another reason why I am visiting the many lands of this continent. If I can convince many of the people's in the various kingdoms, then I will convince many of them."

Thomas shook his head. "So your faith is as much a game of politics as the rest of the world?"

Akabaieth considered the horse lord curiously. "When isn't a ruling body governed by politics?"

The Duke of Metamor flicked his ears to either side at the bit of repartee. "You are a rather cosmopolitan sort aren't you?"

"In some ways yes. But, I do the best I can to accomplish what I know is right." He then smiled towards Vinsah who acknowledged his superior with a nod. "And I do have allies who make the journey all the easier. Peace is not an easy road, but it is the only one I see that is worth travelling."

Phil stood higher in his seat then. "If it would be possible, I would like to discuss such matters with you again privately. I think I may know of a few ways to expedite your journey."

"I would appreciate that yes. Perhaps the day after tomorrow? Before I speak to the Keepers publically?"

"An excellent time, I will be free that morning."

Akabaieth grinned then, glancing to either side. "Is it not good to be in the company of new found friends?"

Thomas raised his goblet slightly, "That it is, your Eminence, that it is." The horse lord then crossed his arms again, leaning forward slightly. The rich brocade of his surcoat was nearly obscured by his large head when he did so. "I am curious about one thing. Your letter said you wish to arrive in secret. Yet, your journey must have taken several months at least, if you crossed over land as you say you have. Yet, your caravan barely had enough room for provisions to last a week. Surely you must have stopped in other towns along the way. By now, most of the Midlands must know that you are either here or in the general area."

Vinsah spoke quickly, discarding the half eaten bit of cabbage. "Actually, we have kept to the wilderness for our journey. It is hardly difficult to send a few of our number into the nearby towns to restock when we required it."

"Isn't that rather dangerous? Bandits and other ruffians roam the wilderness passes throughout much of the world."

Kashin spoke before the priest could continue, his grey lock of hair once more dangling across his forehead. With one finger, he stroked it back behind an ear. "Yes, it was very dangerous. But, most bandits are seeking solitary travellers, and will ignore caravans with well armed guards, especially as many as we had. An army might have been persuaded to join us in battle, but they would have been declaring war against all the kingdoms of Pyralis if they had. We were unmolested in our journey, as we took all the precautions that were necessary."

"And how long have you served the Patriarch?" Thomas asked, while Akabaieth enjoyed his cider and a bit of the vegetables.

The man who must have been in his thirties still dressed in the green tunic with white crucifix emblazoned across the front let out a quiet laugh. His companion sitting next to him had turned and was listening in on the conversation that Habakkuk and Lord Barnhardt were sharing with the Ambassador. Kashin's voice was quiet, but reverent. "You ask a Yeshuel how long he has served the Patriarch? I suppose the answer to your question would depend entirely on what you meant by the Patriarch. If you refer to Akabaieth here, then only the last eighteen years, ever since his elevation to the highest office in the Ecclesia. But if instead you are speaking of the line of Patriarch's all the way back to Yahshua, then I have been in their service since I was conceived in my mother's womb."

Thalberg gazed curiously at him, tapping his empty plate impatiently -- it was clear that the next course was something more palatable for the alligator's stomach. Even Thomas, Prince Phil, and Clover were taken aback by his remark. "Your mother's womb? You have known for that long? I can barely remember what life was like when I was three, let alone before I was born." Thomas admitted a bit skeptically.

Kashin laughed a pleasant chuckle then, smiling favourably towards the Keepers. "By that I simply mean that I was selected to serve as a Yeshuel before I was born. I have a hard time remembering my youth the same as the rest of you."

"Selected before your birth?" Clover asked, her soft voice curious, yet reassuring.

The man nodded then, finishing off the last of the zucchini. "Every thousandth conception in Yesulam is blessed by the Patriarch himself for a special duty to become Yeshuel and protect the sanctity of Eli's priesthood. Not all of us survive childhood, or even birth, by no means, but those of us that do, are bonded to the Patriarch with every fibre of our being."

The horse lord appeared slightly uncomfortable. "Is this true?" he asked Akabaieth who was savouring the last of his cider. "Do you take these children and make them your bodyguards before they are born?"

Akabaieth set the goblet down, and tapped one finger on the table thoughtfully before he spoke. His voice was careful, yet sure. "It is a gift that my line offers, nothing more. Whether they accept that gift or not is up to them. Most do, for it is one of the highest honours any man may have."

