The Knight watched countless steps pass beneath his spurs. He climbed a winding stair, head bowed to shining marble. Rainbow flecks, shed by ascending, stained windows, played over his long and curling hair. His lips shifted, parted in a breathless chant:
"Laudate Avetha, Deus in terra,
Avetha, gratia plena,
Avetha, potesta plena
Ave, Ave, Dominosa,
Dominosa autem mecum esta."
A hundred steps further, he stopped, leaned heavily beside an arched window. His plumed helm rose and fell, tucked against his heaving cuirass. With a handful of white cloak, he wiped his sweated brow. Still panting, he peered through a semi-opaque pane.
Some half a league below, a military procession of immense scale crept down the cypress-lined avenue. Thousands of red pennants snapped and quavered over soldiers' pointed helms, whipped by autumn breeze. A double number of brass-shod boots clicked over ancient cobbles. A dozen lines of drummers set a perfect march.
At the procession's head rode many gleaming knights, each bestride a monstrous destrier, clad in arched, whirring clockwork steel. A roiling crowd, waving to and cheering for the parade, loved these riders most of all. Sweet roses, thrown by the masses, were crushed under high-stepping hooves and steelshod boots. From such a height, the thunder of their steps and accompanying drums was a mere, low roar.
The Knight's gaze followed the riders, watched the stellate spears emblazoned on their ceremonial shields, so very much like the symbol on his own cape.
With a start, the young Knight turned, resumed his climb. Again, he put up a chant, filled the helical stair with rhythmic clicks of metal boots and repeated bars of prayer. After fifteen minutes, a vein bulged above his eye. He churned on, sorely belted his prayer through gritted teeth. When at last the stair ended, the man nearly toppled, expecting another step.
Before him, under an arch, was a high, small room. Through the right wall was set a deep window, its panes so old as to droop in their leading. The old glass was covered by thin bars of new, dark steel. Through these fell a chequered, bare shaft of light. It bathed a small, stone altar in the room's center. Past this was a curtain emblazoned with the familiar star-headed spear.
Clumsy from his climb, the knight dropped sharply before the altar. His helmet clunked to the dusty, marble floor. He swallowed, bowed his head, clasped his uneasy hands.
"Aveth" he pronounced, hoarsely. "Sister Lord, I am commit to thee. Accept me now as you did the palatines of old. Laudate Aveth, Deus in terra..."
Glittering dust fell before the Knight as he prayed, cut into a grid by the window bars. Square lines of shadow patterned the altar and the man's white cloak.
Cloth rustled. A shadow passed over the altar. The Knight's head jerked up. A small, olive-skinned girl had emerged from behind the curtain. She was barefoot, wore the simple, long-sleeved robe of an altar attendant. She fixed the Knight with a curious gaze. "Who are you?" she said, quiet.
"Señora, I am Edwind Melvyno Kréc de Carro" said the knight, standing hurriedly. "Sent to bid my troth as a chevalier unto the Lord Aveth.
The girl tilted her head, stepped forward. "It has been a thousand years and more since a holy soldier was last sworn under Her name."
"Her return," said Kréc. "Is a high miracle. I am honored to be the first."
"Will Aveth accept you, Sir Kréc?"
Krec's brow fluttered, pinched. "It is my dearest wish that she will" said he. A grinding sounded as he clenched a metal fist.
"Why would she?"
"I have devoted my life to humanity. By Her grace and strength, I have banished evil by bolt and blade."
The girl blinked. "And what will your Lord do, if she accepts you?"
Krec blinked at her, quizzical. "She will lay a hand upon me and provide me a gift of wisdom, as she gave to the palatines of old." He squared his shoulders, frowned. "Who are you to ask?"
The girl smiled. "Forgive my prying." She lifted a hand at the window well. "Wait with me here, Sir Kréc. You will meet your Lord soon."
Together, they went to the sill, sat in its deep recess. Kréc settled against the pane. His armor clacked on the steel bars. The girl settled, knees tucked to chin, against the arching well. Pale light illuminated half her face. She peered at the man. Kréc stared, brow knitted, at their pair of shadows, imposed over the small alter. They sat, for a moment, in silence.
"Have you met the Lord?" Kréc said sharply, voice suddenly hoarse.
