It began as a trickle, a hint of moisture between his lips and the rockface. Within moments pure, clean water surged from the fissure, defiantly out-of-place in the desolate surroundings. The murmurs upon Niallan and Lucina's lips attested to his Lady's splendour on this, Her holy day - plain for all to see and ever more available to him. He marvelled that he had invoked such wonderment, that it was given unto him to draw closer and partake of the merest bit of Her power. It struck him in the core of his being and risked blowing him away if he let it:-
"I am larger," he mouthed to the sky, "better than I thought. I did not know I held such goodness."
Lucina rose from the pool - pink and gleaming, water cascading along her dark hair over her shoulders and in rivers down her back. The day's heat was already building, ready to hang, sultry, in the air and would render the young noblewoman dry in no time. As Cyclerdikus' eyes roved across her form his thoughts strayed to salt and the sea and its foam upon the shore - recalling an elaborate fresco in one of the more elaborate villas of the Thyatian capital.
Her eyes met his and they exchanged warm, unspoken sentiment for several moments. The next she placed a comb and several pins within his palm - precious items from the place which had served as her home. She seated herself and the cleric began sectioning the forward half of her hair into six parts, each to be curled into a precise ringlet. Tradition dictated that a rusted iron implement should be used for the task; regrettably all their companions kept their weapons in excellent condition, making rust as limited a commodity as fresh flowers in their present surroundings, accordingly the comb would have to suffice.
His thoughts strayed to Lucina's father. It wasn't that Cyclerdikus wished him ill, or that whatever anguish and embarrassment had entered his life didn't matter. They were inconveniences, little more, when weighed against more pertinent considerations. The Admiral had brought misfortune upon himself by attempting to force his will upon another. One whom he was meant to love. One who had the wit and strength of will to resist him.
"Would that I could offer you a cathedral, my dear," he found himself expressing regretfully, imagining how differently the day might have proceeded under different circumstances. "Bowers of immaculate blossoms heaped high, voices rising in song, blending in exquisite harmony."
"I had all that the last time," was the blunt, detached response, the early light of day enveloping her in its warmth. "I recall the Temple's vaulted ceiling, staring at it, thinking the space so immense… yet all the same I was being ushered into a cage."
"A cage from which you have been freed. What we do now will underline that even more."
Despite all her doubt and worry, Lucina managed a nod. "I do not know where this path is leading me. Even so - I am with him. That is what matters. For that I am thankful, and I am content."
Cyclerdikus leaned close. "Have faith - all goes onward and this day is a new beginning. My Lady continues to watch over you, as do all of us here. You will find your true happiness."
He had been absent from the group for close to an hour before dawn. As the time pressed on he had wondered whether his search might have been hopeless but was delighted when his heightened senses guided him to an inconspicuous spot behind a boulder. There, sheltering within a shallow recess he found what he was seeking, returning triumphant to the group with a length of vine interspersed with green feather-like fronds and, if one were to examine closely, the tiniest lilac buds. They were barely more than pinpricks yet, as the distance to the Dead Place lessened, they might have been a tremendous riot of colour.
"Tamarisk," Fasal had spoken flatly, identifying the plant when he saw it in the cleric's arms.
Cyclerdikus nodded, visualising tendril-like fingers probing dozens of feet into the ground in search of the tiniest drops of water. "My friend - tonight's full moon holds significance for us both, I know. I do not seek to detract from your observances but I would be pleased if you could join us for our ceremony."
"No. Food shall not pass my lips while the sun burns on this holy day. I shall bear witness to your ceremony, but shall not break my fast. For me, friend, this day is about duty and order. While the Immortal Guardians' love for us is abundant, they expect us to do our duty first and foremost, for is it not written in the Nahmeh that Al Kalim foresake love for duty, and in so doing set our nation on its true path? Duty above all." Fasal's gaze broke away to study the horizon, his brow furrowed. "Duty… above all."
His tone was standoffish, uncompromising somehow. It seemed peculiar and unlike him.
Cyclerdikus' mouth had opened and closed silently. Friend. There had been an odd quality, a look in the man's eyes when he spoke that word. A weight, a reproachful edge. Whilst Cyclerdikus had been in the company of many a True Believer, he had judged Fasal more open-minded than others. He had thought perhaps, with time, Fasal might identify that he and Cyclerdikus were not entirely opposed in matters of faith - that they shared a desire to improve the lot of their fellow man.
The cleric finished his work silently, Lucina's hand finding its way into his own more than once seeking calm reassurance. There were no more words to be spoken. They might have discussed the nature of bravery, expressed hope for the days and weeks ahead, or reflected on the recent tests which they had endured, though they did not.
He placed the flammeum upon her head, a scarf of his own embroidered with petals and thorns in muted hues of silken thread, before crowning her with the floral wreath. To follow he daubed her neck, chest and arms with perfume from a vial he carried. "That," he declared, "is the best we can manage. You are a bloom of Her garden, my dear. Let us take our places."
He took her hand and escorted her to where the others waited. The entrance to the gorge lay just a short distance from where the group had camped the previous night, and offered an enclosed space with just enough shade from the sun as it began its ascent to blaze ever higher overhead.
Antonius had offered to give the bride away and advanced, grinning, offering his arm. Lucina took it. As ever, Conor stood close by. His fellow Hinterlander, the groom, had positioned himself a short way into the chasm in readiness and was visibly tense. Karnus and Fasal stood some way back but gathered in as Antonius and the bride approached.