"What if the child you bless is female?" Clover then asked, her ears twitching with sudden mischief.

"There have never been any female children blessed," Akabaieth remarked as if he were speaking of the shape of the clouds in the sky. "They are always born male. Many priests have debated the significance of this for centuries. I suppose one day one will be born female and much of our theology will have to be reworked."

"You don't appear to be overly concerned about it," Thomas pointed out.

The Patriarch shrugged and then smiled, gazing at both Kashin and Iosef. "They are good men, whom I am happy to call friends. In my position, I have precious few. What can be so terrible about that?"

The horse lord let out a breath, and then smiled. "You are a strange fellow, Akabaieth. Everything that surrounds you is touched in a very subtle way, yet it is touched. This world is better off for having you in it."

He laughed then, a bright chortle as his smile crept across his features again, and remained there. "You live in one of the strangest edifices in all the world, and yet you call me strange. How peculiar, especially coming from one who only moments ago wondered why I did not find his outward appearance remarkable. Indeed, I find it very remarkable, and very strange, despite the fact that you are still you on the inside. And you call me strange, imagine that."

"You are unusual," Vinsah confirmed, his own smile broad. "If you were not, you would not test everyone about you all the time."

Phil nodded even as he chewed on another piece of lettuce. "I think you touch others in a positive way. I know you have those sitting around you right now. You saw how Kimberly reacted at your compliments. She'll never forget you, and will probably be filled with that glow for many days yet because of what you said. I think I understand why you were selected to be the Patriarch."

"And why is that?"

"Because you have a way of reaching people through simple words and actions that most cannot accomplish despite their best efforts. You can change a person's feelings simply by being in the same room with them. I know you most certainly have mine."

The Patriarch nodded slowly, offering the rabbit a wry grin. "You are most perceptive. I was told much the same thing shortly after I was anointed Pontiff."

Thomas stared past the others towards the kangaroo for a moment, before nodding to them both. "It appears that you are right. I can see smiles on almost everyone's faces." And then he noticed the brightly dressed marten with a silver flute in one paw idly chatting with a few of the guests along one end. "It appears the first of our entertainers has arrived. Serpent Dream, do you have a song to share with us?" Thomas called out over the crowd towards the musteline.

The aforementioned marten snapped his head up in a sinuous motion, full of grace and vitality. His dark eyes glanced across the faces of the Patriarch and his companions for a moment, before he nodded, stepping more towards the centre of the table. "I do indeed, milord. My first song I have not played in many years, but I believe that our guests will recognize it." And then he set the flute to his muzzle, and blew gently across the surface, a sweet whistling melody ringing out to their ears. After only the very first few notes of a tune that Thomas did not recognize, Akabaieth and Vinsah both smiled in delight, even as the former clasped his hands together in time with the music.

Dream, a rather tall figure with a narrow, sleek frame, swayed from side to side much like his namesake implied as he released the tautly held notes from his claws and lips. The song itself held a Pyralian flavour, the frequent modal changes, yet overall lively mood, were hallmarks of their musical tradition. Despite the marten's claim that he had not played it in many years, Thomas did not hear a single wrong note.

Finally, Dream lowered the instrument after a particularly bright flourish, and bowed, almost his entire body bending over. Akabaieth clapped in delight as did Vinsah and most of the others sitting at the table. Kashin and Iosef joined in the applause, though they gave each other concerned looks for a brief moment. Even the weariness that Habakkuk had expressed earlier that day appeared to have vanished completely. The marten rose back up and faced them all, addressing not just the head of the table, but everyone sitting at it. "I do hope you enjoyed that little tune. It is the melody of a rather popular Pyralian hymn."

"It was lovely," Akabaieth crowed. "Tell me, Dream, have you spent much time in Pyralis?"

The marten shrugged slightly, "Once or twice. I was asked to play a few songs before the next course arrived. Would you care to hear a few tunes more familiar in this region?"

"Oh, I would be delighted to hear them." Akabaieth leaned back in his seat, his smile broad. He then glanced at Thalberg. "Just what is the next course?"

The alligator rubbed his paws together with a bit of a rasping sound. "The fish course. You should sample our delightful selection of fish eggs."

Vinsah cast a quick glance at Lord Barnhardt, blushed yet again, and then turned his attention to Dream. Akabaieth laughed merrily, and then gazed back at the minstrel, who was already bringing his flute once more to his lips. The music was the sort that he would remember even unto his sleep.

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