Sword Girls Chapter 7 – "Sinners and Saints"
"I'm looking for Luthica Preventer . . ."
The voice of the hooded figure rang out beneath the setting sun. Behind her two other, shorter figures stood, similarly hooded and robed.
"She's over there", the guard answered gruffly, gesturing to nowhere in particular. "At the site of the New Cathedral."
"And where, pray tell, is that?"
"Over *there*", the guard said emphatically, pointing as she raised her voice. "Right where the Old Cathedral USED TO BE !"
Pinot Noir's eyes went wide beneath her hood. Under any other circumstances, she'd have drawn her sword, and settled things then and there. But as a diplomat, she was required to turn the other cheek. Indeed, she was starting to wonder why she'd even brought her sword along at all, seeing as how she wasn't going to be permitted to use it for the entire trip.
"So that's how they do things in Crux . . ." she muttered under her breath, her supernaturally sensitive ears still ringing from the guard's rough reply. A giggle escaped from a nearby hood, letting her know that Sion and Rion were thoroughly enjoying her predicament. For their visit to the Cathedral site, Pinot had decided that they would each wear the traditional priest's robe, which would allow them to easily pass as wandering clerics, or a group of itinerant nuns on a pilgrimage. Sion in particular had been especially taken with the disguise, and paused to offer a hasty benediction before hurrying to join the others.
As the guard had so eloquently stated, the New Cathedral was being built on top of the same site where the Old Cathedral had once stood. Some of the original stonework was still standing – the west wall with its twin towers was still largely intact, and on the north side a line of columns and arches showed what had been the northern aisle arcade. These were being incorporated as much as possible into the new structure. Where that was not feasible, the workmen were busy disassembling them so that the old stones could be salvaged and built into the new walls.
All around them was a swirl of hammering, banging, and chiseling, intermingled with various shouts and instructions, as the workmen hauled carts or climbed scaffolds, mixing mortar and shaping stones. A very aggressive schedule had been set that the New Cathedral should be completed within ten years – no small feat considering that the old one had taken a hundred. It was impressive to watch the way the various tasks were being coordinated together, and it had taken considerable planning and orchestration to accomplish, but the general effect was that it gave Pinot a headache.
"Luthica Preventer!" she called, shouting to be heard over the din of construction all around them.
The construction foreman looked at their papers, then at Pinot, Sion, and Rion. They were standing in what had been the nave, the western arm of the Church, reserved for the laity – and for hellions such as themselves. The foreman studied the letter Pinot handed her, regarding the three hooded figures dubiously, but all was in order, so she took her scroll and pointed to the east, then waved them through.
"But ma'am –" she called after them in a vain attempt to offer them hard hats, but Pinot dismissed her with a wave.
"Bless you my child", Sion said, laying her hands on her for a moment, before giggling and running to join the others again.
They made their way to the east end of the west hall, where the transepts – the northern and southern arms of the Cathedral – bisected the main body of the building at right angles, for it was a peculiar trait of the Churches in Crux that their floor plans were almost invariably laid out in the shape of a cross.
Here in the middle of the crossing, where the four arms came together, a magnificent tower had once stood, crowned with a lantern of skylights on top to bring illumination into the halls below. This had come crashing down spectacularly during the fire, and much of the debris had yet to be cleared away. At that time there was only a narrow path on the south side, winding between the inner wall and the ruin of the collapsed spire. Here they made their way across, into the Choir and the Sanctuary beyond.
Security for the site was provided by the Knights, while the job of overseeing the new construction had been placed in the hands of a Master Mason, but the overall administration for the project actually belonged to the Seekers. The fire which had destroyed the Old Cathedral was a tragedy, to be sure, but it also presented a tremendous opportunity. Many of the newer Churches had been built in the last fifty years, but some of the older ones, the basilicas, dated back for centuries. Often when these were dedicated there would have been elaborate rituals and ceremonies of consecration, with various artifacts and relics being built into the walls or foundations, and sometimes even the inclusion of a prominent Bishop's tomb.
Excavation under normal circumstances would have been unthinkable, and so research was limited to the occasional maintenance project or chance discovery. But with the wave of new construction, every inch of the Cathedral and its grounds were to be dug up. To this end the Seekers had set up a tent to the right of the altar, just outside the old wall, to house everything that was found until it could be properly archived and cataloged. It was here that Pinot, Sion, and Rion went.
