Nikola returned to Anverlee Manor in good time that evening, with enough to spare for a quick wash and to change for Temple. It was harder to school his thoughts into an appropriate frame of mind. More than anything else, he wanted to be able to hold Justin now, just hold him for an hour or two, long enough to convince himself that Justin was well and whole, to erase the memory of that terrible heart-stopping fall. To lie beside him and feel his warmth and hear his heartbeat and know that he was alive and safe. Why is this too much to ask?
But it was, of course. It was absurd and unmanly, particularly to crave that he be comforted because Justin had been in danger. As Shelby arranged a fresh jabot for Temple about his neck, Nik studied his own mind, hunting for the thousandth time for the fault or faults in it that made acting like a normal man so difficult. As ever, he couldn’t find it. Does this mean everyone else has the same problem, and we are all pretending? Horrid thought.
The Anverlee Manor property had its own temple, a large round building separated from the manor by a few dozen yards of lawn, with a wide covered pathway between the two. A sizable number of Striker relations had gathered at the manor for the evening: Nik, his parents, his two sisters, their husbands, their children (six between them), Lord Striker’s younger brother and his wife and their two youngest children. All of them were dressed in their Sunday finest: tailored suits of conservative cuts and jabots for the men, modest wide-skirted dresses in solid pastel colors for the women. Temple was one of the few occasions where everyone, not just the Blessed, wore gloves: lace for women and solid fabric for men. Both genders wore traditional jewelry: brooches or lapel pins, rings, bracelets, gold circlets on the brow of the Count and his Countess. Temple attire was less flamboyant in color and shine and more conservative in cut and fabric than the fanciful creations the nobility sported at formal balls, but it was no less cultured for that. Lord and Lady Striker were at the head of the procession from manor to temple, magnificent in ancestral jewels and embroidered clothing. The rest of the party followed in strict order of precedence; as usual, Nik looked sober and unadorned in contrast with his parents, suit with self-covered buttons instead of gold, fabric a common ivywool blend instead of one of the more recent and expensive creations of those Blessed for plants, his only jewelry a plain gold lapel pin of a monogrammed ‘F’. Daphne and her husband, a marine captain, brought up the rear of the gentleborn with their son in his mother’s arms. Behind them followed a small army of servants, both Anverlee’s own and those of their guests, in some cases with their own spouses and children. They were also in order of precedence, which meant that Anthser as the sole warcat led the section. Then came Mr. Bronson, the Anverlee head butler, and Mrs. Goslin, the Anverlee chief of staff, followed by Mrs. Linden as Fireholt’s chief of staff, then the Anverlee greatcats, and so on down to the scullery maids.
The temple facade was white stone polished smooth. Inside, the floor was likewise stone, but the rest of the interior was all sculptured wood, intertwined in shades from light blond to mahogany, carved in fanciful relief designs and elaborate cutouts layered over the windows. The Lord and Lady Striker had massive wooden chairs with velvet-cushioned seats and armrests. These were placed directly before the Speaking Circle, a ring of open floor some thirty feet across, with an ornate chest of iron-bound wood at the center today. Arranged to either side of these throne-like edifices were comfortable padded benches for the rest of the family members, surrounding the Speaking Circle but leaving wide gaps for aisles at each of the compass points. Behind those were plain wooden benches for the servants, apart from one section of raised platform at the back, where the greatcats sat. Nik took his place at the right hand of his father and waited patiently as the servants filed in and took their places behind the gentility.
When the last servant had taken her place at the back, there were few seats left in the temple. More guests still would be arriving next week; on the following Sunday, most of the plain benches would have to be removed so there’d be enough space for all the servants, though they’d have to stand.
Lady Striker rose from her seat to enter the Speaker’s Circle and begin the service. Traditionally, temple services were led by a titled noble, although most denominations now permitted any member of the gentry to do so. At Anverlee, family members had always taken turns. Lady Striker took more than her share, having more aptitude for it than any of her relations, and Nik took far less than his because he hated leading services. Because of his Blessing, people often looked upon him as some kind of theological expert, and he was uncomfortable with that role. He loved the Savior – he didn’t see how it was possible not to – but did not feel as though he had any profound insights on the divine. Nik wasn’t sure his mother had any either, but no one expected her to be a better temple leader than any other noble.
Now Lady Striker raised her arms, clad in pale yellow overlaid with white lace and made resplendent with jeweled bracelets and rings. “My family, my friends, my guests and my people of Anverlee and of Paradise, Savior give you welcome to his temple in this, the Paradise he has given to us his people.”
At the invocation, the Savior’s presence filled Nik’s senses with a golden warmth and light similar to when he healed minds, but different without that necessity: merely present, loving. Welcoming. “Thank you, O Savior,” he said in chorus with seventy-odd other voices, young and old, just as he’d said at hundreds of services before. It was rote, automatic, and no less heartfelt for that.
