A Most Opportune Proposition

The Nave of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Polished pews of sturdy oak line the sides of the cathedral’s nave, separated by a pathway of cobalt stones. Columns of white granite stand at even intervals between the windows, a small shrine is carved into each, housing exquisite statues of saints and martyrs. The vaulted ceiling of the nave soars high with chandeliers of burnished copper hanging from each vault, lit only for evening masses and eulogies. On the ground, tall candelabras of thick beeswax candles light the carpeted steps towards the prayer altar. The wide stone sills of the stained glass windows are decorated with small fluted bowls of bluish glass, heaped with flowers. The atmosphere is peaceful, touched with a hint of olden charm and a love for which only divine grace could bestow. A spiral of iron-lattice steps wind up in a precarious helix into the church’s main spire where the church’s bells are kept.

A continuous peal of church bells sounds over the City in low rhythmic bellows, calling the faithful of the Church to evening mass. At the first rise of the evening star over the rooftops of Irae and when the sun sinks finally into the horizon of the horizon of the Azure sea, the bells ring out, their call hypnotic and casting a comforting veil over hurrying citizens.

Shops are closed for the mass, owners placing signs upon their windows and children are dressed quickly in presentable clothes. Cabs and coaches appear out of the midst, from nowhere, the public ones picking up passengers by the side while the private cabs congest on the Boulevard nearing the Cathedral. Groups of cloaked and coat covered people hurry in haste by the Valdislav Conservatory, some making slight signs of the cross to avert the evil the University is thought to harbor.

There is rain this evening, slanting silvery down from the sky. It is slight, more a drizzle than a downpour. Children huddle against their parents, waiting for their turn to enter the Cathedral and of course, being blessed with holy water offered in the scallop basins before they find their way to the respective pews.

Walking together and mingling in with the others waiting, a man and woman were having a conversation between themselves. As they walked, the man held his arm over the woman to shield her from the drizzle, hunched over slightly so that he could be heard. The only resemblances between the two were the shade of their eyes, his darker hair coloring and stockier build contrasting with her smaller frame.

As the pair approached the entrance Nikolas leaned down to whisper something in his sisters ear, a smile tugging at her features before she nodded and looked up at him. He pulled away from her, dug his hands into the pockets of his coat and departed back toward the street.

Anique stood there for a moment, watching him walk away before she turned her attention back to the cathedral. In no rush, she made her way through the pews as she watched the people about her settling themselves into their seats. Removing her coat, she settles it across her lap before sitting at an end near the front of the altar. The seats were already filling quickly and the whispers of private conversations as they waited reverberated throughout.

A young boy wrapped warmly in a furred coat sits next to Anique, his round chubby face turning towards her and he sneezes a little, holding his gloved hands to his nose. His mother slips in next, fussing over him and apologizing to the young girl, smiling beatifically. It seems in church, everything is all well and friendly. The mother herself is fair of face, brown curls framing her face prettily and she takes off her woven straw hat before urging her child to sit and not bite at the tips of his gloves.

The pews are slowly filled; men and women coming in, their shoes and boots making wet contact with the marble tiled floor of the Church. A strong scent of frankincense sweeps through the warming interior in the Nave, the altar attendants lighting up large beeswax candles by the sides with their smaller handheld candles.

The buzz of the crowd sings in the air as small hymnbooks are passed down each pew and copies of bibles are taken out quickly, many a hand turning the pages to check or read while awaiting the priest’s arrival.

The boy who is next to Anique taps her lightly on her shoulder, pushing a small volume of paens to her. “Here!” He pipes, beaming till his blue eyes are squeezed by his fat cheeks.

Returning the smile offered by the boys mother, Anique had wandered into her own thoughts as the dull hum of voices calmed her, a familiar sound though not from people she would have recognized elsewhere.  The dampness clinging to the hem of her skirt slowly began to dry and her curiosity roamed over the pews, taking in the iconic statues and the stained glass window, impressing all she saw into memory for later.

Her brows crease momentarily as she takes in a man standing several pews across from her, the only face so far that looked familiar. Her features light with recognition as she realizes that this is the man she’d met more than a week ago in her bookstore. The tapping upon her shoulder startles her out of her study, her attention being drawn to the little boy beside her as she leans down to him. Anique laughs as he hands her the hymnbook, holding it warmly in her hands. “Thank you” she responds, amused by his cheerful presence and the smile remains as she again looks in the direction of Christian.