"Luthica Preventer!" Pinot called, in what by now was becoming a ritual in itself, and produced their papers for inspection.
The young girl with dusty shorts and a pickaxe over her shoulder looked at them curiously for a moment before answering.
"She's down there!" she shouted, pointing to a set of stairs behind the altar which led down, directly into the ground.
Pinot regarded them dubiously.
"The Old Cathedral was built on top of another, even older Church that was there before it", the girl explained, taking advantage of a momentary lull in the hammering and banging to lower her voice. "Rather than tear it down, the architects sealed it off, and built the new Church on top of it. The Seekers have set up a makeshift Chapel with what they could save from the Old Cathedral before it burned. You'll find Luthica there."
Pinot went over to the stairwell, and looked down into the blackness.
"What's the matter, scared?" Sion asked, taunting her.
Pinot gave her a look. She was old – almost old enough to be an Elder herself. But Elders only lived long enough to become Elders by taking certain precautions. As a denizen of the night, she found the beckoning dark inviting, but she'd lived long enough to know the value of taking a second look.
The stairs led down to a small landing, which formed a sort of underground porch. The elevation of the floor changed slightly in the middle of the hall, and as she set foot on it, Pinot knew at once that she was now in the oldest part of the building. Sion and Rion ran giggling past, but she stopped short for a moment, savoring the atmosphere as the air around her took on a decided change, perfumed with the incense of bygone centuries.
Up ahead the tunnel made a slight curve around to the right. Sion and Rion had disappeared from view, and Pinot, being nervous about what sort of trouble they might get into on their own – not to mention what the Head Mistress would do to her if any harm befell them – decided she had better pursue them before they got too far ahead. She overtook them at the end of the hall, just short of the Chapel door, where they'd stopped and stood, mesmerized.
There blazed within a yellow light thrown from several lamps, hallowed and holy. The Chapel was set up very simply, with a long wooden table for an altar, on which was set the Holy Book of Crux, its pages open to a certain passage of some particular significance. Along with it were furnished golden vessels for the bread and wine peculiar to the Ceremony of the Cruxlanders' religion.
A portrait of the Last Supper hung on the wall, and various bits of stone and statuary were ranged about the room – whatever the Seekers had been able to save from the fire when the Old Cathedral burned.
Pinot regarded what at first appeared to be a solid block of wax, but on closer inspection she could see the watery lines of several golden arms as they traced their way through it. There were seven of them in all, three on each side of a central golden shaft, with seven wicks emerging from above. With dawning realization she saw that the whole thing was a single golden candlestick, frozen in a waterfall of white wax which hung down, broken here or there, but still largely intact. It was a work which must have taken decades, formed during countless hours of keeping watch and giving its light there beside the altar.
Pinot had never given much consideration to objects of veneration or holy relics, but she regarded it with a certain sense of grudging admiration. It was amazing that such a thing had survived the fire, and she wondered at the presence of mind of the Seminarian who'd chosen this, of all things, to carry out of the flames.
But the most amazing sight in all the room was Luthica herself. She was kneeling on the cold stone floor, sword in hand, her arms outstretched towards the altar in a gesture of offering. Beneath the blue and white folds of her Knight's jacket a full coat of armor could be seen. Motionless in the lamplight, she seemed to be a statue herself, or perhaps an Angel, sent on someearthly visitation. Pinot had the impression that even if she had taken a swipe at her exposed back, the blade of her sword would not have fallen, but some Holy force would have prevented it.
Sion and Rion had stopped short, sensing that this was something outside of their usual experience. Seeing Pinot emboldened them again, and they moved to perform some trick or act of mischief, but Pinot caught each of them by the shoulder, and held them back.
"Luthica Preventer", she called, thinking it time that she announced their presence.
At this, Luthica turned to face them, and the turning of her head was like a rolling wave, as each of the twin tails of her blue hair swept to either side of her face. The sound and the motion of them was like the wind, high up in the trees.
Her eyes were clear and blue, and in that moment devoid of any malice, which Pinot found quite off-putting in the face of a sworn enemy, so she decided to fall back on her role, which hated though it was, was convenient for the moment. Clasping her hands in front of her and bowing low, she said,
"I am the Scardel, Pinot Noir, and I am come as the Ambassador of the Great House Darklore, under the rule of the Head Mistress, the Lady Luna Flina."
