Four Priests and a City

A collaborative story with three other characters. You’ll figure out who’s who.


Four Priests and a City
Cigno, Sarvos, Spring-Summer 380YE

 

“Are we all here?”

“One moment.”

The four figures began to gather round the candle that perched atop the crate. The warehouse echoed around them, a shadowy blackness that hid the meeting.

“Have you got them?” One of the figures pulled a set of masks from under a cloak, laying them around the candle.

“One of each.” The black masks winked up at the conspirators, shadowy gloss and runes reflecting what little light the candle cast.

“So.”

“Are we ready to do this?”

“Of course–”

“No no, I mean are we really ready. Once we start, it’s not a clock that can be turned back. These are real lives, Imperial lives, that are at stake, that are going to die. Be a bad priest if I didn’t make sure we acknowledge it fully. Face the consequences.”

“Blood spilled in Virtue is blood spilled well.”

The first hand reached out, picked one of the masks. “I shall be the Witch.”

“This one. The Doctor for me.”

“I will play the Bishop.”

“Well. Captain I shall be.”

Each took a mask, eyes met and acknowledged the roles in the play. Wordless, they each filtered out of the warehouse, to the task at hand.

***

The shadows shifted eerily in the dark streets, the wind whipping across the cobblestones and catching on a single black feather making it dance in the night air. The solitary figure moved slowly, stately, carefully considering each footstep. This world might be unfamiliar to her, but her beloved swamps had taught her well; rushing through unknown and hostile territory would only get you killed. She knew her destination and while the path there was unclear with every step she gained upon her target.

When finally she stepped to the edge of Caricomare, where the still-ruined streets were untouched by the recent renovations and even more ill-used by the rampaging Grendel, she spotted the dilapidated frontage she had hoped to find. Her time there had been brief, but her last visit was such a fondly remembered one, though bittersweet in light of recent events, a wry grin graced her lips beneath the feathery mask.

She ducked beneath the broken doorway, the door hanging open wildly, balancing on its one remaining hinge and several large cracks and missing chips making it appear that with the slightest touch it would collapse entirely. The place was a shambles; remnants of chairs and tables, one or two of the ceiling beams and barrels long since drunk dry lay scattered across the floor. The woman, for that was all she was in this moment, just a woman missing a friend, picked her way through the debris towards what was left of the bar. She overturned a crate that had somehow escaped the mayhem and sat down heavily with a sigh. She stared out before her, taking in the chaos, watching the dust as it danced through the beams of moonlight streaming in through holes in the ruined roof.

She turned to pick up the broken top of the old piano, which still sat in the corner, the recent vandalism seemingly having made no significant change to it’s old familiar dilapidated state. The woman balanced the piece of wood on her knee, taking pen and paper from within the fold of her cloak.

“Very well,” she said aloud, intentionally breaking the oppressive silence. “Let us begin.”

And so the The Blackbird and The Doctor wrote as one, but both in different tongues.

***

It was unclear whether the orcs hadn’t noticed the boy in the doorway, or whether they simply didn’t acknowledge his presence. They marched along the narrow street, lugging their haul along without a word. When the sound of the footsteps had diminished somewhat, the boy looked up from under his tattered hood. Certain they were out earshot, he rapped his elbow on the door behind him three times.

Inside the abandoned backroom of what, until recently, had been a fishmongers, the Witch heard the signal and beckoned her audience closer. The children, barely old enough to take their citizenship tests, gathered in a neat semi-circle around the hem of her skirts, unconcerned about the dust. She counted the virtues off on her fingers as she addressed each one.

“We’ve talked about courage, you are all very brave. We’ve talked about wisdom, you must not engage the Grendel. We’ve talked about vigilance, you have to be extremely careful. We’ve talked about ambition, and pride, and loyalty. Together, we are going to take back this beautiful city.”

One of the smaller girls cut her off. “When are we going to talk about prosperity?”

“Sarvos contributes a significant amount of taxes to the Senate. If we let this city fall into the hands of barbarians you will learn, too soon, where a lack of Prosperity leads.”

Pausing to touch the heavy velvet curtains that caused the room to be so dark, she observed the street outside. Her thoughts wandered back to the first time she had seen this city; the buildings seemed to stand taller than the forest of Vargat when she was ten years old. The winding, cobbled streets were a maze, and she was thrilled to get lost amongst the merchants and the mountebanks. Not so now, with the state of the docks and the lingering sense of uncertainty, fear, and rage.

