They came to the Central Square, which was ironically a very large circle, with a crowd packed in a wide ring around the circle, being held into place by several soldiers in full ceremonial armor. To Lucas’ right, behind the crowd, were the steps leading up to the closed double doors of the Grand Cathedral. Straight ahead, a path led from the circle up the cobblestoned street toward the castle, and as just as Lucas had settled on a spot where he could see through the crowd relatively well, Rex had started pushing his way through the crowd, a hand clasped around Hephaestion’s wrist, who in turn grabbed Eric as he was pulled along, and Lucas was nearly yanked by Eric into the crowd.
Lucas and the others came out at the front, standing at the edge of the ring. Lucas looked ahead toward the road leading to the palace and he could see them.
The sunset had reached it’s apex and the golden light illuminated The Virgins, who were strolling toward the square in two neat single file lines, probably about fourteen in all. They wore long, flowing gowns of fine silk, in pastel colors of robin’s egg blue, canary yellow, pale lavender, and many other colors. No two gowns were alike, and they each wore about their heads fine silk veils, through which their well-kept hair could be seen and their faces could be detected, though the features were always difficult to discern. Lucas had seen this garb before, worn by the Virgin of New Alexandria, who he assumed was among the procession, though even as they approached it was difficult to tell them apart. The hues of their hair could be detected, and the veil was thin around the area where their eyes peered out, and their eyes could be seen well when approached up close, though approaching a Virgin was an honor that had to be bewstowed.
Their flowing gowns gave the appearance that they were actually floating toward the Central Square, rather than walking. As they filed into the wide circle, they poured like flowing water to the edges of the circle, and began to move their arms and legs in a slow dance, and at the very back of the procession, a Virgin much older than the others, in a gown and veil of pure white, strolled to the center of the circle. The crowd recognized her and there were a few hushed whispers: this was the Grand Virgin. She knelt down and placed her hands together in silent prayer, bowing her head.
A hush had fallen over the crowd as the Virgins danced, their long sleeves and billowing gowns fluttering in the breeze as they twirled silently, beneath the silk could be seen the universally white garments beneath, hugging tight to their slim bodies. There was no music, no drum playing, but they all seemed to be moving together to the same rhythm, and silence fell heavier and heavier as the dance continued. The men and women watched spellbound as they danced around the edge of the ring.
And then the Virgin in the center lifted her head and stood, and she faced heavenward and began to speak, in a loud, clear voice that was at once commanding and comforting. It was impossible not to hear her voice as it reverberated off the stone walls of the Central Square.
“Our Father,” she began, “Whose heavenly throne is that of pure light…”
Everyone recognized the invocation as the way in which all prayers to the Father began. She continued, and as she spoke the Virgins began to edge closer to the center of the circle, straying from the edges.
“Our master who sees beneath him the toil and suffering of all creatures. Our protector who loves even the stray child. You have sent forth to do your work the Angel, in your love you have sent a Redeemer. Blessed are those who accept the gift you offer freely.”
The Virgins raised their hands in unison, and their dance took on a supplicant quality. Those there eyes were too far away to be visible, it was easy to imagine them filled with longing tears of mourning for the lost.
“Angel of light,” continued the Virgin, “Our teacher. Show unto us unworthy children the path that the Father might have us walk. Give us courage to follow your light. Give us strength to overcome the trail of sorrows. Give us mercy, that we may be lifted from the Yoke of despair.”
The Virgins circled closer to the Grand Virgin now, and the pace of the dance quickened, their silken sleeves flowing in the air, making it impossible to discern one from the other, only a mass of colors in which they all seemed to be one. The voice of the Grand Virgin began to boom and echo across the Square.
“Give us knowledge to know the Father’s path, to hear the words spoken through his messenger. Divine emissary, have patience with we children of darkness, born in sin and trudging through murky waters.”
The Virgins spun furiously, so quickly that their forms were blurs, that it seemed as though the gowns and the figures beneath them had truly become a sphere of light which emanated from it all colors of the spectrum.
The voice of the Grand Virgin became ferocious and powerful. Lucas could hear the emotion in her voice and she struggled to be heard over the silent chorus of color that encircled her, her face and her body invisible within the bright cloud.
“Your alone is the light to eternity! Yours alone is the voice of Heaven! Through you are peace, love, and hope! Through you are wisdom, courage, and strength! Through you is the light made manifest, that the darkness might be driven forever, unto the White City, unto the final age, unto the doom and the resurrection, and unto the end of all things!”
In an instant the Virgins dropped to their knees, and the swirling mass settled around them, their gowns falling to rest on the ground. They seemed so otherworldly within their gowns and veils, as though they were not women at all but spirits dancing, and now the dance was done. Lucas strained to see their chests rising and falling, trying to prove to himself that they were humans who breathed.
The Grand Virgin bowed her head. “In the name of the Father,” she concluded.
An chorus followed from the many voices of the crowd in the Square, “In the name of the Father,” they repeated. The Grand Virgin did this again twice, and each time the crowd responded in the same manner. Lucas did not call back the benediction with the others. He always remained silent during prayers. It wasn’t forbidden, though it usually elicited confused responses. This time no one was paying attention to him. Rex had uttered the benediction each of the three times confidently, his voice quivering, Eric had joined silently, and Hephaestion had said it the first time but not repeated.
Lucas turned to see Rex had tears in his eyes and he reached up with the back of his hand and wipes them away.