“Welcome!” The boy giggles and with small thick fingers, open his own hymnbook, his chatter returning to his mother now that she instructs him on the pronunciation of several Latin words on the page he has pointed to.

A bustle above the pews sound as the choir gets into their places, the resident harpsichord player at his place high up in the chancel. Altar boys in their white vestments, a red sash defining their waists, proceed out from the antechambers, bringing with them golden bowls, candlesticks and the last one carried a large Tome glided in gold and crimson.

The mother, together with all the others, hush their children and all stand in attention as the Father preceding the mass this evening appears.

From where he stood, Christian von Karlach curls his fingers into a prayer fashion but his eyes are not upon the priest offering blessings to the altar boys as they each offered him their bowls and the book. The cold gaze slips to where Anique is, and he smiles barely before the one sitting next to him rises, blocking him from her view.

Anique rises with the rest, her eyes drawn away from Christian as her attention is placed where it should be. She is aware of him however even though he is no longer within sight, her eyes focused forward before her head bows and her fingers palms slide against each other. A slow warmth spreads over her, knowing she should be paying attention, and her palms come together as her hands clasp, fingers interlocking.

To look in his direction now would be obvious at the angle in which they stood and with an effort she keeps her eyes averted. Something always seemed to compel her to watch him with interest, anticipating. Not here, not in the house of God, she would not be so obvious where her attention was trying to go and where it should be, she chastises herself as she focuses again on the procession.

The choir begins to sing, the sopranos leading a chorus of ‘Ave Maria’ and now music fills the entire Nave; the priest lifts both arms towards the spiraling ceiling of the church’s tallest pinnacle, his mouth opening and closing in holy song as well. Rustles of pages sound in tandem with the singing as those unfamiliar find lyrics in the hymnbooks while those already well practiced sing with gusto.

The young child by Anique’s side is more crying out then singing though he seems very eager to be the loudest in the church whilst his mother looks on in embarrassment.

The rest of the crowd is made up of a varied ensemble of rich and poor, the nobleborn way in front, seated in the best pews of polished clean wood, the commoners in packs at the back, trying not to be caught in the chill draft coming through the large closed doors.

Christian, himself, shifts slightly, perhaps in mockery of that he knows what goes through Anique’s mind. And now he is quite visible to her; his pale locks and hands upon a closed hymnbook on the ledge of the pew before him, a subtle curl of his lip indicating more than just a smile.

The music overwhelms Anique as her voice mingles with the rest, her gaze falling upon the singing faces of those around her. She smiles at the woman across from her, understanding and charmed by her son. The words muddle themselves for a moment as her gaze moves and falls again upon Christian. Stopping, she clears her throat, and a hand moves to her chest as if she had a cough, an attempt to cover her stumble.

He seemed to find the entire gathering amusing, too good for them or knowing something the rest did not. A frown mars her features, clearly bothered at her own lack of focus in showing her faith. Even more determined now, she again takes up the words only this time mouthing them as the song nears its end.

The choir finishes with their rendition of the hymn and they settle back in a rustle of robes on their benches in the chancel. The rest of the congregation sits as well, children being hushed, men taking off their hats and women arranging their skirts and gowns. Altar boys hurry to the Father’s side, bringing him bowls filled with fragrances and lighting candles.

The senior boy follows behind, holding up a large crucifix, ancient and weighty in his hands. He does not genuflect at the altar and proceeds to place the cross upon the stand before returning to his kneeler, as the other boys do.

“Let us pray.” The Father voices, spreading his hands to the faithful gathered, loud and important his voice is as it spreads through the entire Nave and reading the opening prayer from the sacred book placed before him.

The masses pray in unison, bowing their heads together – a sight of perpetual faithfulness. It is over just as quickly and as the priest calls for the people to sit at their pews, the place where Christian is, is empty.

Head bowed in reverence, the slender booklet rests in her lap where her palm rests atop it. Anique lifts her gaze forward as her fingers toy with the crucifix at her neck, listening for several moments to the voice speaking loudly to all of them. Finally, she notices the empty spot where Christian had previously been and she frowns at finding it empty.

The thought occurs to her that perhaps now she could keep her mind on task, not on a man she hardly knew where such thoughts should not be during mass. That is hardly the case however as now it is almost impossible to make out the words, merely a blurred voice sounding in her ear yet not heard.

