Prologue
Out with the Old, In with the New

AZ 1409 - Winter
Castle Zephyr, Hesperia, Zephyr

Solon VI, the sixty-sixth King of Zephyr, sat uncomfortably on his throne. He knew what was coming. He prayed he would have the strength to weather this storm, to stand by his principles against their most dangerous foe. It was a prayer to a god that might not have been listening or worse, one that was his enemy.
The chamberlain announced, "His Holiness the Pontifex of the Church of Holy Light, the Most Reverend Vicar of the Lucifer, Keeper of the Eternal Flame of the Sanctum of the Golden Basilica, the Archbishop Mikaelos."
Every word of the Archbishop's overly long styling stung the King like pinpricks. If there was any man in the whole kingdom who was more a ruler of the land, who commanded the loyalty and obedience of the people, it was the Archbishop. A man with such power and influence would make a great ally in Solon's quest to reform Zephyrian society, but, alas, it was not to be. Long had the Church enjoyed a privileged position in the kingdom and a man like the Archbishop would not give up that position easily. And that was only the beginning of Solon's problems.
The Archbishop entered the throne room with all his entourage, a good dozen clerics ranging from a couple metropolitan bishops down to common monks. In spite of his age, the Archbishop was an imposing man, tall and thickly built, the very embodiment of his namesake, the Eudæmon known as the Sword of the Lucifer.
Stopping only a few paces from the throne, the Archbishop said to the King, "I would like to speak with you alone."
This was a strange, fortuitous turn. Solon had expected the Archbishop to take this opportunity to grandstand before an audience and tie the King's hands. However, Solon knew the Archbishop was not so generous. The truth of the matter was that his response could embarrass the Archbishop as much as the Archbishop's questions could embarrass him. If the conversation was kept between the two of them, both could save face, for the time being at least.
The chamberlain, however, clearly did not like this idea. He looked unsurely at the King and could only trail, "Your Majesty..."
Solon raised his hand and said, "Leave us." He looked to his guards and added, "All of you."
Somewhat hesitantly, the chamberlain, the guards and everyone else in the throne room withdrew. The Archbishop nodded to his entourage and they silently went out the way they came. In no time at all, the throne room was empty save for the two of them. The King and the Archbishop, the two men who could direct the fate of Zephyr. One sought to create a new tomorrow while the other clung to the past. Only one could succeed and this was their decisive battle.
After a protracted silence, the Archbishop finally said, "So you have decided to take a wife?"
"I have," Solon replied.
"Normally I would dismiss it as a necessary evil. The line of kings must continue. But you intend to marry one of the, the forest folk."
The Archbishop could barely contain his contempt. It was amazing that he showed enough restraint to call the Xotika of Goldleaf 'forest folk' instead of another, less polite name.
The Xotika were a strange, reclusive tribe that had lived in the forest to the south long before the founding of Zephyr, before the first human ever set foot on the land, even before the Nanoi dwelled in the mountains.
Besides a few unfortunate clashes in the past, there was virtually no contact between the Xotika and the Zephyrians. Solon sought to change that. There was much he and his people could learn from them and perhaps there were things the Zephyrians could offer the Xotika in return. It was the first step in a larger mission to bring the peoples of the Continent together. Queen Relinia of Goldleaf shared Solon's ideals and was willing to take the first step. Solon and Relinia would lead their people by example.
How could Solon make the Archbishop appreciate what he was trying to do? How could he make him see that this was for the good of the kingdom? What could he possibly say?
Although it would likely be a failed effort, Solon thought he would start by trying to reason with the Archbishop.
"You became Archbishop when my father still reigned," the King began. "Tell me, are things better now than they were then?"
The Archbishop was not known for his thoughtfulness. He was the sort who relied on shouting, bullying and rabble-rousing rather than reasoned debate. However, he actually seemed to give the question some serious thought before replying.
"Your father was no great man of faith. He did nothing to advance the Church's mission, but did not impede it either. I had some hope for you when I first learned that you would succeed him. You were a promising student in the seminary and could have made a good priest. You did a praiseworthy thing, renouncing your birthright in favor of the clergy. But then you went back on your word to sully yourself anew with this profane world. It was disappointing, but perhaps it could not be helped."
Solon had to hold his tongue. Perhaps it could not be helped? He had renounced his place in the line of succession in favor of his half-brother Carpos, who was not burdened with the whispers and rumors of Solon's inauspicious birth. He was trying to do what was best for the kingdom. Then Carpos died young, before succeeding their father or leaving an heir.
If Solon had not reclaimed his birthright, there would have been a succession crisis. He did not want to be king, but for the sake of the kingdom, he would bear that burden. And if he was going to be king, he would do his utmost to make the kingdom a better place.
The Archbishop was standing in the way of those efforts, but perhaps all was not lost. Feet-dragging and constant complaints were not the same as full-scale revolt. Solon had to try to get through to him, but first he had to hear him out.
The Archbishop continued, "I thought we might have a powerful ally. With one foot in this world and another in the next, you could pull the weak-hearted masses along the narrow path. That is what I had hoped, but instead you betrayed your potential, turned your back on the Light and are giving rise to a new age of ignorance."