“Besides, you have new shoes already, thanks to Mr Vasiliy.”

She turned to the group, gave a nod and pulled the mask over her face. The children, almost in unison, echoed her action.

“You have your instructions. Stay in the shadows and above all, look out for each other.”

In pairs, the children filtered out of the building spreading out in different directions to cast their net across the city. The cloaked woman stood at the window until the last little orphan was out of sight. The city seemed silent but poised. She never liked this part; the hush falling over the crowd, the band tuning their instruments, waiting for the curtain to go up.

***

Night had fallen in Sarvos and the curtains were being raised on tonight’s performance. It was past curfew and Grendel forces patrolled the streets and boulevards. The eeriness of an artificial quiet caused by the lack of the usual League night-life lay heavy over the city. It was the sound of a city under occupation. Tonight it was interrupted by heavy footsteps that echoed between the dressed-stone and plaster-rendered walls that made up the shadowed alley that connected the rear of the shops and storefronts on Chandlers Row.

The footsteps caught, then stopped at a heavy oaken door, a barely visible symbol scratched into its top left corner. The short pause was mediately followed by a quick but specific series of knocks on the door. A small slot set into the door slid open and after a moment’s appraisal of the figure before it, the door slid open. The footsteps passed over the unlit doorway and continued through the hallway beyond, passing shouldered crossbows and drawn steel as they progressed deeper into the building.

The hallway opened up into a large store-room; stacked crates and full shelves gave way to packed pews full of Sarvosian Citizens. Here the hushed sound of the city was added to with the nervous, angry and sad chatter of it’s people. Moonlight streamed in through the storerooms skylights, adding to the light cast by the numerous candles set along the walls and around the crowded room, all seeming to lead and focus the eye on an altar set with images of the Exemplars and Paragons.

In the light, the heavy footsteps became a large and imposing cloaked figure; the glossy-black shine of a long-nosed mask visible beneath its hood. Heads turned and people swivelled in their seats, expectant faces turning and looking up to the figure as they ascended the make-shift pulpit that looked out over the assembled crowd. The low din of conversation ebbed, then faded away as the figure climbed.

The combined lighting glittered golden-brown off of both the warm shine of oiled horns and a gilded skin that was largely hidden by the mask covering the figure’s face. Hands reached up and with precise, calm motions untied the cloak that covered it’s tall, broad shoulders.

The cloak was then laid over the side of the pulpit and the figure before them was revealed to be The Bishop; one of the four priests. Standing tall and confident before them, a figure of red, gold and black leant forward to press palms to the gilded wood, gripping hard with paling knuckles. At once above yet amongst their rapt congregation.

Briefly interrupting the moment, a young child ran up the aisle to the pulpit, stopping at its base and passing a note to the Bishop. The Bishop thanked them and passed a coin into the child’s hands before quickly reading the note. Behind the mask golden-brown eyes now blazed with eyes blazed with an enthralling intensity. The tension in the crowded room built.

“Citizens of Sarvos!”, shouted The Bishop. “My fellow Leaguers and citizens of the Empire! Some of you have attended my sermons before and will know me. You have heard me and my council of the past few days and have come to better understand the virtue to which we are dedicated. Together over this past week, with patience and precision, we have sown the seeds of resistance.”

Many in the crowd nodded at The Bishop’s words, some murmuring words of agreement to their neighbours. “We have waited and bided our time, but we all know and feel that tonight is different. Tonight we focus our efforts further still and begin our resistance in earnest!”

Shouts of agreement erupted from some of the assembled crowd. The Bishop continued. “Make no mistake! They may not be the quick terror or torment of the Druj, but the Grendel are no less our enemies! All here have suffered under their occupation; we’ve seen our city torn apart! Our friends and family taken and beaten, killed, or worse yet, sold into slavery.”

The Bishop paused, gripping the hardwood of the pulpit harder. “Tonight.” they said, “Tonight you have chosen not only to believe in yourselves, but each other as well. Tonight, there is not a loyal citizen here who shall stand alone in their resistance!” The crowds cheering intensified. “Not tonight! Tonight we face the invaders at our door together, bonded in Loyalty, and we will bring the fight to them! Tonight we will begin to end this occupation and show them the depths of their mistake! Look to the people beside you, and think of those closest to you! Think of those to whom your loyalties lie! The bonds you have and the binds you are building here tonight are together the links in this great chain that we will use to strangle the Grendel and re-take this city!”

