Questioning One's Faith
It was as though the Heavenly Host had touched the cathedral that night.
The innards of the divine building glowed as intensely as soul-fire, every candelabrum burning and the fuzzy, warm light shed by each of the thousands of candles shone golden and celestial. The gleaming altar rang with a vast, tumultuous explosion of song, that hymn's exuberance seeming to set the very air alight. By only a slight stretch of the imagination, one could envision a flock of angels sitting atop the grand organ, smiling with delight at this display of appreciation, and adding their own sound to the gentle drone that was civilians singing their praises to the Lord.
The seats had all been taken long before my arrival - rarely was the situation any different in the Graylands' Ordained Cathedral at this time of year. Not, by nature, being of the social breed, I nevertheless felt obliged to attend this special ceremony annually. After all, it celebrated a birth, a worthy cause in my oft-critical eyes. The birth of the Messiah.
Situated in the back ranks as usual, and leaning nonchalantly against a sculpted stone wall near the Cathedral entrance, I had assumed my typical role of spectator, watching the proceedings, but never taking part.
It seemed Fate had chosen me for such a purpose, and that I could continue to apply myself to it even at Yuletide was evidence of my separation from the crowds. They sang with full heart and closed minds, oblivious to all but the man of the cloth at the front of the assembly and the powerful melodies of the grand organ, drilled into them since birth, the words more instinct than knowledge, so hard had the Church driven its philosophies and laws upon the commoners.
Easy enough for me to criticise, I suppose, but it is not always easy being an observer. I could focus on each person in turn and scrye their reason for being here from their very soul, if I so wished it. But I was no Sydney Losstarot, nor a Romeo Guildenstern to exploit my position of power for my own unjust ends.
It was too tempting, though, just to tease out an answer from a person. I looked straight at the back of the nearest villager's head, and silently asked: Why is your voice so strong, your heart so sure, your belief so impermeable?
This is all we know, was the eventual, collective response. This is all we care to know.
If I offered you an alternate belief, would you so much as consider?
The Almighty God is our Lord - do not blaspheme our ceremony!
Now the people of the assembly were beginning to fidget. Some were glancing back over their shoulders, towards the exit of the Cathedral, where their gazes nervously took in my languid form.
"'Tis not your ceremony," I whispered under my breath. "You did not know the Christ-child who was purportedly birthed on this day so many centuries ago, and yet you sing his praises as though he were your own kin."
The Cathedral was abruptly filled with a sea of ghastly grey visages, one of each of the assembly. They milled around aimlessly.
"Lost," I said comprehendingly. From my mind, I extracted one of the many phrases remembered from my time spent with am infamous cultist. "Most men complacently accept 'knowledge' as 'truth'. They are sheep, ruled by fear."
My curiosity could not be assuaged. Was it fear that drove these men and women onwards in this fancified religion? Not fear of death, but of what lay beyond that hurdle? The Holy Book had revealed many errors under my scrutinising regard. It was unlikely that Christ had been born on this very day, and, nay, that a star had led the way. Even after all I had seen in Leá Monde, I did not believe this. It all seemed so artificial, so false. This grand ceremony, this enormous building . . . the Church made so much profit on it all that I found it hard to ally my beliefs with those of the majority.
I believed that a child had been born. And he went on to accomplish great things and speak of the God I know is out there. But this . . . this was wrong. This wasn't how we should celebrate or pray. God was a private confidant, and I, for one, did not wish to share my sins and my prayers with others.
I could understand it when a family at home praised God, because that was private. But such large gatherings . . . they thinned the faith like blood mixing with water.
Perhaps I felt this way because . . . because I had no one to share my prayers with. Because my Yuletide would be spent alone, once more. Well, reason or no, I could stand no more of this 'celebration'. Pushing away from the wall, I turned on my heel and swiftly made for the exit.
The air outside was frostbitten and venomously sharp, burning my lungs as surely as a column of fire, but it was calming after the dizzying heat of the Cathedral. Snow fell, landing in my hair as softly as a lover's caress, and for a moment I was reminded of snowflies, imagining myself back in Leá Monde for a brief moment. Everything had been so clear there, so definite. God's touch had not penetrated, and you knew what was real . . . though sometimes, I wasn't sure. There was still no news on the whereabouts of most of the people who had participated in that cataclysmic event. Not all of them could have died inside the collapsing town . . .
