Truth be told, it was not all that dark in the Cathedral. Morning light entered through the stained glass. There were candles burning in sconces on the walls and on the ten enormous blue pillars that stretched the gap between the curved ceiling and the huge slabs of blue marble that made up the floors. Most of the floor was covered with a criss-cross of gold-edged crimson runners and three separate rows of pews that stretched back to the dais, pews that could sit around fifty men each.
Pews that were mercifully almost bare.
Thor’s Day morning services were not exactly the most well-attended of the week, a fact that had not been lost on me. My father may have been “proud” that his second-born was to enter the Order, but that did not mean he meant to publicly rejoice in the fact. My very existence was an embarrassment for the man, no matter what lies he might tell me to coax me into doing his will. A terrible knight certainly sounded better than a terrible squire
Seated in the first couple of rows of pews were maybe a few dozen or so knights and squires, a smattering of my brothers-in-arms who laughed every time I whiffed a blow or landed on my ass when I tried to mount a horse. These were the people that refused to sit with me during meals and would make “jokes.” Like leaving a box of beetles under the sheets at the foot of my bed or pissing in my mug before handing me ale. I had not broken bread with these sons-of-bitches for four years, having long since given over to taking my meals in darkened corners of the training grounds rather than in the din of the mess hall.
Then I spotted her. Marissa Rice. The love of my short and unremarkable life. Well, the unrequited love, anyway. Her father, Commander William Rice, was one of my father’s lieutenants. He was a cruel taskmaster, much detested by me and every other man under his command. In this, at least, I had some support. The other squires all whispered his name with curses on their breath. His daughter, though, she was unlike him in every way. She was a vision of beauty. Her nose stood out from her face in perfect harmony with her cheeks, and her small mouth seemed to resonate with unexpressed secrets. Her hair was golden-brown wisps of pulled taffy, wisps that spun themselves into a flowing tapestry that ran down her neck and shoulders.
Marissa’s beauty was not just physical. She had grace and poise that made me believe she may have better been suited to life in the heavens than here on earth. Kind to me, she was a rarity in the cold misery of this world. When I reddened as I spoke to her, she never once smiled in mockery. When I lost my words, which was often around her, she patiently waited for me to find them. She asked me questions and seemed interested in my answers.
Sometimes, when I looked at her, goose flesh cascaded down my neck and blossomed on my back.
Thank the Christ-man for my brother’s kindness! I had not the slightest whiff of an inkling of a notion that this woman would be present for the utter joke that was about to take place. I was prepared to show up in ill-fitting clothes and stinking of shit. It was less out of clear filth-soaked necessity and more out of hatred for my fellows. If I had really wanted to, I could have found the proper clothing on my own, before my brother’s intervention. But I had wanted to play the part, to be the complete fuck up of a son and a squire. My father deserved it, the withering cold bastard. My brother, the golden cock, he deserved it. The slack-jawed squires and cruel knights that were to witness the spectacle: they deserved it, too.
But, Marissa did not deserve it.
I didn’t really desire to jeopardize my relationship with that creature out of spite for my family and comrades-in-arms. If I am honest with myself about my intentions back then, I was less worried about Marissa’s true feelings than what it might have done to my chances of getting her into the marriage bed. She was incomprehensibly beautiful. My eyes and loins dripped with lust at the mere thought of picking that sweet fruit.
Ha! It was an idea that was as insane as the like of which that rattled around in the skulls of the wretches living in the sanitarium up on Meadow Hill! She would never agree to marry me, much less fuck me. Marissa was as devout as any of my female counterparts, the feminine failures at life who took the nun’s habit out of desperation when no man found her fit for marriage or for bedding. At least the latter type could find work at establishments like the Green Dragon.
I have already listed my faults with varying degrees of repetition, but here they are again: gluttonous, bad at fighting, cowardly, deceptive, lazy, lustful. Nearly every single activity that crucified bastard up on the wall at the head of the Church preached for or against, I dutifully avoided or gleefully gave my full participation.
And why not? It was all rot, anyway. The Christ-man telling me to love my fellow man… I would not do that if my fellow man did not love me first. And it was abundantly clear that he did not. So I would do my drinking and whoring and lying, to hell with the Christ-man. He was only a superstition kept alive by lascivious old priests with a taste for boy flesh and the ignorant idiots that chose to believe in pleasant lies, rather than the harsh truths of the reality that surrounded them.
It was with these dark thoughts that I approached the dais. My brother took his leave from my side and sat down with my father, who was glaring at me. I fought back the smile that rose to my lips. That would be a step ‘too far.’ This was a ‘serious occasion.’ I could not bring myself to look at Marissa. Even now, decently dressed, I felt a burning in my cheeks and chest at the idea of even meeting her gaze. Instead, I chose to keep my eyes fixed ahead. Next to the ornate wooden pulpit, Bishop Charles Rhinestaff was staring daggers at me as well. I stopped in the middle of the aisle, as though I were frozen.
“Squire Cardiff, how good of you to join us.”
Despite his words, it was clear that the Bishop did not think that my presence was a good thing.
The piercing ring from the belfry that sounded next shocked me so much that I nearly exited my flesh through my skull. With the remnants of last night’s drink upon me, I staggered. I heard laughs from all around me. Apparently the people in the pews were amused by my surprise. My chest tightened and my face reddened. Those fucks.
“Ah, there is the half past the hour bell. And here we are for the 11 o’clock induction ceremony.” Disgust seethed in the Bishop’s voice. I fought back a smile.
“Sir Peter, if we may?”
I heard a yawning of wood from the pew and the shuffle of boots as my father came up to join us on the dais. He took his place next to the bishop. The two of them looked quite the pair, my father in his full knightly dress, adorned as befit the commander of one of the King’s most elite units of shock troops, and the bishop in his own opulent spiritual regalia. In a story book read to children, an image like this might be found on a page next to words describing how the cleric blessed the veteran knight as he set off to defeat a dragon.
Too bad this was not make-believe. All I saw was two tired and miserable old men whose cocks were about as likely to function as the holy water in the basin next to the bishop had the power to save a baby from a lifetime of hell. Or to bless one such as me with the good fortune of being a halfway decent knight.
I admit now with no reluctance to praying as I stood there, listening to the liturgy read by the priest and repeated by the congregation. At the time, if you had accused me of it, I would have denied it to the ends of the earth. I would have called into question your own beliefs, your prowess, your sexual preferences. I would have bubbled over with hate, but I would not have admitted to having said a few words of prayer as I stood in the magnificence of that Cathedral. I prayed for ability with the sword, I prayed for success with Marissa, I prayed for worldly fortune. Most of all, though, I prayed for protection from Liserian blade.
I was a coward first, after all.
“Now,” barked the priest, having finished droning on about the Christ-man and bread and fish, “Squire Cardiff, are you prepared to swear fealty to your King and to Holy Mother Church?”
I looked at the bishop’s face, at the contempt that lurked therein. The holy man’s hatred had not abated during the reading of the liturgy. I would have loved to offer him one of the choice epithet from my repertoire, the ones I reserved for the foolish faithful. Then I looked over at my father’s face. He was watching me intently, but there was no malice there. His brow was relaxed, his pupils were bigger than I was used to. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that gave me pause, but I recognize it for what it was now: pure love. I saw love in my father’s face and it stopped me from descending into the muck.
I was shamed.
“Yes,” I responded, lowering my eyes. “Yes, Bishop Rhinestaff. I swear fealty to my King and to the Holy Mother Church.”
A splash of the water on my head was the final useless bit of ceremony.