Alys Irisetti had always dreamed of taking to the skies.
For as long as she could remember, their sect had been forbidden, outlawed under the moral guardianship of the Church of the Anchorer. History told her this had not always been so: that at certain times in the distant past, the Lady of the Burden Bird had been canonised as St Badenbaum and assimilated into regular worship, her statues taking pride of place in halls of worship everywhere.
Her statue was hidden in a wall recess behind a portrait of her grandmother. Even owning one at this juncture, with the church militant on the rise, would have subjected her to interrogation. To inquisition. Times had changed, and not for the better. Tonight would mark the first gathering they had dared to organise in nearly a year, a ritual offering to the Lady herself. As nervous as she was, Alys Irisetti was also buzzing with excitement and anticipation.
Throughout the floating islands which made up the world of the Rockery, their so-called cult had taken root on the island chain of Link, as many had before them. Now, with no distractions elsewhere since the successful siege of Clamp, the leadership of the Anchorer faith were busy turning over every stone and finding immorality and idol worship under each one. Their gaze fell firmly on Link, a beautiful island chain inhabited by many artisans and artists, where licentious behaviour was understood to be rife.
The church claimed that there were ceremonies conducted on Link to all kinds of false gods and belief systems - the Stratospherists - who claimed the Anchor was a despotic demiurge, the Strainites - who believed that the lost professor Sir Frederick Strain would return and lead them to a promised land, the King Fishers - who believed in human sacrifice to a dread sea monster, and of course the sect she and her mother and grandmother all showed devotion to, the Followers of the Albatross, Lady of the Burden Birds. In comparison to the horrors the Fishers in particular perpetrated, they saw their own beliefs as harmless. All are born neutral. The soul may rise or fall after death depending on the way one led their life. Those who were wicked were destined to be reborn as fish or sea monsters in the Shining Sea far, far below, Ilys had never seen the sea herself and she knew precious few people that had, but the Anchorer church held it as the sacred home of their deity, the monsters that dwell therein guardians of his kingdom. That made their belief that sea creatures were wicked and sky creatures were beatific antithetical to orthodox church doctrine. It made their ideology as dangerous as the Stratospherists, even if their actions weren’t. It was enough of a threat for Alys to see her own name circulated on a wanted list above the advertisements in the Gong which she had delivered to the mansion every daybreak, fresh as it could be from the hot presses of Gongtredding in the city-island of Anchor, far off and far above. Not for the first time, she would have to go into hiding. Not for the first time, she wished there was another way. She sighed as she sipped her tisane and rubbed her still-weary eyes beneath her pince-nez. No rest for the wicked, it seemed.
The first time she had been forced into hiding, she had been very young and had shivered in the arms and then under the hoop skirts of her grandmother as the inquisition came calling, ostensibly searching for stolen artwork. The servants, more than half of whom were fellow worshippers anyway, had not betrayed the grand-dame Natalia Irisetti and in turn had been well rewarded when the family finally emerged from the secret room after the all-clear had been given.
The second time was a more painful memory. Her beloved mother Sara had been caught leaving an offering at a ritual statue and held in custody. Alys had to watch, cowled and cowed from the edge of the public square as the sentence of branding had been carried out, searing the flesh of her beautiful face with the heretic’s mark while Alys balled her fists and bit her tongue. Some in her sect wore their brands and scars with pride, a symbol of defiance against the ubiquitous order of the church. Her mother had not been one of those people. Her quiet pride and dignity had taken such a blow that she never appeared in public again. She never recovered from the incident and died later that year, leaving Alys in command of their branch of the sprawling Irisetti noble house. That meant diplomacy, tact, visibility. It also meant a lack of freedom to think as she wanted to think, to act as she wanted to act, to give up the estates and the mansion and the titles and the family ties and take to the skies with the dancers. It meant responsibility. It meant growing up.
Link, for most of the population of the Rockery, was the sort of place people retire to - to grow old disgracefully, or where artists retreated - to marvel in the artistic scrollwork on the grand bridges arched between the districts or to wonder at the natural beauty of the great oak itself at the heart of the market square. For those like Alys who had been born there and knew no different, it presented a different vista. She corresponded with her never-seen cousins on Anchor and Shackle. She assisted in hiding sect members who had been persecuted elsewhere and had come here in the hope that Link would somehow be different. She knew it as a refuge, She also knew it as a straitjacket within which she would continually struggle but never fully escape.
