On a Thursday night in Harvestmonth, when the moon rises round and bronze as a new betrothal promise watch, is the warlike thrice-veiled Mother of Mákhesthaines, crowned in her black silk mantles embroidered with skulls, permitted across the Holy Square and into the Grand Cathedral of Saint Ignace Battiste.
All other times is she anathema.
The conjunction of astrological events makes this moonlit night a rare event. Even so, it is often enough that a grandhomme in xher dotage can witness the most dedicated foe of our faith—the murderers’ patron, the undying vengeance, the very adversary herself—cross the gates of the Lightcarrier’s second holiest city and enter the Promised-and-Faithful’s most hallowed space a handful of times in one life before xher celestial watch can no longer be wound.
The terms of the covenant between the Mother of Mákhesthaines—who slakes her thirst with souls—and the ancient Parents of the Faith remain unrecorded in sacred texts. But the results of these accords, forged in time immemorial, have been seen by denizens of the city enough that their rituals and circumstance are well-known to all.
The Mother arrives on foot. She is small and slight, and hidden beneath her veils, mantles, and gowns of black byssus—the art of their construction lost when fabled Seabride was swallowed by the sea. Her step is light, and though her trains drag behind her, the city’s accreted dust does not stir in her wake.
She is ever accompanied by her two brides. La’acroix, with long black hair bound up in a tignon of red satin and jade. She wears a gown of tulle and organza and emerald brocade. An easy smile, swaying hips, and a gilded dagger on her throat. Her skin is oiled and gleams in the bronze moonlight. And bare-breasted Kravat. Tall. Red hair in plaits. Arms corded with muscle and shoulders broad enough to yoke. She wears hempen trousers dyed with woad, and a thin-hammered makhaira on her hips. If she smiles, it is a thing as sharp as her blade. The dreaded three then proceed to the Holy Square, which is at this time empty of all but those who have accepted Lightcarrier oaths.
The doors of the city basilica stand open before her stalwart enemies. Cathedral linkboys escort them in solemn silence down through the shadowed recesses and vaults of the cathedral to a chapel with an oakblood door. The Mother kneels and enters. Her brides stand beyond the threshold with heads bowed. From a purse beaded with faience, the Mother pulls a key and draws from a monstrance of rose quartz and gold the calcified heart of the blessed city’s martyr, Saint Ignace Battiste. In procession as before, they ascend from the cathedral flanked by linkboys. They pass through the funeral arch and cross the bridge of sorrows, where to them the gilded gates of Necropolis are unbarred, and they proceed alone. What happens beyond was unknown.
Until I broke the covenant.
On that strange and sorrowful night when the beaten bronze of the moon broke through the clouds and its terrible aspect cast shadows of the city’s spires like the fingers of a skeleton all across the sacred square, I was in attendance, an acolyte. The second cathedral linkboy of two given the duty to escort the mournful Mother to the ebon gates of Necropolis.
After the gates were barred, we were to return to lone cells—the only decoration the symbols of our order: the watch, the swallow, and unburnt heart engraved on bare stone floor—and await in solemn contemplation of our vows until the moon begins its descent. A silent sibling stood sentinel outside our bare cell doors, xher watchful gaze just beyond to remind us of our duty should we falter and attempt egress before the appointed time. But the smallest flaw in this well-appointed, wise reminder to duty is that in our sacred contemplations, we lowly acolytes were tasked to observe the moon’s descent. For this purpose were we given a slender arrow slit to gaze upon the sky.
I, a slim and callow youth, given more to curiosity than calm contemplation, stripped off my vestments and silver thread soutane. And sky-clad, slipped through narrow window-slit into the starless night.
Every child in the city and the parishes beyond knows the story of Saint Ignace, martyr-patron of the burned but unharmed heart. How the wretched Mother smote him, spitting venom from her lips! How the wicked brides assailed him with blade, and teeth, and claw! And he alone stood steadfast against them until the coming of the dawn! Undefeated as morn’s first rays crested high Necropolis’s hill, the wretched Mother’s machinations brought to ruin by his undaunted heart. And how she, in her vexation at the city’s uncorrupted state, through some infernal power, set noble Ignace all aflame! His tortured cries rose up to heaven. In silence, was she gone. And the city criators, though unworthy, found his ashes where he fell. His body burnt.
But then the golden throated swallows in their millions did descend, and with swift unfaltering wingbeats whirled those ashes in the air to reveal his unburnt heart and his bronzed watch as well! As untarnished as the morning that now spilled over weeping city criators. His promise, then. To still defend us against the evils and our perils. Thus the symbols of our order, the steadfast watch, the heart, the bird.
Think you then what terrors I envisioned, what depredations the sacred relic would endure at the vengeful Mother’s hands, as I secretly ascended Necropolis’s high hill through its ancient wood.
