Alysseren, her hair spreading like dark fire over her snowy robes, stood with the other initiates at the head of the throng gathered around the broad sheep field below the newly finished church at New Harmony to await the coming of the Queen of Heaven.
Golden light bathed her upturned face as she watched the Ship of Heaven descend through the late afternoon sky. She shivered when the braking breeze from the airship’s great propellers washed over her and hoped she could remember everything she had to do to get through the initiation.
“Why are you anxious?” Fflwdw-llynwyn asked as he shifted from shoulder to shoulder trying to keep her hair under control. “You’ve wanted this for so long. No one has ever been admitted to the High Service before they were sixteen. It’s a great honor.”
“Yes, but it’s all so sudden.”
One of the boys from the village was trying to catch her eye as he and his fellows helped the deacons catch the handling lines and guide the Ship of Heaven to the mooring lock atop the steeple. He seemed taller than she remembered and she quite liked the way he smiled at her.
“I only had two more months to wait,” she said. “And I was thinking about who might escort me to the coming-of-age party.”
“You know I have to remind you that you need not to worry about such things,” Fflwdw-llynwyn said, his voice flat. “When your time comes, the priests will call and anoint your husband.”
“We live by faith,” Alysseren murmured as she watched the lovely young men securing the gangway below the gondola. There were so many to choose from. Perhaps it was best for the church to decide.
Behind her, Reverend Dodgson was quietly assuring someone that rumors about a war machine lurking in the woods and stealing tochtin were baseless, and that a self-propelled metal tower bristling with guns and tentacles was the stuff of nonsense.
The Queen’s Own Guard, dashing as always in their crisp uniforms of red and black, filed out of the airship and took up their stations.
A priest in gold-trimmed robes of blue was the first to descend.
Alysseren gasped. He was young—not even twenty—and tall, with what appeared to be broad shoulders beneath his robe. His hair was thick and sculpted, like the manes of the feathered serpents that flanked the entrance to the church. His eyes and brows, showing the marks of a keen intellect, were set in light, unblemished skin above a mouth accustomed to smiling.
Fflwdw-llynwyn popped up in front of her, just as the young priest looked at them, and said, “That should be the last thing on your mind right now.”
“It’s not … It’s only that he’s so …”
“Handsome?” Fflwdw-llynwyn fluttered his lashes.
“No, unexpected.” Alysseren pushed her hair away from her eyes. “I’ve never seen a priest who was so young or looked so vital.”
“I know you better than anyone else. In a moment you’ll start to fret about how plain you are with your unflattering red hair.” He nuzzled her neck and muttered, “Honestly, it was much easier before you began to notice young men.”
Alysseren cradled Fflwdw-llynwyn and caressed the white and brown fur on his chest as she gazed into his eyes. “I’ll always love you best.”
“And I shall always love you,” he purred.
The world around her seemed to brighten and she heard the evening birdsong above the murmur of the crowd.
She felt so thoroughly serene that she didn’t flinch when Reverend Lord Tuttle, a purple-robed mountain of a man with a puffed, pallid face, shuffled down the gangway. Surely he had forgotten about her youthful zeal nearly three years ago at the last dedication. After all, that was the day one of the congregation was found to have bad blood and had to be executed.
The second high priest, as trim and precise in his purple robe as his peer was over-abundant, joined the other two priests in the field below the gondola. He surveyed the congregation, the deacons who held them back, and the perimeter of guardsmen. Then he signaled Reverend Dodgson.
The crowd fell silent.
The children’s choir sang a song of welcome.
An electric thrill ran up Alysseren’s spine and her pulse quickened as the supreme and most holy leader of the church, whom she had known, until this moment, only from paintings, glided down the gangway.
The Queen of Heaven, Corazón Hernandez de la Sangre Sagrada, was resplendent in robes of the richest crimson, trimmed with real cloth-of-gold and embellished with an encircling world-serpent, wrought of precious stones, in whose scales icons of all twelve angels appeared. Her face—porcelain-white with full lips that matched the color of her robes—was framed by the iridescent feathered serpents, whose jade tails were lost in the Queen’s raven-black hair, that twined around the magnificent cross of gold and rubies surmounting the sacred headdress.
Alysseren blinked. How curious: the Queen looked exactly like the hundred-year-old painting of her that the reverend had gone to such trouble to procure for the foyer of the new church.
The choir sang the final amen.
As the Queen mounted the podium, Alysseren realized she had been staring at the sapphire image of Tlaloc, the Rain Angel, on the Queen’s robes and that the other initiates were already kneeling. Reverend Dodgson glared at her as she dropped to the ground.
“On this, the first day of May in the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety-eight,” the Queen said in a voice that echoed from the church, “I am come to accept your offerings and dedicate your new chapel. Let this day henceforth be a holy day in your calendar. May the blessings of Heaven ever follow your faithful sacrifices.”
The people shouted, “Amen!” three times as the Queen, her priests, and the escorting guardsmen paraded toward the church.
The Queen stopped next to Alysseren and said, “Look at me, girl.”
Alysseren lifted her head. The paintings fell short of capturing the beauty of the Queen’s face—or the cold power in her brown eyes.
“So you are Alysseren, from Dodgson’s mission.” The Queen studied her for a moment. “You’ll do.” There was a hint of a smile. “You’ll do nicely.” She turned to the thin high priest at her side. “Don’t you agree Griffin?”
The Reverend Lord Griffin regarded Alysseren for a moment and then nodded once.
Alysseren’s smile dissolved as her jaw grew slack. There was something in the Queen’s tone that made her feel no better than one of the sheep that had been cleared from the field this morning.
With a swirl of crimson robes, the Queen strode away to lead the procession into the chapel.
Alysseren hurried to rise: the initiates were to follow the priests. But she stepped on her robe and tripped.
Arms outstretched, she landed heavily on the gravel.
Fflwdw-llynwyn barely managed to cling to her robes.
An instant later, strong, gentle hands lifted her back to her feet.
Alysseren found herself in the arms of the blue-robed priest. A shiver raced up her spine as she looked up into his smiling face. It was the first time a man had held her so close.
Fflwdw-llynwyn pushed her arm away from her white robes and said, “Look at your hand.”
Blood welled from her punctured palm.
“Oh that’s bad.” Alysseren’s knees faltered and she felt faint. “Blood is bad.” She was babbling but couldn’t stop. “Blood … I mean, it will ruin the initiation if I stain my robes.”
“Allow me,” said the young priest, his voice a rich baritone.
Supporting her with one arm, he took her wounded hand and kissed it. When he raised his head, the blood was gone.
A wave, warm and exciting, traveled up her arm. Before Alysseren could manage a reply, he had tied his handkerchief over her wound and helped her to her place in the procession.
“I, ah … that is, who shall I say came to my aid?” Alysseren asked as they entered the chapel.