Luthica regarded her for a moment, then withdrew her hands. Rising, she placed her sword back in its scabbard, then turned and bowed herself, returning Pinot's greeting.
"On behalf of Crux, I receive you as our honored guest . . ."
The carriage ride had been long and uneventful. Pinot, Sion, and Rion had travelled in a coach much like the one which had brought the messenger who summoned Iri. It was double black, with no markings from either house, and the windows were covered with curtains of heavy velvet, triple thick, to prevent any possibility of the admission of sunlight.
The whole interior was luxuriously appointed in red satin. As a Scardel, Pinot would have normally enjoyed such indulgence, but her responsibilities for this trip left little time to admire displays of excess.
Sion had chosen to pass the time reading, pouring over a dusty old tome by the scant light of a magically illuminated Talentium lamp – for even vampires can't see in total darkness – while Rion, showing a shocking disregard for the fact that it was still daylight, and that each beat of the horses' hooves carried them deeper into enemy territory – had fallen sound asleep.
So it was that Pinot was left alone with her thoughts, lulled by the sound of the carriage wheels as it swayed upon its springs, and punctuated by the occasional lash of the driver's whip, as she considered the events of the preceding days.
It had been the evening after the party to celebrate the recognition of the rightful successor to the title of Scardel Carmenere. It was still in the early part of the night, in what the Chenin call "portico" or "petite nuit", - later than the sunset, and just after "tasogare", the gloaming hour of perfumed incense, when the sky turns fully dark.
Mimosa was lounging face down by the pool, her orange hair sprawling across her back as she lazily dipped the toes of one foot in the water, while Viognier was busy organizing some sort of prank to be played on the members of the Crescent house, who not being used to late hours and wild parties were sleeping in particularly heavily following last night's festivities.
Luna was up, of course. As the Head Mistress of the Flina family, she had already taken breakfast, conducted two meetings, and was at the moment lounging in the parlor, having an informal discussion with Cabernet. Merlot, meanwhile, was busy tutoring the young Carmini, instructing her in the various rites and traditions of the Scardel house, while carefully shepherding her away from the likes of Viognier.
Pinot regarded her skeptically. With her mild skin and flowing hair, Merlot had a very soft appearance, devoid of any sharp edges. Pinot had always thought that she was too soft – and too gentle – to be a vampire, much less a Scardel. Carmini, however, was listening intently to her every word. She seemed to take very seriously the idea of being the next Scardel Carmenere.
It was in the midst of all these goings on that a strange visitor strode boldly into the midst of the hall. A silk scarf covered most of her blonde hair, and was tied off at her neck with a black ribbon marked with yellow polka dots. Her eyes were obscured by a pair of Moonban designer glasses, with lenses so dark a human wouldn't even have been able to see through them, and polarized for better vision at night.
In her hand she carried an old, hard sided leather suitcase, devoid of wheels or any other modern convenience. It was covered with stickers from places such as Paris, Sydney, and Napa, as well as other, lesser known locations like Auckland, Constantia, Santiago, and Mendoza. There were some that existed only in memory, while others now went by different names.
Reaching into her cloak, she took out a leather bound book of travel papers, and tossed it on the couch.
"Chardonnay!" two of the children cried. Leaving off playing with Viognier, they at once ran over to the sofa, and seizing the passport book, began going through it to look for new stamps.
"Puzzle! Maze!" Viognier called after them in a vain attempt to recapture their attention.
Chardonnay slipped off her dark glasses, carefully folding them before tucking them away into a little black case. With a tug of the scarf she drew it away, releasing her long golden hair. Looking around the room she took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, with a long sigh.
"It's good to be home."
The Scardel Chardonnay was seated in front of the mirror in her dressing room when Pinot Noir came to visit her. It was a magic mirror of course, made from a piece of glass whose back had been coated with a thin sheet of Talentium so that it would reflect her magic aura. In a regular mirror she wouldn't have cast any reflection at all. The effect wasn't perfect, but it was very close – certainly close enough for her current purpose.
She had the usual Scardel sense of modesty, which is to say, none at all. Her outfit for the evening consisted of a black velvet bodice, the body of which was nothing more than a series of ribbons which hung down to her waist, and a pair of black shorts made entirely out of lace. These, a pair of stockings, and a pair of shoulder length gloves made up the entirety of her ensemble, but in Scardel terms, she was completely dressed.
