Reverend Dodgson conducted the common service in front of the Queen, the Reverend Lords Griffin and Tuttle, Reverend Master Tlaloc, and an overflowing crowd. Alysseren had never seen the reverend so self-conscious—and she’d known him all her life. But as far as she could tell, aside from the occasional stammer, he recited the liturgy without any flaws.
Of course, she should have been able to say precisely because she should have focused only on worshipful preparation for the High Service—as Fflwdw-llynwyn reminded her more than once. But though she tried, her attention drifted at times from the mystery of the Atoning Sacrifice to the splendid visitors arrayed behind the reverend, particularly the gallant young priest in the blue robe.
Where could such a young priest have come from? All the other priests looked much older—though they never seemed to change. But this young priest was something new.
Would he officiate in the High Service?
Would he be the one who took her through the ceremony for the first time?
Could she, perhaps, one day become a priestess and officiate with him?
She blushed. What an inappropriate thing to think at a time like this.
After the priests dedicated the church, the congregation came forward one by one for the Obeisance. They knelt before the Queen, the people offering their finest to adorn the church and the tochtin, bowing especially low, to receive their grey wafers. The Queen, regal and magnanimous, received and dispensed and dismissed each of them with her benediction.
Shortly after Alysseren had presented herself and Fflwdw-llynwyn received his wafers, he paused midway through his second wafer, sat up, cocked his ears, and stared at the back corner of the chapel.
She learned long ago that such behavior meant he was about to correct her.
But Fflwdw-llynwyn said nothing.
Indeed, he seemed entirely unaware of her.
As Alysseren waited for Fflwdw-llynwyn’s trance to end, she became aware that the lights and colors weren’t as bright as they should be; the room was awash with distracting scents of drying paint, sweat, and wet fur; the organ bellows creaked and a fair number of people were off key during the closing chorus. Why hadn’t she noticed any of that before?
She focused on the great gold and silver Cross of Atoning Sacrifice with its twined feathered serpents that hung gleaming above the Inner Sanctum. The screens below, which hid the Sanctum during the common service, were painted to show glory streaming down from the cross onto the faces of brown-robed supplicants approaching the Stepped Pyramid of Salvation.
Reverend Dodgson had assured her only that morning, as he rushed her through the two month Catechism of the Initiates in less than an hour, that the High Service brought supplicants to a state of rapture. But as she looked now the faces on the screen seemed more resigned than joyous.
Alysseren sighed and tried to shake off her peculiar mood. She had wanted to join the adults in the High Service for so long. Yet now, only moments away from being initiated into the mystery, why did she feel nervous instead of blissful?
Perhaps it was simply that it had all happened so fast. The reverend had come last night, as she and Sister Alice were readying themselves for bed, to say she must be admitted to the High Service today. When Sister Alice protested that Alysseren needed the catechism and was looking forward to her coming-of-age party, Reverend Dodgson, rightly, pointed out that such things were secondary to the blessing of the High Service.
As the last of the congregants filed from the chapel, Sister Alice pulled Alysseren aside and hugged her.
“Oh, my child, I’m so worried about you.” Her eyes were red from crying. “I should be there with you. I should guide you through the initiation”
Alysseren put on a brave smile. “I’ll be fine. I know it’s too soon for you to go through the High Service again.”
“What if you have bad blood, child?” A tear coursed down Sister Alice’s cheek.
“Hardly anyone has bad blood these days.”
“Promise me you’ll run, if you must.”
Alysseren opened her mouth and furrowed her brows but couldn’t think of anything to say. Had Sister Alice, the very model of virtue and religious devotion, just told her to defy the church?
Sister Alice looked discretely to the left and the right, and then said, “There is something you should know, though it may cost me dearly if I tell you.” She slipped a small oilskin packet from beneath the waist band of her skirt. “There is a place—”
“Ah, there you are,” the reverend said in a loud voice. He took Alysseren’s arm. “Come. We mustn’t keep the Queen waiting.”
* * *
Fflwdw-llynwyn was still distracted when the reverend finished latching the main doors of the nearly empty chapel.
The three men who were to demonstrate the role of the supplicant to the initiates donned their brown robes, took an initiate by the hand, and led them to the priests behind the common altar.
Alysseren’s pulse quickened when her guide stopped in front of Christopher Tlaloc. As the Reverend Master regarded her with a slight smile, she was suddenly conscious that, aside from the Queen, she was the only woman going through the High Service tonight.
The organist began the Anthem of the High Service.
Alysseren drew a deep breath. Why did such thoughts distract her?
It was time to concentrate. She had spent her entire life—at least as much as she could remember of the last nearly sixteen years—helping Reverend Dodgson and Sister Alice bring people into the church of the Queen of Heaven so they could enjoy the blessing of the Atoning Sacrifice of the High Service. Now she was about to receive that blessing herself.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” Fflwdw-llynwyn whispered. “You can still withdraw.”
Alysseren paused, surprised that Fflwdw-llynwyn would suggest such a thing—and at how much the thought appealed to her.
She closed her eyes. It must simply be her nerves.
After taking a steadying breath, she said, “It’s too late for that.”
“It’s never too late, dearest.”