Kréc set her with a heavy stare. His eyes were dark. "Is she as the priests say?" he asked, voice thick.
The girl cocked her head, curious. "Maybe. How do they describe her?"
"I..." said the Knight, trailing. He looked again at the altar. "I find I no longer remember what they say. I have only my own mind's portrait." He looked at her, smiled wryly. "The image of my Lord is mine only, I suppose."
"Describe her yourself, then."
Kréc shut his eyes, tipped his head to the vaulted roof. "She is like a wise elder sister. I speak to her, and know I will receive praise or criticism as I deserve. Either way, she will guide me." He shifted. "Her presence is larger than she is, and her gaze humbles even the proudest man. She has eyes like green garnets, as the monks painted her in the frescoes of Bansa Abbey," he said, turning. "Like yours."
The girl smiled at him. "When do you see her?"
"When I pray," said the Knight, immediately. "I have prayed to the Lord every day since I first learned how." He frowned, considered how their crisscrossed shadows fell across the altar.
"It is odd" he said. "I am only now about to meet the Lord, but I feel as though I've known her all my life."
At this, they sat in silence. The girl hooked a pair of fingers over the window bars, peered over and far away. "You know, Sir Knight..." she said. Her voice was stronger than before, deeper.
"At night, far away, I can see fires on the hilltops. I can smell frankincense and myrrh, even in this mile-high minarette." She looked to the man, and Kréc shivered to meet her gaze. "It doesn't quite mask the burning flesh."
Kréc swallowed. "Sorcerers, apostates."
"Still human" said the girl, softly. Her fingers slipped from the bars.
"There's a parade, down there," she said, smiling thinly. "I imagine it's for you."
Kréc looked mildly affronted. "It is for the Lord Aveth. Her second coming is the reason for my errand, greater than all of us. Didn't you attend the procession?"
"No," said the girl. She ran a finger down a steel bar. Its image floated in the cloudy, ancient glass behind. "I do not leave this tower."
Far below, the sound of drums, boots, and cheering melted into a distant roar. Kréc watched the girl, saw her face reflected in the glass as she looked down at the world, judging.
"Do you think…" she said, hugging her knees. "That Aveth fears what her race have wrought?"
The Knight looked at her, horror smeared his face. "Such an idea is blasphemy. The Lord is fearsome, not fearful. All of faithful humanity knows that her eyes follow them, judging."
"Perhaps," said the girl with the green eyes. "She's no longer the Lord you all knew."
Kréc shifted, dropped from the sill. His steel plates clattered, glittered in the pale beam of light. He looked to his companion, face twisted in concern.
"Who are you to say such things? You speak as if you do not even hold the faith," said Kréc. "As a soldier of the Lord, I would clap you in irons for speaking such words," he said, voice breaking. "Yet I would not, cannot. I feel as if I have known you, of old."
Slowly, the girl slipped from her perch, bare feet pattering on the marble floor. In the light, her robes were luminescent. She straightened, somehow greater than the Knight. He cowed under her gaze.
"You have known me, Sir Knight" said the green-eyed girl, taking Kréc's steel-clad hand.
"Since the day you learned to pray."
Breadcrumbs scattered on the garden lawn, drew a bobbing, cooing crowd of appreciative doves. They milled about the black, pointed shoes of a thin woman, whose sunhat so surpassed her in width that she resembled an umbrella. She stood amid rows of cypress trees, fed birds from a paper sack
Past league-long rows of skinny conifers loomed Palatine Chapel, its titanic spires superimposed against the clear, hot sky. The lilt of a faraway choir floated over the grass. Beyond that, even grander, loomed an ivory minarette, its pinnacle lost in a haze of heat and sun.
Another shadow crept over the green, came to rest beside the first. The woman in the wide hat glanced to it, tossed another handful of breadcrumbs. Beside her, the second shadow, a grey-haired man in a vicar's suit, cleared his throat nervously.
"The doves in Sorelle sing sweeter," he said.
The woman glanced at him. "But the birds of Botandale are best."
At this, the man nodded, smiled slightly. "Good day, Master Dime."
"Good day, Shapiro."
"Are we well alone?" asked Shapiro.
"Yes. This park is deserted during Sorensday services. I've scouted it for two months," said Dime. She grasped a handful from the crinkling bag, threw it. The doves skittered excitedly to the fallen crumbs.
