Chapter 2 :: The Acolyte's Weakness
Nearly twenty years passed before a woman's footsteps next sounded in my soul. I had watched her from the moment she crossed the threshold of the cathedral, her red veil like a thin mist of blood over my eyes. She walked alone, as women of nobility may do in daylight in Valnain, or those trained in the crafts of war may do at any hour, if they possess the papers to prove reason. I could not say what it was that drew my gaze to her, but from the moment she stopped in the golden column of light from the rose window, and cast her veil back, I could not look away.
All my life after, I could never look away.
Her hair was the color of winter sunlight, pale and precious, and it floated around her face like streamers of silk. That her form was perfect was not even a question, delicate and high-hipped in the dark folds of her gown, but it was her face that drew me, perfect and still as the marble saint whose gaze she met, and her hands, small and deft as morning birds, brushing her hair from her face. In the light of the window she gleamed, a star hanging in space and shining beyond reason. A breath of her voice, a tilt of her head, and I would come undone into her hands. I watched her turning, the flutter of her pulse in her throat, and knew her eyes were seeking those of another. I did not know who she sought, and while I longed for her to meet my eyes and smile, I could not bear for her to pass me over.
She started, and I knew then that she had not seen me in the shadow of the ave, her eyes blinded by the light in which she stood. She smiled, and the radiance of the sun dimmed in my sight forever. "I seek the headquarters of the Crimson Knights," she said, her voice touched with the accent of the westlands, lilting and bright. "Is this the chapel of their order?"
"It is," I said, glad for a question I could answer, for my own name was uncertain on my lips. "Have you a brother among us, or a husband? If you require my assistance it is yours." I stepped into her light.
Her eyebrows lifted. I had just finished the morning rite for the men of our order, and the robes of my calling were still on my shoulders, heavy now as the weight of the world, once I remembered them.
"I thank you for your help, Father," she said, her head dipping demurely, her hair swinging forward. "But I am to meet here with the Commander of the Blades, and would not wish to mistake the location."
"You seek Guildenstern," I said, and in my voice she must have sensed some coolness, for her smile faltered.
"I was told he was in the city," she said, and she pulled a note from her sleeve, turned it over in nervous fingers. The parchment seemed old, the wax seal blurred, as if it had been written some time ago. "Was I misinformed?"
"Not at all," I said. Better anything, even Romeo Guildenstern, to her unhappiness. "He will be here upon the hour, as is his habit. Do you require introduction?"
She shook her head. "I am the Lady Samantha. My father was Guildenstern's predecessor, Lord Erich. I have his letter, here, to be brought upon his death to Lord Guildenstern."
"I had heard of his passing, even though he retired when I was still young. My condolences." My fingers knew the blessing; they moved through it without conscious thought on my part. "Iocus is merciful."
She looked away, up at the window, and her eyes were bright. "Thank you, Father." She plucked at her veil with her fingers, as if wishing to place it again over her head. "These past weeks, I have been--" she stopped, as if realizing there was no gilded grate between us, and she had not readied her soul for confession. "I beg your pardon, are you a cleric of the order, or a servant of this cathedral?"
I longed, with all my soul, to say nay to both of those. I wished to tell her that I was a free man, and to take her hand in my own and kiss the heavy gold signet on her finger, the crest of her father's house, and beg the honor of her company for an hour, a minute. But even if I could have said such a lie, the velvet of my robes was enough truth to implicate me. "Forgive my rudeness, Lady Samantha. I am Father Grissom of the Order of the Crimson Blade, and a commander of the third unit."
The noon bells began to ring before she could answer me, the flagstones beneath our feet shivering with their echoes. Duty tugged at me, heavier than my robes. "And," I added, "I fear I am overdue for training."
She laughed, a brighter bell than the brass reverberations above us. "Then I hope to see you again, Father Grissom," she said. "I shall not detain you any longer." She bowed her head and did not lift it, and it took me a moment to realize she was waiting for my blessing. My red glove was like a bloodstain on her pale hair, and I wondered if she could feel it shivering.
"I pace Ioci," I said. "Go with the peace of Iocus." I lifted my hand from her head, and it seemed the gold embroidered rood on the back of my glove burned like a brand.
Her eyes met mine and she smiled, as the glory of heaven had on the finest day of my childhood. "Thank you, Father."
I turned from her without a word, striding from the pool of her light into darkness, a lost man.