The Grand Virgin raised her bowed head and gestured for the others to stand, they did so and then bowed toward to the crowd. The crowd began to applaud and cheer wildly. Lucas could now see smiles on the faces of the Virgins. From the edge of the circle came several members of the New Alexandrian council, one of whom came to stand in the center, and over the chatter he announced that the Feast of the Father would now begin in the dining halls of the Grand Cathedral, and the crowd parted to make way for the Virgins, led by the Grand Virgin, who proceeded again in two single file lines up the steps, and the great doors were opened. The procession of Virgins went inside, and council members filed in behind them, and then the townspeople were allowed to follow.
Lucas tried to stay near to the others and had a hand on Eric’s shirt sleeve, but was quickly knocked around by people clamoring to make it to the Grand Cathedral, and eventually he had to make his way out of the crowd and stand back at the edge of the Central Square and stood on the sidewalk by a storefront, waiting to see his friends in the crowd. He looked among the sea of faces for them but he couldn’t make them out, then suddenly caught a flash of Eric’s red hair in the waning sunlight, and he made his way through the crowd to Lucas and stood on the sidewalk with him. “Rex already went in!” he shouted over the commotion, “Hephaestion is looking for you! I told him if I found you, I’d tell you to wait for him!”
Eric smiled and ran back into the current of people. Lucas found a bench nearby and sat down.
Several minutes passed. Dusk was beginning to fall. The crowd was thinning. People were still proceeding from the other streets into the Central Square and toward the Grand Cathedral. Lucas did not feel particularly hungry, but then, most people attending the Feast of the Father were there for the ceremony and not the food anyway. He found himself lost in thought, remembering the swirling chorus of color from the Virgins, the way their bodies moved so quickly and so silently that they seemed to cease to be human at all.
Lucas had always found Virgins slightly disconcerting. It wasn’t that they were intimidating, in fact it was precisely the fact that looking upon a Virgin seemed to fill everyone with gentle calm that he found so confounding. He never quite understood how or why it happened, but upon beholding a Virgin, people seemed to be filled with peace, and this is why such a large procession of Virgins was such a spectacle. And these Virgins had come from Augustine, the holy city, and the seat of the Church of Light. They were at once revered religious icons and also respected on a level rivaling royalty. To Alexandrians they were respected even more, because New Alexandria had no royal family anymore, only a steward whose position, like the royalty itself, was entirely ceremonial.
Lucas felt something nudge his shoulder and he jumped. He looked beside him to see Hephaestion had sat down next to him, and he leaned forward with his elbows on his thighs, smiling at Lucas. “Pondering the mysteries of existence.”
“Virgins scare me a little,” said Lucas.
“I think they’re supposed to,” said Hephaestion, “But it was quite a show, huh?”
“It was,” agreed Lucas, and with a sigh he stood, “Off to the Feast then?”
Hephaestion’s warm smile became a sly grin. “I had another idea, actually.”
Lucas tilted his head in genuine bemusement. “Yes?”
“Well,” Hephaestion glanced around, and though the crowd had thinned there were still plenty of people passing by, though none seemed particularly interested in the two young men. “Remember last week when you told me about the royal library?”
“The one in the castle,” remembered Lucas, “Yeah, it’s closed up. No one tends it anymore, I tried to convince my father to give me the position of the library’s retainer, but he said it was a foolish request and that I should focus more on my studies.”
“But you said you’ve seen it before, right?” asked Hephaestion.
“Well yes,” said Lucas, “But I was much younger, and it’s back when the library was actually open. Now it’s closed off along with the rest of the royal wing of the castle, even the Steward doesn’t live there.”
“But you know how to get there, yes?” asked Hephaestion.
Lucas furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. “Well… yes?” he ventured.
“Excellent!” Hephaestion leapt to his feet, “Then we’re going on an adventure!”
Lucas’ eyes widened, “Hephaestion, we can’t go into the royal wing, we can’t even go into the castle!”
“Your father is still there, right?” asked Hephaestion.
“Yes, he probably is, but he of all people wouldn’t let us in.”
Hephaestion shook his head with a grin, “We tell the guards you’re there to see your father and they let us in, and then we sneak into the royal wing!”
Lucas folded his arms. “What’s gotten into you?” he asked amusedly, “You’re not usually this mischievous.”
It was now that Hephaestion indicated a brown satchel on the bench behind him. Lucas suddenly realized that Hephaestion had been carrying it since joining the party after the bout, but hadn’t thought about it or wondered what it might contain. “Well,” said Hephaestion, “I may have found something I’d like to share with you,” and at this he made a gesture with his hand that indicated drinking, “and I’d like to do so in a private location,” he waggled his eyebrows impishly.
Lucas breath caught in his chest for a moment, then asked “Where did you get… that?”
“Borrowed,” said Hephaestion with a grin, “From the stores beneath the military academy. I’ll tell you the story later.”
Lucas raised his eyebrows, “And of all the private locations, you choose a secluded area of the palace?”
Hephaestion folded his arms in mock annoyance, “Are you up for it or not?” he asked in an entirely friendly tone.
Lucas shook his head, “Fine, I didn’t really want to go to the Feast anyway. But you know my father will eventually be leaving the castle, and if he doesn’t notice us, he’ll certainly notice my absence from the Feast.”
Hephaestion waved a hand, “That thing goes on for hours, we’ll be back before he notices you’re gone.”
“What about Rex and Eric?” asked Lucas.
Hephaestion looked thoughtful, “Well, I kind of wanted to spend some time with you.”
Lucas’ heart jumped into his throat and he swallowed quietly. “Alright,” he said finally, “But we need to go quickly while there’s still a crowd. Security at the palace is pretty relaxed under most circumstances, but we’ll probably find the place positively deserted if we can make it through the front gate guards.”
“Yes!” Hephaestion whispered and snatched up his satchel. “Lead the way!”