Children of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY

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Merle waited nervously as C'dera helped her adjust the tiny little kimono and cap, specially made for her for this occasion. She was more nervous than she had ever been at any moment in her life before this, and it was all she could do to keep from trembling. "Umm... You never did tell me what the little cap is for," Merle said, pointing to her head.

C'dera smiled, her fangs flashing in the light that came through the small window of the changing room. Though it had taken her awhile, under Merle's careful tutelage, she had finally mastered the language of the Little People - though, as with all mus, her accent was atrocious, as her body simply was not built to make the sounds of Merle's language. So, like Xaa and those few other mus who had mastered the language, she simply spoke in her own language, unless the mustie or mouse she was speaking to did not also speak the language of the mus. "It is a symbol, my lady," C'dera replied. "It represents the laws and traditions of the mus, both those that are written, and those that are unwritten - though now, with Tlahn's little book that the Little One, Smith, helped write, it seems there are few unwritten traditions anymore."

Xaa, who stood nearby, nodded. "Indeed," he rumbled, "that is exactly what it means. It symbolizes that the couple enters into the relationship fully aware of the laws and traditions of the mus. It is placed on the head to symbolize that they hold them higher, or more important, than themselves as a person. In this way, we and the Little Ones are very much alike - our laws and traditions are very important to us," Xaa explained, pointing to the little cap he wore tied to his head. In appearance, it was much like a tiny little black box, with two little black ribbons that came down from it, and were tied below his jaw. Four small black tassels were attached to the bottom along the front side, hanging just above his eyes.

C'dera nodded. "Just so, my lord," she said, nodding to Xaa, then turned back to Merle. "You see, my lady, much of the ceremony is symbol - and yet, much is function. For example, both bride and groom dress in the same room. This is so that if one is maimed or scarred to the point where the other would not be able to lie with them when mating season is upon us, they at least have a last chance to see their body before they commit to marriage."

"Ummm... I've kinda already seen him in the bath-house several times, I don't think that's likely to happen," Merle replied, and giggled in spite of how nervous she was.

Xaa chuckled, and C'dera smiled as she continued. "Well, perhaps, my lady, but that is the function. Even the precise, measured steps taken to the priest have a function - they show that one's partner is healthy and graceful. Symbol and Function, working paw-in-paw."

Xaa nodded. "Exactly."

"Oooooo... I'm so nervous about that, too, C'dera! I know you helped me practice with Xaa, and I know everything will be alright because Xaa is going to take really tiny steps, but... Aaah! I'm so nervous!" Merle yelped, waving her arms and making the little sleeves of her tiny kimono flap. "I wish this was like marriage in our tribe! Chief Byarl simply asks each if they want to be the mate of the other, and if they agree to forsake all others so long as their mate shall live, and if they agree to share with each other everything in their lives equally, both happiness and sorrow. If they both agree and nobody in the village objects, then they're mates and that's that! But this," Merle yelped, waving a paw in an all-encompassing gesture. "It's all so serious! I'm afraid I'll make a mistake and embarrass you or me or the priest or someone! Aaah! Why can't it all be as simple as it is for us?!" Merle made a moue'. "You mus can be so stuffy and proper at times, you know?!" Merle's eyes went wide, and she clapped her paws to her muzzle. "Eee! I didn't mean it like that! I'm sorry! Please tell me you haven't changed your mind!" she yelped, looking at Xaa, who was gazing back at her with an eyebrow raised.

Xaa smiled, then chuckled. "It will be alright, Merle. Everything will be alright. Really. Just relax," Xaa rumbled, then knelt down and nuzzled Merle lovingly. "Now, come - we have to be standing by the door when the music starts."

Merle followed Xaa to the door of the changing-room, and stood, waiting, to Xaa's right. C'dera stood beside them, smiling, a paw on the doors. After what seemed like an eternity, the music began, and C'dera slid the doors open, bowing low.

Despite having practiced, Merle found she was trembling with nervousness. The steps she had to take were long, while the steps Xaa took to match hers were small, almost an idle pace. Normally, Merle walked very quickly to keep up with Xaa when they strolled together around his castle, and Xaa walked at a slow stroll. Now, Merle had to set the pace - and that pace was a very short one, for Xaa.

Merle held her head up high, as she'd been told, and tried not to glance at those gathered to witness the ceremony. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Lord W'mefa and his son, Lord O'dmemet, standing next to Johm'rouh, Xaa's daughter. O'dmemet and W'mefa's faces were calm and impassive, but Johm'rouh's eyes gleamed with a smile. Old Tlahn was there, as was Lameh, Grnargh the Chamberlain, P'jasta the cook, and many more of the mus of Xaa's castle, all of whom Merle had made friends with. The musties of Merle's Village were also there, standing behind Byarl and Ellie. All were dressed in their finest green-dyed leather (which, though not appropriate for a mus, was exactly what the mus expected the musties to wear). Of course, standing among the musties and towering over them like a brown-dappled white tree, was Amani. Ayori stood beside her, the fingers of a paw quietly stroking her left fore-hoof. Even Smith, the leader of the mice, and Bootie, his mate, were there, along with a dozen adults from their village. All were completely silent, as the ceremony required.