There was a certain softness to her, not the voluptuous generosity of Pinot Noir, but not the gentleness of Merlot, either. It seemed to settle into the shape of her hips as they curved around beneath her back, and pressed against the cushion of her dressing room chair. It was a sense of fullness, of being perfectly ripe. Whatever the circumstances of her making, her master had chosen the hour with all the precision of a Chenin, for she existed eternally in the sweet over-ripeness of the prime of life.
At the moment she was engaged in taking off her makeup. This must have been a holdover from her human life, or perhaps a dismal reminder of when her body had been prepared to be placed in the grave. Whatever the case, it was her peculiar habit that she always took her makeup off first thing in the evening, even though for years now this had actually been her morning, or what passed for it in the long and ageless nights which made up the days of her eternal life.
She would sit at the mirror in her boudoir and take off the makeup from the night before, and then stare at herself, for no real reason, for some minutes – for her face was changeless, and would not change, in spite of the passage of centuries. And then she would put her makeup on again, exactly as it had been before. She was in the middle of this nightly ritual when Pinot found her.
A glass was sitting on the table beside her, a wine glass by shape, though not by content. The yellowish liquid certainly didn't look like blood, for it had been "macerated", that is to say, all the red cells had been removed, so that only the white cells and the platelets remained. Each of the lines, both Scardel and Crescent, were unique, both in the part of the blood on which they fed, as well as the part on which the dark gift acted. While the Syrah and Cabernet had an affinity for hemoglobin, the "white lines" like Chenin and Chardonnay preferred other parts of the serum. The Pinot were somewhat unique, in that their line had an affinity for both, and could act upon either of them – though Pinot Noir herself liked to have the whole thing, unfiltered and otherwise untampered with.
"How was Burgundy?" she asked. Her voice was rich and full.
Chardonnay whirled at this sudden greeting from behind her. As members of the two great Burgundian bloodlines, it might be expected that she and Pinot would have some sort of rivalry between them, and they did, but theirs had always been of a friendly sort. For while they were both children of the night, their tastes and habits were quite different. They preferred different parts of the blood, from different donors, and they carried out different sorts of plans to very different ends. Moreover, they agreed in the matter of Champagne, and so there was very little grounds for dispute between them.
Chardonnay flashed a warm smile before returning to her mirror, where she began putting shadows over her eyes.
"Cold", she said, matter of factly. "It's so far north, the air's already getting chill. I think I've spent too much time in the tropics. I'm not used to it anymore – I'm getting flabby. But oh –" she said with a stretch, reaching both arms up over her head and clasping them together, "It WAS good to see Chablis again, even if it was only for a couple of days."
Pinot nodded her agreement. She had never been one for sentiment, but it occurred to her now that it had been a very long time since she had seen her ancestral home.
"I'm sorry I missed the party for Carmenere", Chardonnay said, rubbing foundation onto her cheeks as she resumed her work. "The posts were delayed, and I didn't receive the invitation until I was on my way back, but by then there was nothing I could do. Still, a new bloodline, how exiting . . ."
Pinot nodded again, as Chardonnay took up an eyeliner pencil.
"And . . .", she added coquettishly, drawing around each of her eyes, then pausing to inspect the result. "I hear you've had some exciting news of your own . . ."
"Yes, about that . . ."
Chardonnay slapped the pencil down on the table. She smiled at her friend's reticence, and even went so far as to permit herself a girlish giggle.
"You're too modest", she teased, taking up an ornate golden hairbrush. Her hair was long, and very pale, having only slightly more color than her ashen skin. She drew it to one side, and began to give it a very thorough going over.
'To be given such an important assignment – and by Mistress Luna herself – it really is an honor. I heard that she met with you personally?"
"Yes, well –"
"I must confess, I'm a tad bit jealous. But then again, to have so much responsibility – I'm not sure I could hold up –"
"Well, you see –"
"So when do you depart? I do hope we'll have some time before you go -"
Pinot clasped her hands together in front of her.
"Er, the thing is – I was rather wondering . . . if you might like to take it?"
Chardonnay paused in mid stroke, her arm trailing a line of golden strands out beside her in the air.
"You've been to so many places, and around so many different types of people . . ."
Chardonnay let her golden hair fall, then placed the brush back on the table again.