My eyes were sharp. And long before the order called me to take my vows and serve, I lived a slipthief life, slinking now and then across the city’s slate and tiled roofs to do some mischief, when heavy cloud veiled the firmament. I needed no light. But to my astonishment as I crept forward low over root and underbrush, the trees were now illuminated by dancing lights all lapis-colored, no bigger than a pinprick. The source? Docile worms suspended aloft and tied to the tree branches by webs of their own devising, on which dewdrops like glassy pendants caught their mournful light and scattered it across the grounds, casting shadows that shifted as if the trees themselves were set a-sway to the merest breath of wind. And the branches of those trees creaked under the weight of birds! Not only the yellow-throated swallows that long have made their nests in high Necropolis, but resting flush in pairs, uncountable starlings, whose breast plumage was lit with scattering of blue as the lights washed over them, in imitation of the whirling heavens above, concealed from us by clouds. Thus astonished, though sure-foot, I found myself entangled in a sly knot of root and fell forward, my left foot slipping into a place where the rains had collected at the base of a damson plum tree. The dense smell of the earth rose around me, as if it prepared itself for planting. The birds stirred, and then settled. Ahead the trees thinned, and I could see the winding path to the height where the cemetery rotunda stood. Near to the ground, I followed, slipping now and then behind a crypt, a tangle of brambles full to bursting with blackberries, or cracked tombstone. The three continued their accession undeterred: doe-eyed La’acroix first, swaying to music known only to her, grim Kravat at the rear, hand resting on the hilt of her blade. Between them, the Mother of Mákhesthaines, carrying Saint Ignace’s stonelike heart on a cushion of cloth-of-gold next to her bosom where no heart could beat. They passed near enough to me that I could hear the whisper of the Mother’s byssus-gowns. Their scents, attar of roses, sweat, and ancient spices mingled into one.
They came then to the heights of Necropolis, where stood the cemetery rotunda. There rest the bones and remnants of all the city criators, and the lesser saints and martyrs. On its dome stands a statue of Saint Ignace Battiste struck in bronze by Clerval Grandeure himself. Arm outstretched with steadfast watch and his own heart carried in one hand just beneath the place that heart should sit. His features sweet. Serene. And for three hundred paces all around the rotunda’s prominence the grounds were cleared of trees and underbrush. This space was bare of all else excepting other smaller monuments, sweet grass, and heavy flagstones. Among these monuments I made my way behind the devilish three to uncover for myself what cruel, unnatural torments they planned for that noble sacred heart.
They ventured not to the rotunda. An unadorned plinth, chest-height to me—even at that youthful age—stood weathered and alone at the top, shadowed over by rotunda. And the Mother made her way to this. Her brides removed all her mantles with reverence and laid them down on the flagstones beneath. With ceremony and care, La’acroix and Kravat moved as one and took from the Mother of Mákhesthaines’s gloved hands the sacred heart resting on its golden cushion. Their movements were deft, and they carried the heart to sit atop the plinth as if it would shatter from the merest bump. The mother shrugged out of the first of her byssus-gowns. She wore on her bosom an ancient bronze promise watch fastened to her by chains of gold, which her brides then unwrapped. The moon caught her then, and from behind a marble bust of Saint Calave I saw her face: youthful, large eyes, a strange color that northerners sometimes have, like the winter sea. Her lips were full, and her brow unlined. A black curl of hair tumbled down from her pinned locks and nestled against her cheek. The adversary herself looked barely more than a girl. Unchained from the watch she cradled—whose burnished bronze and uncracked enamel made it the very replica of the great relic of our order—she placed it with all solemnity on the plinth, next to the stony heart of slain Saint Ignace. Her brides turned their backs to her and lowered their heads.
For a moment all was in perfect silence. The moon cast away the shadow of the rotunda and limned the Mother, the brides, and the plinth in its light. I scarce dared breathe. And then? Saint Ignace’s heart began to beat! Not some trick of the light! In the quiet I could hear it echo across the bald apex of Necropolis’s high hill. In perfect time with the Mother’s own promise watch. From behind me and all around came the cry of the yellow-throated swallows, and the starlings rose up in murmuration, black against white cloud. The swallows themselves flew low over the hill—I felt the beat of their wings as they passed—and wreathed the beating heart, the watch, and the plinth. Sometime do birds aflight take the semblance of strange things, but these clustered ever tighter and gave the figure of a man. I saw sinew then, and fingers, not passing suggestions from a moment’s angle in a far-off living smoke. Then feathers rained down before the Mother, and the figure was a man. Naked, sat upon the plinth, a face carved on effigy and coin, only now rendered mortal. No more beautiful than mine. It was the blessed saint, I was sure of it. His hair as kinked and coiled as my own. His nose broad, and forehead creased by worry, not the placid beaming icon, nor the open-handed martyr of mosaic scenes. A man, handsome, but no more remarkable than any dark-skinned crafter from the city’s artificieries. He had a glazier’s scar upon his shoulder. He looked only at the Mother, and the scorn and worry fell away to something tender.