Alys weaved her way through the small crowd that had gathered in the courtyard of the old manor house on a balmy summer evening. The owner, Erasmus Chance, was an old and dear friend of her mother, Not a celebrant, but one sympathetic to their cause.who used every opportunity to outwit the hated church.They had come in twos and threes from all over the island, families who kept the old faiths and those rare travellers between islands, skydancers who routinely ignored church doctrine with radiant impunity. They did so only because no others could navigate the fog between the islands. They were essential to trade, to the very currents that kept goods flowing across the Rockery. As such, the Church in its pragmatic expediency permitted them to keep old traditions alive, as long as that worship did not spread to island natives.
Which, of course, it did. Slowly, in secret, hidden in as many ways as could be found, but spreading nevertheless.
Above her, the sun dipped below the third floor balcony next to the old bell-tower, crumbling along its height, dripping with thick strands of deep green ivy and perfectly shadowing the empty space where in happier times the noble servants had once dutifully tolled the bell to signal the start of lamplighting. Now the courtyard was a hubbub of whispers, the crowd silent save for the slow, rhythmic beats of the skydancer drums. All eyes were on the skyline - the bell tower itself, to be exact - and lips were pursed in anticipation. Their priest would arrive soon, heralded by the Lady of the Burden Bird herself, the first soul reincarnated as a bird, who led the ancient explorers from their original home on Shackle and showed them the wonder of the skies, led to the discoveries of other islands and allowed trade and culture to thrive,
A sharp trill sounded from the sky and the crowd fell silent. Alys strained her neck just in time to see the wingspan of the Lady silhouetted against the setting sun, the priest now visible in his feather-cloak behind the form of the albatross herself. At once, the assembled throng all raised their hands in offering, each open palm glistening with a gift for the Lady: mostly small parcels of food, though Alys also saw a few trinkets gleaming in the fading daylight. The albatross alighted from its perch on the belltower and circled the courtyard three times, lowering itself on each turn. Then the Lady dived suddenly and flew straight at Alys, grabbing the filigree pendant from her palm as she watched on in total shock at seeing the Lady so close. Tears of ecstatic delight ran down her cheeks as she realised that tonight, she had been chosen from among the many, that her turn had come. All eyes were upon her now and Alys stood proudly to her full height, her noble and beatific countenance shining for all to see. Then she felt herself moving upward, raised on a sea of outstretched hands, ululating gently as they guided her to the base of the tower. Alys grasped the rope that had been lowered to her by the priest and began her ascent to the slow rhythmic beats of the drums below, up the rope toward the talons of the Lady herself from where she would then be carried into the skies beyond.
This was her moment, the culmination of all she had accomplished, of all she had achieved, her life’s work in service to the Lady of the Burden Bird. She knew what it felt like now, to be so close to the object of her adoration. The exultation was audible, palpable, coursing raw exuberant energy through every hard choice and every shattered dream in her troubled soul, cleansing, filling her with such joy she could not adequately voice it,
Suddenly, a shrill whistle pierced the cheers and the drums stopped. This whistle came not from any of the sacred caged birds nearby but from between the moustachioed lips of a portly red faced Anchorer knight sergeant, ushering his troops forward into the courtyard and scattering the assembled worshippers into the twilight. They moved quickly, surprise on their side. Some offered surrender, more offered resistance. Blood was spilt on both sides in the chaos that erupted there, in the twilight of their sect, at the manor of Erasmus Chance,
Alys looked down from her precarious vantage point, the ecstacy on her face was replaced with a mask of panic as her hands slipped on the slack rope. The Lady squawked loudly and took off into the moonlit sky, unable to help, forced to flee for her own survival. In doing so, she left her unfortunate worshippers to their fates. Would they be reborn as birds or fish? Would they ascend or descend? Put to the sword by the jubilant church, they would find out soon,
As she plummeted headlong from skyborne mount to the flagstones below, Alys Irisetti finally knew what it was like to fly.