"The briefings I was given were all very short, and it's still some days before I'm to depart – there's plenty of time –"
Rising from her seat, Chardonnay caught both of Pinot's hands together, and held them in her own. Peering into her eyes, she gave her a look that bore nothing of the warmth of Napa, or the recent years of relaxed formalities with Steen and Shiraz in Sydney, but rather a cold, dagger like stare that assured, with only a glance, that she was still, after all these years, every bit the Queen of Chablis.
"If you couldn't go – or if you wouldn't – if you won't, if you truly won't . . . then I would go in your place."
Pinot tried to pull away, but Chardonnay held her fast.
"It would be an honor – a very great honor. Nothing like this has ever happened in our time. Oh, I won't imagine that I've lived long enough to say that it has NEVER happened. I don't pretend to know how the Elders think. But it's never happened in our lifetime. An assignment like this is something much to be desired – even coveted. But Luna asked *you* to go . . ."
Pinot looked away.
"She only picked me because Iri asked her to . . ."
"And Iri is you friend. No, this is something that *you* must do."
And with that, Chardonnay released her hands, then turned, and sat back down at her dressing table. Taking up several strands of her hair, she began plaiting them into a braid, which she put up on one side of her head. She studied the effect in the mirror, then, apparently satisfied, began giving the other side the same treatment.
" . . .I suppose you're right. But still – the least she could do is go with me!"
Chardonnay let out a golden laugh.
"No such luck! Iri is like a cat – she does what she wants, when she wants, and how she wants. She has her own rules, and she follows them, but it's beyond me to figure them out. And besides, if you think for one moment that you're going to go before the Head Mistress Luna and inform her that she has made a *mistake*, then I can assure you that neither Iri nor I will be willing to accompany you."
"I suppose not", Pinot said, this time laughing with her.
"Come on, let's go down and see if there's any of the after party left."
Luthica drew her sword and pointed it at the imagined enemy on the other side of the Training Grounds. The sun, though not well up, had risen enough by now to bring out the green color of the grass, and here and there to show the shape of its leaves. She had been awake all night, partly as a guard against mischief, and partly as a matter of pride in her duty as a hostess. She had decided early on that she would keep pace, and match the schedule of her guests. At no time if Pinot called on her would she be told that Luthica, the Knight of Crux, was sleeping.
The reception had gone well enough, though a bit stiff. After the greetings and formalities, Pinot, Sion and Rion had been shown to their rooms. Things seemed to be well under way, but as she got more into the details of the itinerary and schedule of events, Luthica found the whole matter almost too dreary to bear.
Back in her room, she'd laid down with her armor still on, like one of those sleeping stone effigies in the Cathedral crypts, destined to lie forever in eternal repose while their owners wasted away into dust in the stone boxes beneath. But her own sleep fled away from her.
"I wonder what they look like", Luthica thought, dropping her point with a slash, then surging forward in a vicious thrust. "My enemy . . ?"
She imagined Pinot, the blade of her long sword drawn and crossed with hers. Pressing in, she wound against it, wrenching her own sword up, beside her face.
She imagined Iri, her sharp mouth smiling beneath the line of low hanging spikes of her silver hair.
With a lunge, she thrust forward again, taking advantage of the unusual angle to stab down from above.
Jaina's face flickered up before her, framed by the waves of her smoldering red hair, stern and unreadable as ever – just as it had been when Jaina had taught her, and for all the long years of their friendship. And just as it had been that day when they placed the shackles on Luthica's wrists, amid the tearing sounds of the silver wings being ripped from her shoulders.
As Luthica watched, a tangible figure emerged from the hazy thoughts of her mind.
"Remy!" Luthica called, recognizing the Messenger Knight as she came puffing up the side of the hill.
But Remy showed no signs of stopping. Instead, she ran with such headlong desperation that Luthica had to hold her sword off to the side to keep from skewering her.
"Lady . . . Luthica . . ." she panted, falling to her knees.
A thousand fears filled Luthica's mind.
"What is it?" she asked, fighting to remain calm.
"You must . . . come at once . . ."
Luthica felt her heart being submerged in a pool of ice cold water. Remy's voice was coming to her from somewhere distant, above the surface. She tried to answer, but her own voice was thick, and clung in her throat.
"It's Sigma – she –"
"What's wrong with Sigma!?" Luthica shouted, finding her voice again.
Remy looked up at Luthica with tears in her eyes.