She took his chin in her hand. “And you return to me once more?”
The moon vanished behind a cloud, and yet, I could see tears upon his cheek. “Nothing can keep me from it. I will return to you always. Always. Always.”
Her brides clothed him in her own mantles. The Mother’s voice was soft, and though the night still and I three arm’s lengths away, I did not hear her reply.
The saint spoke in a firmer timbre. “You should have razed all their works. And left the ground scoured of life.” His mouth was firm.
The Mother of Mákhesthaines said, “No. For vengeance sake, I could bathe in all their blood and remain dry. But whilst their enchantment persists, we can be together for a night when the moon renews our promise.”
“It is fleeting for you,” said the saint.
“And one night is how one begins a life. I will have my lifetime of them.”
A taste, both sweet and foul, rose from my throat to my lips. I spit in the crook of my arm. These things we believed true: the violation, the sacrifice serene, the city’s salvation— the very bedrock of our faith—were all false. I had sworn myself over to invention as false as my own oath.
Did you think I gasped at the discovery? Or, in momentary shock, stepped backwards onto a wayward twig, drawing the ire of the blessed saint down upon me? Or that I scrabbled nude down the hillside on all fours chased by limbless horrors conjured by the Mother of Mákhesthaines’s poisoned breath? No, those are such tales a parrain frightens his goodchildren to obedience with around the hearth. I wiped my sick on the bark of a tree, wincing a little at its roughness and crept away unobserved by Mother, brides, and saint. I left their tender ministrations undisturbed. I returned to my cell to await the dawn with little more than a scratch and a muddy left foot.
But the next morning, I and my fellow watcher linkboy were tasked with inspecting all the relics from nave to altar. From Saint Calave’s reliquary to Saint Ignace’s untarnished watch that betrothed used to keep their time and pilgrims pray towards for healing light. I followed close behind the prioress, who unveiled the great relic, the Faithful-and-Promised watch. It has run without winding since before the cathedral’s first-placed arch and remained untarnished as the day the fires brought it from beneath Saint Ignace’s robes into the dawn. Its time was true. But as I brushed and oiled its surface, just there, beneath the crown was a single spot of verdigris. As if from above a single salty tear fell on that peerless device. The prioress pulled a clean cloth from beneath her soutane and wiped the spot until it shone again. Almost new.
Did I think to leave the Order? Declaim to Light-Seated Ductrix all its lies? What would happen to the city then, its pieties all undone? Would the charms that ever preserved us founder with the truth? The city that was all my world and whose streets and citizens I loved as much as vengeful witch ever loved wronged saint, could I bear to bring its doom? And I had witnessed miracles, and when you have witnessed miracles the taste for heresy is cold. In short: I was a coward, and turned myself more devoutly to my oaths, even knowing their mettle was ridden with rot and decay. I served, and rose through the ranks.
A score of years passed until the confluence of the heavens led again to the rising of that bronze and awful moon. I was by then chapel monsignor and blessed the new-chose linkboys, who knelt beneath the watch to pray, unveiled for that sacred purpose. It shone as if burnished. I, alone, watched its face. The count of its smallest hand was slow, and for that briefest moment, so was my own heart. But the Mother came as always, and night passed to morning as it must.
Another three-and-twenty years. I had occasion to inspect the oakblood door and prepare the vault beyond for cleansing. Beneath its monstrance, was that dust or signs the heart itself had at long last, began to crumble under the impossible weight it carried? But at the dawn returned the Mother with her brides still in tow.
The Grand Abbot perished from consumption after thirteen years’ long fight. And in the waning years remaining me, I attend the Archlamplighter herself. Tonight, again, rises that moon! Three days prior an envoy from the far-off Spiral Senate has arrived, his Beaucourt close at hand, reeking of foul magics. And the Queendom has withdrawn its protecting armies from its outward marches, where the city still remains. The sorcerers of the Chant Real in gleaming Sarraclay have failed their glamour-casting, and the queen is ill-at-ease. The air smells of smoke and of blood. I think now on the saint, and the adversary’s reply whilst their enchantment persists. Does that high-esteemed watch tarnish still? Does that heart’s stone remain as hard? Will the Mother and the brides stand atop high Necropolis’s hill and reunite once more? Does he come? I search the darkening heavens for swallows and their golden throats, else the starling numbers descending down like feathered smoke. But my eyes are old. And does he come? What means always to the dead?
(Editors’ Note: Christopher Caldwell is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2022 Christopher Caldwell