"Well, if it isn't the Inquisitor, Callo Merlose herself," a voice hailed from the shadows of the churchyard. I glanced up warily, suppressing a groan of disappointment when Sigmund Daschmiel stepped into the light.
"I am off duty now, but, my greetings, Sigmund," I sighed. "Preparing to join the joyous celebration? The cleric at the door will charge you five shillings to praise the Lord."
"My, my, quite the cynical wench, aren't we?" Sigmund raised both his thick eyebrows, blue eyes shimmering with delight. "Do you transform into one come eventide?"
"I am what I am, Sigmund." I shivered - the cold was penetrating my ankle-length coat already.
"Come, let's not stand out here," he advised, and glided to my side so smoothly that I was surprised he had left any footprints in the snow.
"I shall not return to that farce of a ceremony, if that's what you're planning."
"I'll walk you home then?" The plea in his voice was obvious, and more than a little wearying.
"I can walk on my own, you know."
"You might happen across a thief or vagabond - they don't stop working on any evening, even at Yuletide."
"Very well," I sighed, and hooked my arm in his. Sigmund was a good several inches taller than I, and I disliked having to look up to meet his gaze. Thus, I didn't regard him at all, and merely kept walking, hoping it would make the journey end faster.
Our feet crunched the snow as we turned from the Cathedral yard and into the main street. The sky was incredibly clear, difficult to tell where the flakes were falling from at all, and wonderfully brilliant stars lashed the darkness with their purity. A crescent moon hung from the night, casting all in a silvery glow. I would have admired the beauty of it . . . had an unwanted Sigmund not been fastened to my side.
"Marvellous, isn't it?" he said gently. "I don't recall so clear a Yule's Eve since my childhood."
"Yes, it is pretty, admirably so."
"Since you are off-duty now, what would you have me call you?" He smiled in the darkness. "Callo? It is such a divine Christian name, and you use it so rarely -"
"Merlose is fine," I said abruptly, cutting him off. The last thing I desired was for Sigmund to think we were on 'casual' terms!
"You prefer it?"
"If that satisfies as an answer for you, then yes, I prefer it. I like to maintain a degree of professionalism even when off-duty."
"Of course, Merlose it is then."
We walked the rest of the way in silence. Sigmund hovered by my house as I rummaged around my coat pocket for my key.
"Thank you. Your courtesy does you justice, Sigmund. Good evening to you, and a charitable Yuletide fall on your home."
He coughed slightly. When I turned from opening my door, he was a mere foot away from me.
"It was my pleasure but . . ." He reached forward and lightly grasped my hands. "You don't have to spend Yuletide alone, you know." The desire to scrye his soul was almost unbearable for a long moment, but I didn't think I needed to. I had a feeling I knew what it was that Sigmund desired for Yuletide.
"Won't you at least consider my offer?" he begged, and then I realised he wasn't referring to sharing a bed but the proposal he had made me almost a year ago to the day. The ring he had weighted that bid with had been expensive and affectionately chosen; studded with jewels and stones and wrought in an elegant combination of gold and silver.
But . . .
He was handsome, true, and considerate besides. Perhaps, before Leá Monde . . .
"Sigmund, I have considered it. And my answer remains the same."
"Was I too late?" he asked, completely downcast. "Did you find someone else? Come, Callo . . . Merlose . . . most ordinary women have chosen by now. You, you hang on. You can't tell me you are not lonely, I can see it in your eyes!"
"You compare me to 'ordinary' women as if I am a rare species to be captured!" I snapped. "Know this, Sigmund Daschmiel, I will marry whom I choose, and just because you are the first person to offer, doesn't mean I will snatch you up! You have been a good friend to me here, but that is not enough to base a companionship on." Angrily, I blew out a breath, and it hit the air as a cloud of steam. "Now, I am slowly freezing to death here. If you would be so kind as to leave me to my own devices!"
Sigmund's features contorted with a considerable degree of irritation. "None will take you, Merlose, if you are not willing to give. You think the perfect lover will simply career into your life one day? Bah! You dream, Inquisitor, you dream! All that time in Leá Monde must have addled your brains!"