In the clean light of a new day Cyclerdikus addressed the congregation, few as they were:-
"Marriage," he beamed, "is an institution of the heart. A declaration of devotion, a recognition that the Soul need not be lonely in this unfeeling world. Love, possessing splendours beyond telling, is what binds us in this Life. Niallan and Lucina have declared the depth of their feelings for one another and in the presence of us all intend to…"
Fasal took a step forward, clearing his throat as he did. "I should be pleased to speak a few words," he ventured in his own tongue.
Niallan and Lucina exchanged confused glances, unsure why the ceremony had been interrupted and not following the words spoken in Alaysian.
"Wonderful," said Cyclerdikus, managing to conceal his apprehension. "Fasal is to deliver a blessing. Pray proceed, friend."
"I will speak the words of my Prophet," said Fasal, "which I know to be truthful…"
The day was not yet excessively warm; all the same Cyclerdikus felt sweat beading on his forehead. Fasal was far from a heartless man, he knew, but misguided. Less so than most followers of the Eternal Truth, certainly, but still… their faith was much too rigid to provide a useful outlook on the world, least of all on this day of all days.
"I take this moment to remind you of the proper order of things," Fasal spoke softly, not unsympathetically, in the language which only he and the priest shared. "The importance of obeying one’s parents and the Law, no matter what the heart might feel. The lady has already taken solemn vows. Legally, therefore, she cannot be re-married."
"Thank you, Fasal, for your heartfelt words." Cyclerdikus kept an even tone and returned his attention to the pair of lovers, addressing them in Imperial Thyatian. "The Laws of Men may be motivated by noble intent," he said with determination and earnest belief, "but equally by the desire to impose structure for structure's sake. A solemn contract, a piece of parchment imposing terms and conditions, is a petty, empty thing when contrasted with the heart and with the Soul which is everlasting. The efflux of the Soul is happiness: it pervades the open air, waiting always to flow into us. I say we should open ourselves and embrace what we know to be true, here," he placed his hand upon his chest, "in our hearts."
He bid the lovers face one another. Taking their right hands, he produced a length of cord adorned with more than a dozen gleaming beads. Each had been artfully crafted in hues of every colour imaginable, which lustred as they captured the sun's slanting rays. Using the cord, he bound their hands together.
"Give one another your hand," he murmured. "Give one another your love more precious than money, give one another your self before preaching or law. Dismiss whatever insults your Soul and embrace what you know to be true." He paused before continuing. "In the presence of these witnesses and of Valerias whose day this is, Lucina - will you take Niallan as your one true love, to adore him, to hold him in your heart for as long as you both live?"
Lucina considered the man who had been her slave and her companion for as long as she could remember. She might have recalled the path which had led them here - everything she had relinquished and the many harrowing trials they had faced through their desire to be together.
"In Valerias' name," she answered quietly, "yes - I will."
Cyclerdikus gave a nod of approval, barely noticeable, before turning to Niallan. "And you Niallan - before these witnesses and Valerias who knows all that dwells in men's hearts – will you care for Lucina above all others, defend her always, and keep only her in your heart for as long as you both live?"
Without hesitation Niallan nodded in response. "Yes," was the hoarse answer.
"Then," Cyclerdikus spoke with exuberance, "by the power vested in me - with gladness I declare you man and wife, two become one, blessed this very day by Valerias Herself. Praise Her holy name and blessed be! Go freely into the world together - healthy and free, all possibilities before you."
Niallan leaned in, with just a little hesitancy, to kiss Lucina and the slow clap began with Karnus.
Leaving the newlyweds in the company of their other well-wishers, Cyclerdikus bided his time and approached Karnus for a quiet word, having observed the wizard scowl more than once and give the impression that he was considering kicking a rock from his path, though he did not.
"Some part of today does not sit well with you." It was not a question.
The wizard held his companion's gaze for a second. "Do you think love awaits us all, Cyclerdikus?" Without waiting for an answer he continued: "I thought I had found love once, in the form of a member of your order. I was wrong. I found instead weakness, an invitation for pain to enter my heart. I will not make that mistake again. Have your wedding; give them what their hearts desire, I wish them nothing but the best. But I fear for their future, with the eye of your Patron upon them, for Valerias is fickle with her pawns. Let us hope her blessing does not turn into a curse… this time."
For as long as they had journeyed together there had been distance between them, a deliberate detachment on Karnus' part. Now, the wizard offered a rare insight into his innermost feelings. Cyclerdikus found himself savouring the moment.
"Love. Pain." The cleric's voice was little more than a whisper. "Some in my order say they are one and the same, or that only a thin divide exists between them. But this much is true - when you were with her - you knew you were alive. The longing, the loss and the loneliness which followed - they all reminded you that Life had meaning. Want to feel nothing? Garb yourself in black and follow Thanatos. Do not harden your heart too much, my lord wizard. Many will never know love at all -" it seemed he might have said more on the subject "- and their lives will be all the poorer for it. I know not what path my Queen has chosen for our pair but I do know this - Her will is ineffable, and I will serve Her all the rest of my days."
The two men took several moments to regard one another... it seemed perhaps they might have grown to understand each other. Or perhaps they had just begun.
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