She hugs the stuffed rabbit close to her and watches the procession go by. Her mother shoots her the briefest of looks, and drops her offering on the table. The tiny coins clink in the iron dish, the pipe organ plays a handful of solemn notes, the seats creak as all the others sits back down, and then everything is still and silent as the fat man on the podium inhales enough air to get his disgusting, reedy voice working.
“Brothers and Sisters, let us bow our heads in prayer.”
The little girl hesitates a moment, before her mother grabs the back of her head and forces her down.
“…And behold, The Lord spoke unto me, in a voice both soft and terrible, but was silent to the unbeliever. The Lord spoke 'Come', and I did, and I was afraid and fell to my knees, weeping. I rose my hands, and asked 'O, mighty Lord, what has become of thy body? Why have you been undone?' The Lord said unto me 'Go, and restore me to glory, and I shall restore you in turn'. The voice of God spoke to my heart, and I wept at both the Glory and the Shame of The Heart of our Lord! Thus I came to know his Heart and his Word, and I swore the blood of my family in his service! Amen!” The man at the podium's voice is almost a screech by the time he finishes, overcome with emotion and religious fervor.
“Amen,” the crowd roars back. An old man in the pew to the left of the girl stamps his feet. The girl opens a single cautious eye and stares at the mass of clockwork jutting out of his legs for a minute before her mother applies more pressure and she's quickly forced to shut her eyes again.
“Brothers and Sisters!” The laugh and smile enters the preacher's voice. “Raise your heads. This is not a time for weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is a day of celebration.”
The congregation cautiously raises their heads; they've been tested in this way before. Even the young girl remembers the time when the Father announced a 'Trial of Faith' and had those who looked up after the opening prayer killed.
“Rise, rise! Look and rejoice, people of the Steel. A month ago, the Faithful found a hated… Foundation…”
Here, he stops and spits on the floor. A few of the older members of the Church do as well.
“Foundation agent snooping around our abbey! Bring him in, Brother Adjutants.”
Two men in flowing black robes and face masks made of iron enter from a back room, slamming aside a large oak door and dragging a man in rags. In their free hands they carry cruel spears. The girl makes a tiny noise of fear before her mother slaps her on the thigh, making her jump slightly.
The congregation laughs when the man, hunched with pain and hunger, stumbles on the stairs up to the stage and podium. His ragged beard speaks of long days in captivity, and his blue eyes burn with a cool flame of anger.
The Father stands and flourishes his robe. “Now, rather than have our practiced Adjutants end this dog's life, High Priest Frick would like us to use this heretic as a trial for the newest and youngest member of our order. Young Lady Tau, please come here.”
The little girl – the Lady Tau in question – freezes. She hugs the rabbit as close to her chest as possible. Her mother shoots her a half-smile, pleased with her. She tugs the rabbit out of her grasp, and shoos her into the aisle.
Tau just stands there. Her mother utters a chuckle.
“She is nervous.”
The congregation laughs, and the fat priest's smile grows wider. He extends a hand in the direction of the girl.
She slowly advances, going around and up the stairs, and then reluctantly takes the man's hand. Here, she can hear the heavy breathing of the men in the masks behind her.
“Today, we welcome Lady Tau into the Order of the Black Cog, and that of The Broken God.”
He turns, still smiling, and nods to one of the masked men. “Do it.”
The Adjutant nods, and crouches down behind Tau. She turns, and the man's spear is dropped into her hands, nearly knocking her over.
The priest crouches down as well and whispers in her ear. “Do your duty to your God.”
Everyone on the stage backs away from Tau. Suddenly, she is acutely aware of both the ragged man on his knees in front of her and his hazy breath.
He looks at her. She stares back.
He speaks. “Look me in the eye.”
She does so.
He nods at her, resigned.
“Kill me. Or they will kill you.”
There is a pregnant silence, an intake of breath. Tau looks down at the weapon in her hands, then at the man again. He closes his eyes, mumbles a few words, and then inhales, waiting.
She clumsily thrusts the spear into his stomach. He winces, gapes, then moans. Tau flinches. She withdraws, stabs again, this time slightly higher. Blood leaks from between the wounds and he coughs, spattering Tau's white dress with red. She realizes she must have hit him in a lung.
He falls, cold blue eyes glassing up. Tau looks down at the spear in her hands, before the man in the mask reappears and takes it from her. He pats her on the back, as if he were burping a child.
Somewhere, far away, she hears the priest's voice, echoing over the silence in the room and in her head.
“Lo, behold and tremble, for this is the least terrible fate of the Betrayer. To betray The Lord is to bring wrath of both the People and the Body of God, and both will seek holy and terrible vengeance…”