Gossip travelled rather too far - the mission Agent Riot and I had undertaken in Leá Monde was supposed to be a secret. "I'd prefer to be 'addled', as you so elegantly put it, if it means I do not partner with you!" A quick dip into his soul revealed rather more information than I had sought. "Sigmund, just leave. Now. Do not try to fool me with your gentleman act - I know your kind! You think you are the first? You are the dreamer. Unfortunately, like you, most men who have fallen for me know nothing about me. They think I am what they see, and then that is all that they want. Do not demean me by pretending you are different!"
His eyes widened in surprise for a moment, and then his expression hardened. "Fine. And a wonderful Yuletide to you, too." He bowed lightly, and then stormed off up the street.
I released a sigh a relief, and pushed my door open, closing it and bolting it firmly the moment I was inside. Kicking off my shoes, I began to stride down the hallway, lighting each lamp on the wall before turning into the front room, for a fleeting moment entertaining the absurd idea that perhaps Saint Nikolaos had visited my house. But, nay, not a colourfully wrapped package in sight.
"No gifts for Merlose this year," I whispered to myself, and began to stoke the log fire into as big a blaze as possible. The room soon began to warm up, and I sat beside the fire with a glass of wine and a book written by one of my favourite philosophers, A.J. Durai. Ah well, if no one would give me any gifts, then I would treat myself. Besides, Yuletide was not about presents.
I stayed up quite late, and was surprised to glance at the clock and find it well past midnight.
"Happy Yuletide," I said with a grin into the mirror in the hallway, as I made my way upstairs and traipsed into my bedroom. The house had once more been consumed by darkness, and I navigated with the help of a small candle. Placing it by the bedside, I undressed, and slipped into my nightgown.
My bedroom also had a small fireplace, in which I left a few logs to gently burn - the night was icy, and, fire risk or no, I wanted to be warm.
Satisfied, I slipped beneath the covers and doused out the candle, comforted by the soft orange glow from the crackling flames. It did not take me long to fall asleep.
Unfortunately, I didn't stay that way very long.
A vivid nightmare roused me from rest. Cursing Leá Monde as the source of all my frequent sleepless nights, I peered through slitted eyes at the clock by my bedside. The fire was now little more than a simmering glow, but it shed enough light on the face and I caught four-thirty a.m. as the time. Irritably, I buried my face in the pillows and clamped my eyes shut, trying to close my mind to the images of Dark and Its work. No matter how hard I had tried, I never slept easily anymore. It was as if my thoughts had somehow tuned themselves to Leá Monde, and reacted to its every burst of activity. The old city was far from dead - that much I knew, if nothing else.
"Just let me sleep," I groaned, and then froze as I heard a chuckle emanate from the opposite end of the room.
My reaction was instant. I flung my arm out to the right and sent ornaments and the candle flying as I scrabbled at my bedside table for the dagger I kept there. As soon as I had its hilt in my hand, I rolled over and sat up in bed.
"Who goes there?" I asked, a little more shakily than I would have liked.
The fire's dim glow illuminated nothing more than shadows. I could see nothing where the darkness of the room's far corner skulked. It seemed almost too black . . . and I definitely sensed something here with me.
Saint Nikolaos? I had to bite back laughter at that thought.
Sigmund? No, for all he believed otherwise, he didn't have the stomach to break into my home.
Then . . . who?
"I ask again, who goes there? Or I shall rip the answer from your soul and rend your tongue from your mouth for its silence!"
I surprised myself by actually sounding intimidating.
Well, perhaps not as intimating as I had originally thought. Fright was quickly drying my throat, the tension in the room insurmountable.
"You have no need to fear, Inquisitor," a voice whispered. Still no movement from the shadows, but although the speaker remained unrecognisable, even by sound, I felt that what it said was the truth.
"Then who are you? What do you want?"
I suddenly became intensely aware of being in my room, sitting up in a translucent white nightgown and pressed against the headboard with a dagger in my clenched fist. And I felt ridiculous. Muscle by muscle, I forced myself to relax a little.
"No reply, then? How long have you been standing there?"
" . . . long enough, Merlose, long enough."
"What does that mean?"
"I cannot stay here long enough to explain. I only wish to say . . . that a person such as you should not be alone at this time of year."