At the next interval, everyone rises from their seats as again the music begins to play and voices fill the interior yet again. She makes an attempt yet after several moments she resigns herself and rises from her seat. Placing her coat over her arm, the hymnbook is left in her place as she follows the aisle between the pews to the entrance. She could not show faith tonight when it was not first in her mind.

Some beggars are huddled at the entrance, listening fervidly to the priest’s sermon and trying to rub their chilly hands to get warmth into their bones. They eye Anique as she approaches, rather hungrily, wondering if she’d have any money for them.

The doors embellished with a large silver cross each, painted of course, are easy to open. One just needs to turn the latch to push at it to go to the Church’s grounds.

Tall iron gates, tempered and wrought to a shiny midnight blue, stand at the entrance to the city’s main congregation of religion and worship. The insignia of the pious are placed upon the gates, emblazoned on twin metal discs. Paths of crushed white stones divide the expansive grounds into squares of lush green lined with squat bushes of lavender and lilacs. Great wisteria with their dark black boughs and delicate violet blossoms cover the lawn, provide awnings of cool shade to worshippers and visitors. The main path continues straight, circling around a large marble statue of the patron saint of the Church, its gray hand raised in a silent invocation of peace, before merging again towards the paneled wooden doors leading into the sacellum of the Sacred Heart.

Her steps falter and slow as she nears the door, noticing the look she receives from the poor souls standing in the doorway with the cold. They were better than she, showing a love despite their place in life and still they were here. Unable to merely walk past them, her expression looks troubled. Kneeling down to a little girl, her coat showing several holes and shivering, Anique appears to whisper in her ear and as she does so she presses several coins into the girls palm and closes it over them.

Rising then, the little girls face beaming up at her and the secret she’d just been told, Anique pushes at the door latch before the music had died down. Tugging her coat tightly about her, the folds fall about her skirts and enveloping her in warmth. She walks slowly, not intending to leave the grounds but to keep some semblance of the chill off before she was picked up.

He laughs the moment the doors of the church are shut, the radiance and warmth of the holiness within vanishing into the cold night. Mist clings to the stone edifices outside the church and upon the drooping branches of the wisteria that is planted in its grounds and mist clings its white tendrils to his form too.

Little light illuminate the dark grounds of the Cathedral; whatever light shines filters weakly from the lamps far upon the street, basking trees, statues and bushes into odd contortions of shadow.

The pale-haired man is leaning against a stone wall, his hands tucked into the pockets of his own coat and he is looking at her now, his eyes enveloped in amusement that she has left Mass to venture out here, falling prey to her own curiosity.

Her eyes widen as she hears laughter, turning her head to the side first before her body follows the movement, letting her vision adjust for several moments. Did she actually hear it? Perhaps it came from inside although she could hear nothing coming from the doors now.

Turning away again to head down the path, Anique suddenly jumps at the presence of someone there. “Oh!” she gasps in shock, expelling a breath that can be seen in the cold night air. The mist clinging to Christian’s frame makes him appear as if he were a statue himself molded from a very detailed hand, menacing still in the dark shrouding them both. “You nearly frightened me to death!” She blurts out as she steps back, her nerves on edge as fear still clings to her.

The drizzle has ceased but the skies overhead are still a dull red and thick clouds shroud the wisp of a moon hanging almost desperately to a patch of dark sky. “Come, come.” He exults clearly with mirth in his voice, the ends of his lips curving upwards, the smile cold however. “Are you still afraid, fraulein?”

He comes nearer, just two steps before her, suddenly looking larger and taller, a shadow playing behind him now the clouds have shifted, causing more moonlight to shed its watery white patches onto the Grounds.

And as usual, his eyes are kept captivated on that cross she wears. It has never ceased to make him laugh; that paltry sign to avert evil.

“Well I wasn’t,” She responds, straightening out her coat and tugging it close to her body, anything to not have to look directly at him, to see the amusement her response elicited. She feels rather than sees him move closer and quickly she draws away another step, away from the feeling of being overwhelmed by his presence looming over her.

“Until now..” Her eyes rise, her head tilting to look up at him and notices where his attention is fixed. A shudder courses through her, possibly from the cold. More than likely it isn’t and her hand encircles the item in her palm. Pulling it over her head, she releases it from her neck, bringing with it the tumble of auburn over her shoulder. The chain dangles from her hand, removing the item that seems to hold such an interest to him. “I’m beginning to believe you prefer it that way.”

