Maximilian Rho entered the nave of the Immaculate Light Cathedral with a feeling of trepidation. The Eremites and the Prince’s Men had converted the venerable old chapel into an impromptu headquarters. And as the Preceptor watched the men in purple and white direct the knights of the Hermitage in their tasks, it became very clear to him who was in charge.
Maximilian shook his head. How had it come to this? The Eremites--sworn protectors of the Concordat and servants of the Church, policing Leonais, and obeying the orders of its Prince? These were things that both the Grand Council of Leonais and the Collegium of the Concordat had agreed should never, ever occur--things that a horde of rules and edicts had been written to prevent. And yet, somehow, Amfortas had gotten them all laid aside. Oh, it had not happened all at once. No, the Prince had done it piece by piece, step by step, so gradually, so subtly, that only now, now when it was complete, could his design be seen.
“Are you all right, Preceptor?” asked Arcadius, lightly shaking his shoulder.
Maxmilian coughed and stirred himself. “Mmmph. Merely considering things. A habit we old men get into.”
Constans Mu nodded lightly. “Better one than fouling the air.” He shook his head. “Me uncle Jacopone…”
“That’s enough, Squire,” said the Preceptor mildly.
“Preceptor!” said Sylvester Mu, with Edward Delta following him. “We were wondering where you were. Did you find anything?”
“Nothing of interest,” said Maximilian.
Arcadius and Constans nodded. “This night’s been so misty and dark, it’d be ease itself for them to slip out, unnoticed.” Which was, Maximilian noted with a certain level of admiration, all true.
“Blasted waste of time, if you ask me,” Constans snarled.
Sylvester looked away nervously, while Edward began to gesture behind them. “Preceptor!” came a loud voice. “It is so good of you to join us!”
Maximilian turned to regard Archon Septimus. He had heard of the Eremite’s humiliation, and had expected him to keep a low profile, but here he was, completely unabashed. He was flanked by two Prince’s Men--a tall man with graying hair, and a short youth, whose cloak’s hood was pulled up . “Archon Seraphim,” said Maximilian with a bow of his head. “It is good to see you are in fine health.”
The Archon frowned. “I take what the Seven give me,” he replied grimly. “Fair or foul. Let Their Will be done.”
“An estimable and pious attitude,” said the older Prince’s Man. He sighed. “Still, I, poor sinner that I am, cannot help but wonder what they aim at when they send us so much foul news, and so little fair. All but one of the prisoners escaped back to the Lands of Night.”
The Preceptor blinked. “One?”
“The Badb’s daughter,” said the Prince’s Man. “My lads Jernis and Razalic caught her.” He chuckled. “They are good at that.” He offered Maximilian his hand. “Serjeant-at-arms Lanval Equitan, at your service.”
Maximilian took his hand warily. “A… pleasure, Serjeant.” He heard of a Lanval Equitan, years ago. That man was the head of family of armigers up around Almace who rather regularly went bandit. Lanval had done just that, and had done it a very bloody, very noticeable way.
Not for the first time, Maxmilian Rho found himself wondering about the men Prince Amfortas chose to wear his colors.
“I want a firestick, Serjeant,” said the younger Prince’s Man. Maximilian blinked in surprise--partially at the hitherto silent figure speaking, and partially at the fact that this Prince’s Man was apparently a young woman. It was hard to tell, from a casual appraisal--her face bore several disfiguring scars that tended to attract one's notice.
Lanval turned, and handed her several brightly tipped pieces of wood. “Here you go, Gilly.” The girl smiled briefly, then rushed back to a corner. Lanval turned back to Maximilian and the Archon. “She’s something of a mascot for the Prince’s Men,” he said, smiling. “We came upon her in a bit of misfortune, and adopted her. She’s stayed with us ever since.”
“Fire…sticks?” asked Arcadius Pi, quietly.
“Weird little things, we find on smugglers,” said Lanval. “We think the Nightfolk make them. They start fires quickly. Gilly likes to see them burn.” Maximilian glanced over towards her and saw she was apparently lighting the little things, staring at them intently.
“Articles of the Night are tainted…” said the Archon with just a touch of severity.
“True, very true,” said Lanval, eyes looking dolefully at the heavens. “But who of us is without sin and fault?”
Lanval Equitan had been an Archdeacon of the Faith, Maxmilian remembered. He’d used his position to do things like give his relatives sanctuary after committing bloody murders at his behest. And other--less savory things.
The Archon nodded fitfully and turned away. The Eremites in the cathedral had begun to gather around him. Septimus regarded them for a moment, and then spoke. “Brothers in the faith, we have had a great setback. And yet we must remain strong, and trust in the Holy Light of the Seven.” He took a deep breath. “In times like this, let us follow the example of our predecessors, and lift our voices in Their praise.” The Archon shut his eyes, and began to sing. “Known only to Them--Are the great hidden secrets.” To Maximilian’s surprise, Septimus Seraphim had a lovely singing voice. His fellow Eremites joined in the song. “I’ll fear not the Darkness, when my flame shall dim. I know not what the future holds--But I know who holds the future. It’s a secret known only to Them!”
Maximilian glanced over at Gilly. She had lit another ‘firestick’ and was now watching it with eager hunger, rocking back and forth on her knees energetically.
“In this world of fear and doubt--on my knees I ask the question,” sang the Archon, “why a lonely, heavy burden I must bear? Then They tell me in my prayer, it’s because I am trustworthy--They give me strength--far more than my share!” He looked at Maximilian significantly.
Maximilian nodded quietly and took a deep breath. “Known only to Them--Are the great hidden secrets.” The other Sacristans nodded and joined in. “I’ll fear not the Darkness, when my flame shall dim. I know not what the future holds--But I know who holds the future. It’s a secret known only to Them!”
Maximilian watched Lanval and his little friend as he sang. Gilly had no eyes for anything beside her little fires, while the serjeant only smiled.