The congregation cheered wildly, the smouldering embers of their spirits banked into a strong and steady flame that would come to engulf the enemy.

The Bishop stepped down from the pulpit and moved to the aisle, drawing bottles of Liao from a pouch at their hip. “Come now, and receive the anointing that best befits your role in the coming days and weeks! Think of your bonds! Think of your loved ones and think of your loyalties, my people!” The Bishop worked quickly and judiciously; guiding those who weren’t sure of their way in this and supporting and reassuring those who were, never once stopping to rest, focused only on their task and the people before them.

***

“They’re coming! RUN!”

The Captain dashed through the street, darting amongst the thoroughfare with a patrol of Grendel behind her. At the shout, her compatriots joined the chase, knocking over the carefully arranged, precarious stacks of crates and shipping pallets behind them as they fled, to buy a few more seconds to escape.

A crossbow bolt whistled over Pierro’s shoulder, as he turned off and led them through the ever narrowing streets. The Captain looked up as she ran and signalled to a passing window before the three runners turned into a narrow long back alley. At the dead end, they took up positions and weapons, breathing heavily as the patrol advanced.

“You’re trapped now.” The patrol leader shouted down the corridor. “What would you hope to gain by such foolishness?” The Grendel crossbows trained on the three as they approached closer.

“Nothing but a headache, Ser.” She mock bowed to the Orcs, before something thunked heavily down on one of their heads, sending them crashing into the back of the next raider.

A split second later, heavy sandbags rained down from the rooftops, further knocking out the Orc troops, loosed crossbows skittering away or firing into allies.

She hesitated a moment, ensuring that the Grendel were down, and that nothing would fall on her head, before she whistled a signal that was met from the rooftops, and ‘concerned citizens’ waved down at her triumphantly. The concealed doors opened at the end of the “dead end” alley and the scavenger crew appeared swiftly. The Captain grinned proudly at the weary but smiling faces that were finding agency in fighting back.

“Right, finish them off, take all their weapons and pass them out. Solanna, you’re in charge of disposing of the bodies. Now where, where–” Her fingers fished through pockets until they came across a handful of notes, and a small folded map with notations. “YES! And I will take their patrol routes to the armies.”

“Right you are, Captain.”

***

“Do I REALLY look like that?”

The indignant protest rang louder than anticipated within the walls of the safe house, as Vitória thrust the broadsheet under Josephine’s nose.

“It’s a very good likeness, Captain,” she replied, trying to not smile.

“They’re turning up all over the city. The Bishop’s poster is especially inspiring. Some good quotes on it.” Blackbird chuckled as she pushed away some coded messages on her desk.

“I heard that the troupe’s making a play about us, too, which is spreading our infamy–”

“Notoriety. Publicity.” There was a laughing tone in Oberon’s voice.

Vitória looked down at the poster in her hands. “But, do I really… I mean, I don’t POSE like that with the mask on… Do I?” Her eyes grew wider in the awkward silence. “I mean… Well just look! I don’t pose on barrels in the midst of street battles! AND my legs are too far apart, no Captain would stand like that and not tip over!”

“I think I’ve seen Gabriel in that pose before…”

The broadside, now crumpled into a tight ball, bounced off of Oberon’s horns.

***

 

Ysabel

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Ysabel i Erigo & Asher of Felix’ Watch. Taken at the Pledge Awards and Masquerade Ball. Photo by Beth Dooner. Website: www.bethdooner.co.uk Tumblr: www.bethdooner.tumblr.com Twitter: @Doonerphotos

True Liao

Liao tastes of blackcurrants and souls, to her. It is a melange of spice and self, so difficult to describe because she is certain that it is one of those things that everyone experiences slightly differently, as complicated as the human souls that can be moulded and shaped by it.

True Liao is different, made more difficult to describe simply due to its rarity in people having tasted it. Its clarity, like the purest coldest water, sparkles, then bites, takes hold and sweeps you to a place beyond comprehension.

When Ysabel comes to her, late in the night, and is welcomed to a bed of cushions and the softest blankets, the first kiss tastes like clarity. A frisson runs down her spine at the memory of when it had passed by her own lips, 9 months previous, when she had been a Guide. The faintest hint of the Gates of the Labyrinth, of the bite of death that Ysabel had so narrowly escaped, for a reason she could not yet understand.