The temple itself, built on Lord Xaa's lands and only recently completed, still smelled a bit of varnish to Merle's nose. Roughly square and with an open courtyard in the center, the aisle to walk to the priest was short. To their left was a low wooden partition separating the aisle from the courtyard, and to the right were the open windows which acted like living, moving landscapes of Lord Xaa's lands. Merle listened carefully to the slow beat of the drum and the ring of the chimes, taking careful, precise steps. It wasn't long before they had walked the distance - though to Merle's pounding heart, it seemed like an eternity.

Finally, they stood before the altar, and the music stopped. Merle caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye of the musicians, who at a slight signal from the priest, had fallen silent. Merle swallowed nervously - the altar was as tall as she was. Merle bowed with Xaa to the priest very formally, and he bowed in return.

With great dignity, the priest lifted a small bowl of tea from the altar, and gave it to Lord Xaa. Xaa inclined his head, then sipped at the bowl for a moment. He then turned to Merle and knelt, holding the bowl out to her. Merle took the bowl carefully, inclining her head as C'dera had showed her was proper, and sipped from it. She then turned to the priest and stood on her tip-toes, holding the bowl out to him as Xaa rose to his feet again. The priest smiled, taking the bowl from Merle and setting it down gently. The mus-priest then looked at Merle and Xaa, and smiled again as he spoke.

"Today, we join more than two hearts into one. Today, we join two peoples into one. Yet, as I look at you, I can see what has been said before is true. The musties are of the same heart, and the same spirit as our people. Your friendship, love, and union is merely a reflection of the greater friendship, love and union between our two people. You, Lord Xaa, are more than merely a king among our people, and you, Lady Merle, are more than merely a warrior among your people. No, each of you represents something far greater - and something that will, Fate willing, stand the test of time. In the name of the gods that watch over our the mus, and the forest spirits which watch over the musties, I bless both of you, and wish you long life, and many children through your designated courtesan."

There was a long rattle from the musicians, and Merle remembered to turn slowly along with Xaa, just as C'dera had taught her. In a moment, Xaa and Merle were facing the opposite direction, with Merle now standing to Xaa's left. The music then began again, and they slowly walked away, each step in time to the music. After what felt like an eternity to Merle (but was really no longer than a minute or two), they stepped into the changing-room together, and C'dera slid the doors closed behind them.

From outside in the courtyard of the temple, the musties shouted their joyous ululations while the mus and the mice all clapped politely. Merle turned to Xaa in the changing room and grabbed him tightly about the legs, hugging him. Xaa chuckled, kneeling next to her so he could hug her more properly. C'dera sat back on her heels, smiling as she watched the two of them.

"Oh, Xaa! I'm so happy right now, I feel like I'll explode!" Merle chittered.

C'dera's eyes widened. "My lady! I didn't know that was even possible! My lord, did you know that musties could explode if they get too happy?" C'dera asked, looking aghast to Xaa.

"No, I didn't," Xaa replied as he sat on his heels, then looked back to Merle. "Please don't, love, you'd make a terrible mess, and it would take quite a while to scrape you off the walls. Besides, it's tradition to keep our temples perfectly clean," Xaa rumbled.

Merle rolled her eyes. "Oh, we don't explode if we get too happy! It's just an expression, and..." Merle said, her voice trailing off as she looked at Xaa and C'dera as they sat there before her. C'dera was looking at her with an absolutely straight face, and Xaa simply gazed quietly with his golden, owl-like eyes. Merle blushed, and was about to apologize deeply, when suddenly, Xaa winked his left eye at her.

Merle gaped openly for a long moment, and C'dera slowly started to grin.

"You two were teasing me!" Merle yelped, and burst out laughing.

Xaa nodded. "Well, I suppose after living with a mustie for four years, it's only natural that even we 'stuffy and proper mus' would develop a sense of humor," Xaa replied, and grinned.

"Oh, yes, my lord. Why, we didn't even have a word for humor until we first met the musties," C'dera teased, then giggled.

Merle whooped with laughter for a long moment, and finally slipped and fell on her bottom. This only made her laugh harder, and she kicked her little feet in the air for a moment, laughing so hard that tears came from her eyes.

Xaa chuckled, reaching up to pull the little cap from his head as C'dera leaned forward to pull the little cap from Merle's head. After a moment, he stood, bending over and holding out a paw to Merle. "Come, love. Let's go out and greet our guests."

Merle, gasping for breath from laughing so hard and grinning from ear to ear, sat up and grabbed Xaa's enormous paw with her tiny one, and pulled herself to her feet. Xaa gave his little cap to C'dera, and she slid open the doors, still grinning at the two of them. Together, Xaa and Merle walked out of the changing room, to the renewed cheers of the musties and the applause of the rest of the guests.

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