"Good," nodded Shapiro. "I must say, your Alagóran is excellent, for a Firl. Have you been in Carro long?"
"Since a year before parousia."
"You fell right into this assignment, then," said the vicar, shaking his head.
"Indeed. What have you gleaned, regarding our subject?"
"Here," said Shapiro, extending his hand. Dime proffered the bag of crumbs. The man took it in both hands, folded something into her palm: A rolled, wax cylinder. "Everything I've found since the shrove parade." he said. "The rumors have shown some truth."
Shapiro gazed up at the distant spire, squinted against the sun. "I acquired a builder's plan for the tower. It was labeled for burning. Dated a month after she was recognized by the Court. Full refurbishment and restoration of the upper suite; installation of a pulley system; addition of hidden guard catwalks to the superstructure; among other things."
"Any mention of cost? How much of the Prince's treasury did they sink into that?" said Dime, tipping her head as well. The broad sunhat shed a band of shade over her eyes.
"None. Would you spare any expense, for your Lord?" asked Shapiro.
"I have no such thing, Vicar," said the woman.
"True," grimaced the man. "Though I never thought I would say such a thing, I think I now come to understand the Firlish mindset."
"How so?" said Dime, squinting at him. The vicar was silent for a time. He produced a floral kerchief, dabbed sweat from his grey hairline.
"I have served the Church for longer than you have lived," he said, finally. "I have prayed to Aveth for decades, happy in her silence." He shut his eyes, listened to the faraway choir. "Now, she has returned. My faith should be stronger than ever. Instead, I pray no more." Dime studied his face, watched the crow's feet deepen on his skin.
"While others worship, I pass secrets to Firlish spies, but I hold no shame." The vicar opened his eyes. "In those notes," he said, pointing with a wobbling hand. "There is a guards' record from the tower."
He swallowed dryly. "Last month: Five escape attempts. They've installed bars on the upper windows. My Lord is a prisoner. She does not speak to me. She is no more powerful than you or I."
Far off, the choir hit a soaring high note, faded. Doves warbled softly at the old man's feet. "That, Master Dime, is why I understand you."
"I'm sorry," said Dime. Shapiro met her eye, smiled sadly.
"The service is ending," said the old vicar, softly, proffering the spy her sack of crumbs. "Until next we meet."
The doves fluttered, flew with the vicar's departing shadow.
Just two years ago, the Lord herself returned to the world.
Her followers rejoiced, prayed with greater surety. Her Church welcomed a golden age, hailed the event as righteous validation. Her Northern skeptics sneered, decried a hoax of epic proportions.
Up and down the Coast, folk flock to the Avethan faith, heartened by the ancient religion's renewed legitimization. Peasants, hopeful, clasp dirty palms in hesitant prayer. Common folk, curious, attend mass, fill their heads with the catching power of frankincense and chanted psalms. Monarchs, inspired by the pious High Prince of Alagór, offer their ringed hands to the Lord. Everywhere, cautious souls raise prayers to Aveth, hopeful she might hear.
Aveth is the chief religion of Alagór and its surrounding states. * It is a monotheistic, humanocentric faith defined by its followers' recognition of a merciful, all-knowing, unique being known eponymously as Aveth.
Avethans believe their Lord lives on high, observing, judging, and influencing human lives. She is known as a merciful, just, sisterly figure to all of humankind. ** She is said to bestow fortune on those who live by her dictates and judge harshly those who do not. ***
The faithful know Aveth's dictates by a book called the Lord's Writ. This seven-hundred and seventy-seven page tome is regarded as the unaltered and final revelation of the Lord. †Within these pages, the canon of Aveth and humanity's origin is detailed. It is, as Avethans would have it, the story of the Coast and the World.
The opening of the Writ, known as Legionaries, describes, some 1,100 years ago, the time before Aveth's birth: A dark age of the world, a time of war held between titanic powers. Fell serpents and abhuman sorcerers manufactured machinations and combats of unthinkable scale, consuming uncounted millions of lives like easy chattel. In this time, a girl was born to an unnamed slave. Only after gaining twenty years, a legion of followers, and a dozen serpents dead on her spear did the girl gain her holy name.