The Lady Striker lowered her arms and spoke in a clear, carrying voice as she turned in the circle to address the whole of her audience. “Let us reflect today on the Saints, the first-Blessed that the Savior gave unto his people.
“Nine centuries ago, our forefathers lived in the Abandoned World. The deadlands: a world without sun or stars, a world of eternal winter, harsher and colder than any winter Newlant has ever known. A world buried in snow, where plants did not grow and animals perished.” This story was familiar enough that Nik could have recited it himself, and had in years past. As a child, he’d questioned it. If there weren’t any plants or animals, what did people eat? If there was no sun, how could the Abandoned World have any warmth at all? Did they light a lot of fires? What did they burn if there weren’t any plants or trees? As an adult, he’d decided the story wasn’t meant to be taken literally. “It was a world ridden by demons.”
If you took it literally, it didn’t need demons to be terrifying. The Lady Striker beckoned to the boys in the audience – both noble and servant, of ages from eight or so to thirteen or fourteen, and including the nine year-old greatkitten son of their draycat Gunther. They swarmed from their seats to pile into the Speaking Circle. There was an inevitable amount of shoving and some squealing and shushing as they opened the chest in the center and seized demon masks and handfuls of black ribbons from inside. Meanwhile, the Lady Striker continued to narrate, loud enough to override their hushed scrabbling: “Humans – for in the Abandoned World, there were no greatcats – had no defense against the monsters that walked among them, striking down whomever they chose, maiming and slaying.” Now clad in demon-masks, the boys spread out from the circle, ‘assaulting’ the audience with black ribbons. No boy had ever dared beribbon Lord Striker, but today Lysandra’s grinning son Adamos headed straight for Nik. “I’m striking you blind!” the boy said in a loud whisper, while Nik cringed down in mock fear. Adamos tied a black ribbon around Nik’s eyes. While Nik held his hands out before him and turned his head this way and that in confusion, Adamos chose his mother for his next victim. His sisters were off-limits, which Nik knew from experience was a hardship. All around the assembly, adults pretended to be stricken as giggling boys tied black ribbons onto them.
“Even after the Savior led our people through Ascension and brought us to this Paradise where light, warmth, and beauty are so abundant, the demons and their afflictions remained among us. They hid in the hearts and minds of unwitting men who carried them here.” Some denominations quarrelled with that last, contending instead that demons had been smuggled intentionally by the traitorous humans Enson and Viar, or that demons had disguised themselves as men and followers of the Savior and tricked the Savior into Ascending them. “Seeing the suffering of his people, the Savior was moved to aid us further. He chose thirty-one of the Ascended to be Blessed as Saints. He gifted them with the power to cast out demons from mind or body, or to shape stone that they might create shelters against wind and rain for the people, or to shape plants that they might grow food for the hungry.”
A furry paw landed on Nik’s knee while another touched his face, and he dropped his arms to wait as an adolescent greatkitten perhaps half Anthser’s size worked the ribbon out of his eyes. “I’ll heal you, my lord,” she promised. After she’d pushed it up and out of his eyes, he could see his ersatz saint was Meredith, Gunther’s calico daughter. A wide circle of shimmering iridescent white satin was tied by a ribbon beneath her chin to form a crooked halo. She spread her whiskers in a smile and dropped to all fours.
“Thank you, Blessed,” he told her solemnly, and fished in his pocket: he had a couple of chocolates laid aside for the possibility, but those would not suit a greatkitten. He produced a silver half-mark instead and presented it to her: “A gift for a Gift.” With a nod just as solemn, she accepted the gift and tucked it into a pouch on her harness, before padding away to help another ‘victim’.
The Lady Striker was continuing, still pacing in slow circles to address each segment of her audience. “The Savior had work yet to do outside of Paradise: he Passed back to the Abandoned World, that he might help those who had been unable to Ascend with our ancestors. But a part of him remained with the Ascended, inside the persons of the Thirty-One Saints. Through them, he helped our ancestors still. And later, through their children, and the children of their children, and so on for all the centuries to follow.
“But as great as his Blessings are, and as magnificent as the Paradise he shared with us is, the Savior did not give us perfection. It is up to us – each of us, from the lowest servant to the highest lord, from the most unskilled child to the most potent Blessed—” the Lady Striker paused on that word, eyes on her son, and Nik wished she hadn’t “—to make of this world a more perfect Paradise. To honor the gifts of the Blessed with gifts of our own. To never forget all that we have been given, and all the ways that we may repay it.”
“Thank you, O Savior,” the assembly responded in chorus.
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