"A person such as me?" Now I was mostly puzzled, the fear draining from me and filling me with a strange kind of excitement.
" . . . yes. A person such as you. So, I bring a gift, and . . . I ask a favour."
"Tell me who you are and I shall consider it."
"Beside the gift is an item that I no longer feel worthy of carrying. I would be most grateful if you would look after it for me."
"Who are you?" I all but shouted.
A pregnant pause, and then: "I'm sorry about the nightmares. Leá Monde, she . . . she does like to broadcast her pain."
"What?" I shook with alarm. "Leá Monde? What do you know of -"
"Have a fair Yuletide, Merlose."
And then the presence vanished.
Warily, I climbed out of bed and fumbled for my lighter, which had been tossed from the bedside table in my panic. My finger on its switch, I held it out before me and cut through the darkness with it. The light flickered across the dresser that stood there, but nothing more. No person, at least.
Firelight danced across the surface of a tall, green glass bottle and a glint of gold beside it. Lowering the lighter to the oil lamp close to these items, I put it down once it had been used and first scooped up a finely gilded necklace. My chest and stomach tightened as I recalled who had been wearing it last. This . . . it looked like . . .
Agent Riot's pendant. The one she had been told had belonged to his wife.
I dropped it as if burned, and hurriedly turned to the bottle. Wine, no doubt . . . but I couldn't suppress a gasp at the label.
'Leá Monde's Finest, vintage '58' . . .
"Oh? Leá Monde's wineries once vied with the best of Valendia. Since they went out of production, the remaining vintages sell for a premium."
" . . . If I find any, consider them yours."
"My God . . ." I breathed softly, and then picked up the pendant again, closing my fist around it tightly and clutching it close to my chest. "Agent Riot . . . where are you?"
As if in reply, the window burst open, curtains billowing and snow whirling into the room. The fire that remained was dashed out instantly, and I ran to the shutters, preparing to close them, but following some deep, embedded instinct I leaned out of it, casting my gaze down to the street below.
A figure stood in one of the streetlights, looking up at me. Shaking its head despondently, it turned and walked off, disappearing into the shadows.
I was downstairs like a shot, slamming the shutters closed behind me. I actually ran into my front door, resulting in a considerable amount of pain, but yanked at the locks and then swung the door open, dashing out into the snow.
My bare feet stung with the cold and the nightgown offered so little protection that I might as well have been naked, but, for the moment, all I could care about was finding my early morning visitor. The pendant was still held in my hand, and fiercely.
The street was empty. Ashley Riot was not here.
Slowly, I sank to my knees. Was my mind jesting with me? No . . . if that were true, then where had Ashley's pendant come from? Not to mention the wine from Leá Monde itself . . .
"Why do you hide, Ashley?" I whispered to the wind. "Are you not lonely . . . as I am? Sometimes I wish . . . we could be lonely . . . together . . ."
The wind gave me no response, and the snow continued to fall heavily, soaking me through to the bone. But the silence that enveloped me was velvety and sweet as wine, as beautiful as the stars above and the clarity of the skies. Sitting here, in the snow, I could almost imagine a man and a woman sitting around that fabled manger, and the child lying within it, smiling like a thousand cherubim. What a time to question my faith!
This was Yuletide. The beauty and the magick of it was something that could only be appreciated truly in one's own mind. No petty church or ceremony could sum it up. No gift could truly capture the spirit of the moment. This sky . . . had it been the first thing the Christ-child had seen? Had the stars been the same? It mattered not . . . we all shared the same sky. Whether this was the precise day so many years ago that the Messiah had been born was not the issue. What mattered was that he had been born. And if I could believe that, then I believed miracles could occur.
And if miracles could occur, then perhaps . . . one day . . . Ashley would feel worthy of wearing his wife's pendant again, and return to me to reclaim it.
And perhaps,this time, he might not leave so abruptly.
Before any religious readers completely slate me, I was writing as Merlose, so I adopted her cynical attitude for this fic. The views expressed here aren't necessarily my own, though the artificiality of 'Christmas' is something that does, sometimes, annoy me, even though I'm not all that religious myself.
Vagrant Story and all its characters belong, as always, to Square, but Sigmund is an original character.
Merry Christmas, everyone! ^___^