The charismatic Aveth, unchanged by years, gained followers and influence over a decades-long military campaign. †† Uncounted fiery, coiling serpents and titanic, steel-clad sorcerers, thought invincible, died on her star-headed spear. By a century's end, she had built an empire for humanity.
Toward the middle portion of the Writ, in a section known as Reigndoms, the Lord succumbed to wounds sustained while slaying the serpent Murmillo. Her followers mourned for only a day, however, as the corpse of Aveth, lain in state, disappeared, leaving behind only her spear. This event was declared a miracle, however, for Aveth had prophesied that she would die in service to her people, that she would return again when needed most. Thus, worship of the Lord continued for a thousand years and beyond.
Modern followers of Aveth ascribe to a set of dictates set forth by the Writ. These dictates command that a follower:
These tenets, broad as they are, vary in their interpretation depending on the presiding regional arm of the Church. Many Avethans give alms as part of their service to humanity. Others join the Alagórian military. Many hold one fact as truth: If the faithful uphold these dictates, they will be favored in the eyes of the Lord, and be granted return to the world after death. †††
Now, a thousand years after her death, the Lord has returned. By what means, few can guess. Popular opinion says the legendary and fearful Holy Inquisition, a force of secret police and assassins supposedly formed in ancient times by the deadly Lord herself, was responsible for carrying out her resurrection. ‡
When the Lord came to the capital of Alagór in the company of an Inquisitorial army, many expected the High Prince to abdicate his throne, that the Lord might again rule her people. ‡‡
Instead, no such abdication occurred. It is said that the Lord met for an afternoon with the Prince, the Lord Inquisitor, and the heads of state and Church in the royal palace of Cair Elise.
The subject of this meeting is a matter of debate. Officially, the state says the Lord put a series of questions to these powerful figures, made a variety of benevolent orders, including the dissolution of the Inquisition and cessation of political aggression toward apostate states. She took the hands of the leaders of the land, ascended to Altamora to guide her subjects from on high as they ruled below. ‡‡‡ Rumor suggests otherwise.
Some months after the parousia, an interview with a notable Alagórian expatriate appeared in Emperoussin papers. The interviewee, formerly a high priest of Aveth, described the meeting at Cair Elise as a travesty. The Lord, described by the priest as no more than a willowy teenager, was aghast by state of the world, condemned the heads of the Church and Inquisition as liars.
The priest suggested two possibilities: Either Aveth is a unwilling prisoner, contained by corrupt leaders, or she is a willing cloister, terrified by her chosen people. Folk whisper these possibilities only in secret, fearing, even now, the lingering blades of the Inquisition.
Whatever the truth may be, these years are a golden age for Aveth. The faith prospers, draws new souls with every sunrise. Few (even atheist Firls) doubt the Lord's return.
The people's faith is strong, sound in the returned Aveth. Millions pray to the Lord on high. Few, however, ask whether She, in her mile-high spire, is the same woman who died a thousand years ago.
I blew the "princess in the highest room of the tallest tower," thing way out of proportion, in retrospect. Now she's the Catholic church.
* Aveth originated in the South. Alagór is considered to have been founded by the Lord Herself.
** Many Avethans address Her as "Sister Lord" when praying.
*** Magister Porton Bord of Mindy Dale suggested in his work Theism: A Qualitative Approach that Avethans experience a variety of group placebo which is enhanced by the rituals of the Church. Magister Bord was assassinated in 3.449 by the Holy Inquisition.
† Scholars at the Arterton Academy posit that the Writ was, in fact, compiled by Avethan priests.
†† The mythographer Ivonne Jacalyn Kamille Peyroux suggested Aveth stole the arts of the sorcerers she slew, gained her own magic.
††† Notably, apocryphal copies of the Lord's Writ, dated pre-2.922, hold no mention of reincarnation of the faithful. These copies were retrieved from a book burning held by the Church in 3.400.
‡ This fact is contentious, as Aveth officially dissolved the Inquisition shortly after the parousia. Rumors suggest they continue to operate, serving the militant wants of Aveth as she existed long ago.
‡‡ The Alagóran title of High Prince (rather than King or Emperor) is a sign of reverence and subservience to the Lord.
‡‡‡ Altamora, also known as the High Steeple, is an ancient, mile-high spire of white marble. It is located in the holy Old City district of San Carro, the capital of Alagór.