His pale fingers snake out to pluck the little ornament from her proffered hand; chuckling as he does that. “Why, fraulein, can I use this for?” He turns the cross over in his palm once more, back and fro. And then holds it back to her, the chain twisted roughly inbetween his fingers.

“Why are you back in this City?” He questions, edging closer less a lover, more a predator, his eyes glimmering green and his feet making even more strange sounds upon the soaked grass. It is obvious, his garnered interest in this mortal. The centuries have made him bored – and tedious. And he is lonely. Is that not excuse enough to toy with a kine so naively charming.

“And take this back, fraulein. Such pretty things only will do you good. I have no use for it.” His hand hovers above her face, the ruffles of his cuff shifting ever so faintly as he sways the crucifix in front of her eyes, the silver catching the pale moon rays as the object swings like a lazy pendulum.

Stopping the item in its sway as it rests in her palm, her fingers curl around it, the point on each end a digging reminder into her flesh. “You seemed fascinated by it, moreso than most.” She responds to his first question. Her brows furrow together to form a crease as she feels him move in. No person of manners would be so intrusive and she fights the urge to back away.

“I am here with my brother, I was not able to see the city during my last visit as I’m sure you are aware.” There was no obligation to explain her purpose here, yet the answer comes without second thought as he seems to stalk her, waiting for her to run in fright. Those eyes get the better of her, smaller than she already was and she begins to move away. Never before had another person made her feel so intimidated. Any presence of safety she felt was shattered and the dangerously thrilling idea of what may happen nags its way in the back of her mind, never allowed to surface to the front.

He lets the chain fall free, the cold metal chilled by the night air hitting her hand that has grasped it. Behind them, a bell rings softly from the inside, signifying the coming end of Mass. Have they been out here for thusly so long? The knowledge of a crowd pouring out from the Church does not sit well with Christian; there’s still more he wishes to do with this girl.

“Coming to Mass is not exactly seeing more of this City.” He cocks his head, stepping back swiftly away from Anique and draws his coat up, pulling the collar about his neck. “I do have a proposition for you; seeing how talented you were with your stories.”

He seems to have discovered her little lie or perhaps. Maybe this offer would intrigue her further.

The bells draw Anique’s attention, glancing at the doors and etching worry across her face. How many times had she been alone with this man now? Being caught by curious eyes was not something she wanted, especially with him towering over her. So close that she could not even correct his assumption that she’d only been to mass throughout the day.

“What proposition?” She eyes him warily, feeling slightly more secure as he draws away and she runs her hands over her arms, a biting chill seeping into the material to her skin. Those thoughts that had begun to creep their way into her conscious were quickly stamped down, making her world right again as she regards him from a safer distance.

Another bell rings, this time twice in succession. His head snaps back quickly to her and his eyes seemingly blaze green for a moment. “I am looking for another helper in the shop, someone who can scribe well. You have left quite the impression on me. Perhaps you might consider.” The pale man proposes, his gaze fixing on Anique. “I can pay you well; and in a few years’, you can save enough for your own shop.”

The doors of the Church creaked open, the people now walking on in hastened steps or short strolls now. Chatter filled the air as church guards hold high lamps and torches to guide the churchgoers back to the gates, the light banishing all the shadows of the late evening.

Two eyebrows arch in surprise, not expecting what he’d just offered her. Several thoughts come to mind, demanding to be taken note of as if a warning for her to take careful consideration. Her brother, who had always been protective and the idea that she wasn’t sure she could trust this man. How long had she wanted to be someplace new though?

Her thoughts were revealed in her expression, unknown to her. He’d inadvertently found something in her she kept to herself and her bottom lip is pulled into her mouth as she stares at him, searching hopefully as people move around them unnoticed. “I would love to accept your offer.” She admit, glances down the pathway, knowing her brother would be there soon to take her to the Inn. “I would have to speak with Nikolas of course, I’d be leaving him..”

Christian nods sharply, suddenly coming close as people push around them, some quite unhappy of the two’s obstruction of the way. And as he heards the guards of the Church come nearer, making sure the masses depart in an orderly manner, Christian leans forward, close to Anique so his whisper would be heard above the din in the Grounds.

“I will wait for the answer then, fraulein. You know where my shop is.” He retreats his presence after his words are done, the brightness of the lamps around them harsh on his form; surely the shadows would have made him look more inviting!

“Consider well. There are high expectations but the rewards, fraulein, are immense.” The pale man chuckles, his last sentence set to lure and captivate. Then he turns to go, melding so easily into the throng now as if he is never there.

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