When the anthem ended, the high priests opened the screens of the Inner Sanctum. Three mercy seats faced the pulpit beneath the great cross. Three golden grails rested on the table of the service in front of the pulpit. Unadorned crimson curtains covered the walls of the small room.
“Is that all?” Alysseren whispered.
“The reverend shouldn’t have rushed you into this,” Fflwdw-llynwyn said as he looked at the back of the chapel again. “Why don’t you say you feel ill and withdraw?”
Alysseren shook her head just enough for Fflwdw-llynwyn to see. “I’m … I’m just a bit anxious, that’s all.”
The brown-robed men took their places behind the mercy seats. The initiates stepped to the left, where they could observe as their guides demonstrated the role of the supplicant in the ceremony.
The Queen ascended to the pulpit while Reverend Lord Griffin closed the screens.
Reverend Lord Tuttle raised his overstuffed hands to make the sign of the accusation and chanted, “Your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with inequity.”
Alysseren nodded and mumbled, “Blood is bad.”
“We stand guilty before thee,” the supplicants answered.
“Your lips have spoken lies; your tongue hath uttered perverseness.”
The supplicants knelt. “Take away our sins, we pray.”
“All things are, by the Law, purged with blood; and without shedding of blood there is no redemption.”
“Let the Blood of the Covenant be our Atoning Oblation.”
The supplicants rose, sat on the mercy seats, and raised their right hands.
Their tochtin pulled down their brown sleeves, exposing their arms.
The supplicants laid their bare arms, palm up, on the arm rests of the mercy seats.
Alysseren leaned forward: it was the moment of sacrifice, but she didn’t understand the significance of the posture. She would be a supplicant next and she didn’t want to make a mistake.
The priests each retrieved a grail and what appeared to be a tiny golden trumpet from the service table.
They chanted, “Between the falling and the rising, lies the blood,” as they placed the grails beneath the arms of the supplicants.
“Between the oppression and the liberation, lies the blood.”
The priests removed the sheaths from the needle end of the trumpets.
“Not so tight,” Fflwdw-llynwyn gasped.
Alysseren forced herself to relax her grip. “Why do they have needles?”
“Between the wrath and the mercy, lies the blood.”
Deftly, each priest inserted a golden needle into one of the forearm veins of each supplicant.
Alysseren drew an involuntary breath. How could this be part of the High Service? How could needles in the arm have anything to do with blessings and rapture?
“Between the condemnation and the redemption, lies the blood.”
Bright blood poured from the tiny trumpets into each grail.
Alysseren’s legs felt weak. She grabbed the back of the mercy seat to steady herself and whispered, “I can’t believe I’m supposed to do that.”
Sister Alice’s words echoed in her mind.
Eyes closed and faces full of bliss, the supplicants said, “We give thee the blood of the sin offering in atonement.”
“You want to run … I feel it,” Fflwdw-llynwyn whispered. “I can help.”
Alysseren couldn’t take her eyes from the blood filling the grail. It came in spurts with each heartbeat—and there was so much of it. “All that blood,” she whispered. “It’s wrong. I can’t, I … I feel ill.”
Fflwdw-llynwyn nuzzled her neck. “You should run from this place.”
When the grails were nearly full, the priests returned with plates and chalices for the supplicants and chanted, “Eat the bread of life. Drink the pure and living waters. Then enter into the rest of Heaven.”
Trembling, Alysseren closed her eyes and drew a deep breath to quell the nausea. Was this what Sister Alice wanted to tell her?
“I promise,” she whispered. “I’ll run.”
The priests removed the trumpets, bandaged the arms of the supplicants, turned to the pulpit, and raised the grails to the Queen.
“This is my—our chance,” Fflwdw-llynwyn whispered. “Run! Now!”
A wave of boldness washed over Alysseren. She turned, flung aside the screens, sprinted across the chapel, and fumbled with the latch on the main doors.
“Bring her back!” the Queen cried.
Alysseren knocked Reverend Dodgson over when she burst out of the chapel. Others sprang aside as she fled through the foyer. She flew down the front steps and vaulted over the great stone feathered serpent on the right.
She hitched up her white robe as she ran around the church. Fflwdw-llynwyn helped her slide her arms free and shed the robe before she sprinted under the airship, avoiding the electric lights shining from the gondola.
With her skirt gathered, she careened down the slope of the sheep field, heading for the forest beyond.
The full moon peeked over the eastern mountains, but it didn’t help among the trees. Fflwdw-llynwyn, however, seemed to know exactly where to go. Alysseren was happy simply to run, as long as it was away from the church.
After a time Fflwdw-llynwyn said, “You can trust Crewyngwen-afonbel.”
“Who?” Alysseren asked between breaths.
“Sister Alice’s tochtin.”
“Why are you telling me this? Why did you tell me his name?”
His only response was, “Turn left now.”
Alysseren was quite out of breath when she tripped. She rolled instinctively to cradle Fflwdw-llynwyn but felt him flying away instead. Suddenly separated, she was barely aware of her surroundings until she blundered into a massive iron leg.
A metal tentacle wrapped around her and lifted her above the trees.
Gears ground together as the riveted iron shell, stark in the moonlight, swung toward her and brought its guns to bear.