There is no doubt that they enjoy each other more deeply than the night before. No longer is it about playing the game, and escape clauses in a marriage contract; tonight is solely for themselves. In Vitória, there is the need to do, to show, to express love and comfort and be whatever Ysabel needs, because she herself is so confused and shaken it is easier to ensure that her love is taken care of. And in return, Ysabel pulls her closer, clings to her, maps and memorizes every touch and inch of skin and bark; she kisses her as if it was the first time and the last; the visionary had been so convinced that she would die today, that nothing seems amiss to Vitória.

Hours later, the taste of True Liao on the lips seems so at odds with the words that she hadn’t drunk it, not truly. Like the purest coldest water, Vitória feels the truth bite, take hold, and sweep her away to a place beyond comprehension.

The Cost of Reckoning

What does it cost me, to stand here, holding your hand as tightly, as Courageously, and as Loyally as I can?

Vitória’s eyes remain low, only watching the magistrates and Ysabel’s expression, trying to pointedly ignore Ros’ murder glare, and the cold expressions of the chaptermates of Felix’ Watch.

Ros stands glaring at me, at you, at the rest of the accused. She shall never understand, shall never speak to me again. It has cost me a friend.

“Ysabel of the Handful of Dust, you are additionally charged with the manslaughter of…”

Asher set me on the path of Courage, when I was lost. He dedicated me. It has cost me my priest, my Cardinal.

“I plead Guilty of all charges.”

People are looking at me, standing next to you as if co-accused, our hands tightly bound together. Do they wonder at what part I played in this? Am I to plead for clemency on your behalf? It has cost me my innocence.

“Does any priest plead for Clemency on your behalf?”

“No. There are no Virtuous grounds for what I did.”

Your hand tightens through mine. There is no doubt of your Courage, but then, you are a disciple of Asher, too. I wish to run fast, run far, as if I could escape this. Yet I cannot leave your side, even as it costs me…

“You are found guilty. Execution is to take place immediately.”

When you came up to me, said you’d be dead in 10 minutes, you told me truthfully all that time permitted, that before had been contracted to remain silent about. I am angry… Because it has cost me my Reckoning… And instead of righting the wrong… 

“I am very proud of you.” Vitória’s cold fingers stroke Ysabel’s cheek, before they part, hands still clasped because Vitória will not let her face this alone. The executioner stands behind her, Vitória could reach out and stop the blade if she chose to do so. There is a last smile, a tilt of the head as Ysabel accepts and welcomes the consequences with such Courage. Asher would be proud. Vitória is, in his stead.

A brief metallic glint at the base of the skull, before it is over, and Vitória catches Ysabel’s body in her arms, lowers it to the floor, and cradles it in her arms, welcomes her to the gates of the Labyrinth with a song and reminder of her penance.

… I am standing at your side… though it costs me everything.

The Lost Argument

There are small twitches, hints of tells, and pauses for breath that pray to find the right words, the convincing words. Through that mask, you are struggling so hard to convince any who can hear, who will listen.

But we are not just one city, Tabor; do you forget that? Do you think us Tassatans, Holbergians, and Temeschwari are capable of standing idle and doing nothing when Sister Sarvos is in peril? The insult, the affront, the challenge, is not just on our Sister city– it is on ALL of us. You are in trouble, and we want to help, if only you would let us stand together and bring each of our unique flavours to the fight. Sarvos is ours just as it is yours, and we will all fight for her, to Reckon this injury. Nothing will prevent us. Not even you.

You wear a mask to this meeting, this discussion, which harms your argument and covers any passion that might live in your heart (Look around, Tabor, the rest of us? Not a mask in sight: our hearts are on the table, and we are betting with our souls.) You claim to not want armies running amok through your city, it’s a bit too late for that, isn’t it? You talk of the Sarvos way– that we should be dealing with them, negotiating, before we bring fighting and blood to the streets. Do you even HAVE ANYTHING LEFT with whi– well, now you’re making me angry. Did they steal your Virtues along with your goods?

Leopold’s passions win the argument; not that I ever had to be convinced. I know I shall die with Courage and Loyalty pumping the blood through my veins. And I will convince those able to stand up for Virtue to do so, and will stand beside them. If you want to remain afraid, I have no time for you.