The new Conversant struck a bell that rang into session a ceremony, the first of its kind. He was a stocky, balding man with small, shrewd but strangely distant eyes and a slight pucker to every feature. Yesterday, as throughout the long process thus far, he had worn a simple black suit, common for the middlemost class of commoners: today he came draped in antiquarian robes that enough of the audience found offputting that a murmur prevailed over the first words he spoke after ringing the bell.
“…sweep aside the nobility,” were his first audible words. “because they were an affront to God.”
Applause: no one disagreed, of the crowd gathered in what had been an Earl’s personal amphitheater but was now a prayer site. The audience threw flower petals and blew in whistles. The statues at the corners of the dais in its center, their faces chiseled off because they represented former lords, were painted with graffiti and pocked with shrapnel from cannon shot.
“The Lord has given me the command,” the Conversant quieted the crowd. “to replace them with a true noble class, one with a true claim, not one acquired by worldly misdeeds, wheeling and dealing.”
This was not met with as much adulation. Some of the people in the stands, former paupers and slaves all, had known of this part of the new arrangement, others had not. Of those learning of it for the first time, a fair number sank in their seats, or waited with lumps in their throats, or even called out in protest.
A procession of men marched on to the dais from the closest seats to it, knelt facing the audience. Guards, whom nobody had noticed before, kept watch over the rows of faces in the stands, discouraging anything more than a displeased look. The Conversant covered his mouth and held a hand to heaven, speaking, as was his title, with God. He closed one hand into a gentle fist. Everyone present could see what power that hand held.
He placed that hand on the head of the first of the kneeling men and closed his eyes.
“This is Walfor of the Beyond-the-walls Clan. I detect that his family originates long ago: it was sired, ultimately, by the rock of the cliffs that face the western ocean. This is a righteous claim. I dub the Beyond-the-walls Clan the House of Cliffstone and grant it rule over all territory within four days’ walk of the cairns above those cliffs.”
The crowd was uneasy. Many had fought to destroy the avaricious, slave-holding nobles, not to replace them. It seemed, however, that there was nothing to be done.
The second man: “This is Horic of the Rivers Clan. This is an old family, but I detect that it has always sprung of man, not of God’s earth. Therefore it has no claim, and will have no title.”
Horic of the Rivers Clan’s shoulders sagged perceptibly, but he did not otherwise react. This was, apparently, a sacred ceremony.
Of the thirty kneeling before him, the Conversant found earthly origins in twelve. Including one family, which had apparently sprung originally from the waters of the river called the Kingwater, and so was given the lands of the Rivers Clan. Of the remaining eighteen, only one contested the declaration of his family’s unholiness, and the Conversant excommunicated him and all his clan then and there. There was a pall among the audience.
The Conversant declared the twelve scions remaining now the first dukes of the New Christendom. In three months’ time, he declared, the ceremony would be repeated, he would test another thirty clans. He himself, the holiest of mortal men, would rule over all lands not yet divided amongst the new nobility.
None of this sat well with Sulis of the South-of-the-old-reservoir Clan. This was not the way Jold of the Western Forest Clan had talked prior to the overthrow of the nobles. He has never been the most virulent, the most outspoken in any way, but he had never hinted that he might make such a move. The agreement had been that the common class was to rule itself. No factions, no requirement of official membership to a revolutionary party, none of the trappings that had brought the downfall of every previous attempt to undo the corrupt order in this land.
In fact, Jold had protested strongly at the plan to oust the previous Conversant, even though that man had been the greatest threat. It occurred to Sulis now, that maybe that was why.
He went after the man.
Jold went directly to the church from the ceremony, his bodyguards fighting off a crowd of supplicants. Sulis, one of the forefathers of the revolution, but the one who had insisted on being given no title, no special recognition, was both close to the Conversant and a well-known face. He accepted some little notoriety right now, that allowed him to pass the guards at the church door with only a stern glare.
The church had been closed, to the consternation of the populace, until a new clerical staff could be put in place and catechism established that eschewed the teachings forced into it by the aristocracy. Or so had Jold declared. Sulis was not sure of the purpose for the closing anymore. When he entered the near-empty building, its silence was massive. It made his ears ring with the echoes of sounds that were not being made.
Sulis thought to look for Jold at the altar or maybe the tower, but he stopped when he passed the confessional. Aware of the sacrilege he was committing, he approached it, and strained his ears to listen. Jold was in there. Speaking in a hushed tone, too low for Sulis to hear.
“Jold!” Sulis called angrily.
He was not prepared for the reddish glow that shone for just a moment from the center compartment before fading. He took a step back from it. The Conversant appeared, not from the center, but from one of the penitents’ compartments, chin high and brow creased. He raised a hand to point an accusing finger.
“Sulis South-of-the-old-reservoir,” he snarled. “You would intrude here, on the most sacred ground?”
“Sacred nothing. This was the seat of our revolution, the center of a new and fair world, now you use it to divvy up the land just as it was before. Is it the Lord’s will? Though you declared before that it was not?”
“There are forces you cannot comprehend at play” the Conversant turned away. “Contingencies you cannot imagine.”
“My clan was born of the fire in the mountains. It is as old and as born of the earth as any, if not older.”
“Then you may be named a noble house in three months.”
“No, we will not. We must not. No family may be raised above any other. No man above any other.”
“Then refuse! Let your fellows decide if they agree.”
“You can’t undo what you’ve done, Jold. But you can soften it, make it less counter to the revolution. Ban the practice of fealty. Apply law to the houses you’ve created. Let them administrate without exploiting and abusing.”
Jold’s posture and voice were strained. He leaned with one fist on the corner of the confessional.
“You don’t understand. You cannot.”
Sulis took a step closer.
“What was that light?” he demanded. “Was that who informs you of these contingencies? These forces?”
Jold turned and caught Sulis’s wrist.
“You must not look,” he said. “She is not – you cannot understand her.”
Sulis pulled away and regarded his old friend with worry. Jold’s hand was firm, his face was stolid, but somewhere within him the older man trembled. Nonetheless, he opened the door to the confessional’s center compartment.
It was empty now. Whoever had sat just moments ago on the cushioned bench inside had somehow departed. But Sulis still detected a presence. The unmistakable warmth of a body recently occupying the space.
“She has departed, you fool,” Jold said. “I cannot know when she will return now. We cannot operate without her.”
Sulis turned to face him. The knife was a tight pinch under his ribs for long seconds before it became a pain that burned his torso and limbs like a barrel of hot pitch poured from a castle wall. He dropped to the floor. Above him, Jold held a bloodied knife in one hand, the folds of his robes in the other. His face was sad.
There was someone else there, too. Someone narrow, tall, different. She looked down on Sulis as death crept out from his center to encompass him. She did not have the eyes, nor the face at all of a human, but Sulis was too weak to perceive her. He reached one hand to her nonetheless, because her beauty was so great he could think of nothing else in his last moments but a desire to touch her, to do whatever she asked.
Jold did not see her. She flashed again, a swell of red light, and was gone.