Darkness and aromas, numinous and shadowy, like Hagia Sophia in her prime. Cinnamon-clove benga incense on the air, cutting through the musk of thousands of alien foxes. And from below, the Hymn of Creation that began all Thalendri liturgy echoed through the Great Temple.
Father Heidler, back in normal clerical garb, leaned over the gallery railing and peered down into the half-domed side chapel. One of the Chapels of the Four Seasons, named for Asar, Patron Saint of Winter. Four Saints for four seasons, alternating two male and two female: Misha for Spring, Tavar for Summer, Almarai for Autumn, and Asar for Winter, with hagiographies and accreted legends as rich as any human saint's. Ten meters below, on a raised altar-dais ringed by vestmented upright foxes and vixens holding oil candles, the Supreme High Priest and Priestess near-waltzed in a liturgical dance. He wore a ceremonial quiver like a codpiece, she an elaborate recurved bow like a baldric.
"Echo of the Eternal Dance, representing God and Goddess at the Beginning," Tolan whispered at his side, his eyes catching the oil-candlelight and shining like a cat's. The vulpine "cultural advisor" was dressed even more gaudily than at the audience, in an embroidered riot of para-silks that mixed three centuries of Terry foppishness with a palette of what in any decent light would be various earth-tones--after all, he was dressed for worship on a major holy day.
More like Easter Vigil pre-liturgy--blessing and lighting the Paschal Candle outside the church proper--crossed with a solemn musical number. Thalendri liturgy centered around the art of dance; the Davvashi word for someone specially blessed--mikal/mikallai--literally meant "Sacred Dancer."
Around the central dais, hundreds of Thalendri in their best finery lay couchant, on their bellies like animals, facing the altar in concentric rings, ears up and alert in the light of the oil candles, silks and satins rustling, the white tips of their tails moving in Brownian motion. A sea of prone tods and vixens, all focused on one spot like cats on a laser pointer.
Fur and fabric crowded around the human cleric--including Tosan's wife Neryai, a petite gray vixen wearing a mixture of styles best described as "Elizabethan Flapper" topped by a single-plumed tiara, the greens and golds almost colorless in the dim light
Below in the side chapel, the Hymn of Creation ended in a responsorial from High Priest and Priestess and the congregation, echoed by the skulk in the gallery. As the echoes died away in the dimness, the vulpine couple stepped down from the dais to the first row of the prone skulk, vestments glittering in the oil-candlelight. They stopped before two congregants in the first row, High Priestess to tod, High Priest to vixen. A pause, pregnant with solemnity, then the two reached down and helped the tod and vixen to their feet; in a wave from center to rim, three hundred Thalendri rose from four legs to two, as if from animals to people.
A chorus of Yips arose from below and around Father Heidler as Tosan, Neryai, the skulks on the chapel floor and gallery, all joined in, tods making the God's Arrow from crotch to chest to muzzle-tip, vixens making the Goddess's Bow from shoulder to head to shoulder. Heidler joined in with the Sign of the Cross as the yipping faded away.
The Supreme Pontiffs embraced the two they'd first lifted to their feet, rubbing cheek against cheek, leaving their scent; the tod and vixen did the same to those around them, passing the scent to the entire congregation, like a nuzzling Greeting of Peace at Mass. The skulk in the gallery did the same, Neryai, warbling, giving Heidler a sensuous stroke of her soft-furred muzzle and cheek.
The jingle of staff-bells mixed with the yipping; acolytes stepped forward to hand the High Priest and High Priestess their staves as a procession began to form. Easter Vigil again, without the Paschal Candle...