The Archbishop was referring to Solon's repeal of the persecution laws that suppressed any views contrary to the orthodoxy and punished those who did not accept the Church's teachings.
"Every freeman of this kingdom has a right to believe according to his own conscience," Solon replied.
"Conscience!?" the Archbishop balked. "A conscience rooted in ignorance leads only to falsehood!"
"Knowledge that is imposed on others will not cure ignorance," Solon retorted. "And a truth that requires coercion to be believed is not Truth."
"Do you question the Church and its teachings!?" the Archbishop boomed furiously.
"If they cannot stand without compulsion, then they cannot stand at all. They ought not stand."
"You would tear down the temple," the Archbishop sputtered, "you would cast this land and its people into the Darkness... A cursed birth, a cursed life, a curse on us all."
Incensed, Solon rapped his scepter on the arm of his throne. The loud crack was enough to silence the Archbishop, if only for a moment.
"I cannot change my birth," Solon said bitterly, "but I can change my life and I can change the lives of everyone in this kingdom."
"And so you will," the Archbishop replied, "to the doom of us all. You scorn the Light to couple with beasts, and you would have them walk amongst us, corrupting us as they have corrupted you."
Solon had to believe the Archbishop's thinking was not so simplistic as that. Though he was like a man wading amidst crashing waves, he continued to push forward in his appeal.
"The time has come to put an end to the generations of enmity that divide the peoples of this land. Humans, Xotika and the Nanoi. We can be one and we would be all the better for it."
"You would mix us with those who are cursed," the Archbishop seethed, "those who have been cast out of God's sight, those who have no share in our covenant with Him. Creatures of the earth that will chain us to the profane world, that would snuff out our light and rob us of our inheritance in the world beyond."
They were only talking past each other. Solon had to redirect the conversation to get them on the same level. It was the only way to move forward.
"How does your obsession with lights and spirits and the beyond serve the people in the here and now?" he asked. "How does it fill the belly of the starving peasant or defend our borders?"
Glaring at the King in utter revulsion, the Archbishop threw his staff down on the floor. Its clattering on the tiles echoed throughout the room.
"Borders and peasants' bellies!" he spat. "I would expect such talk from foreigners and fools, but not from the man God elected to reign over this promised land, one who was but a step away from joining our hallowed brethren."
Keeping a cool head but barely holding back his disdain, Solon replied, "Perhaps it would not seem so foreign or foolish if you spent a little more time outside the Golden Basilica."
The Archbishop was having none of it, though.
"Do not think you can lecture me, you son of privilege! What do you know of the lot of the common man? And regardless, what difference does it make what the masses think? They are sheep to be led. They can only find grace through the ministrations of their betters. Revealing knowledge to the ignorant, shedding light on the darkness. This is our mission."
With those last words, the Archbishop extended his hand to the King, inviting Solon to rejoin the orthodoxy. However, simply falling back to yesterday would not get Solon any closer to the tomorrow he desired.
He countered the Archbishop, saying, "My mission is to make this kingdom a better place for one and all, from the greatest to the least. Leave this world to me. You can have the next."
The Archbishop looked so furious that he would burst, but just as it appeared he was about to explode, he closed his eyes, drew in a long breath and exhaled slowly.
"This is a test," he muttered to himself, stooping down to pick up the staff he had thrown down earlier. "I am being tested. Even someone fallen so far can be redeemed. I can save you from error. Repent now and you can be saved. It is not too late."
The Archbishop was not the only one who could issue an ultimatum, Solon decided at last.
"Either you can help me or you can stay out of my way," the King insisted. "Which is it going to be?"
"Impious wretch!" the Archbishop howled. "If you continue to wallow in the filth of your infidelity, you will be cut off from our brotherhood. If you are exposed as an unbeliever, do you think you can rule? Do you think the faithful will follow you?"
Solon was forced to pause a moment. Excommunication was no idle threat. A person cast out from the state religion was effectively cast out of the state. There were fewer legal repercussions with the repeal of the persecution laws, but that did not change the fact that the vast majority of the population followed the Church and were not likely to follow someone who did not.
This was the Archbishop's expression of his supremacy. He had been holding back until now. This was the first time he had made the threat. He could have done so from the start, or even years earlier when Solon repealed the persecution laws. He had relented not out of any kindness but because the threat excommunication carried a danger for the Church, the danger of what might happen if someone too powerful did not repent and refused to fade into obscurity to maintain the status quo.
It was a danger the Archbishop would see realized because Solon was not interested in submitting to the Church's authority or maintaining the status quo.
"We will see," the King said defiantly. "But you will not cast me out. I am leaving of my own accord." Standing up, he declared in a loud voice, "I, Solon VI, King of Zephyr, do hereby renounce the Church of Holy Light and its teachings. I withdraw from the brotherhood of believers."
The Archbishop recoiled as if stricken.
"You... Impossible... In two hundred years, no king of Zephyr has ruled without the auspices of the Church."
Unable to suppress a slight grin for flabbergasting such an imposing man as the Archbishop, Solon replied, "Then we will have to relearn some of the old ways while we discover the new."
Overcoming his astonishment, the Archbishop pointed at the King accusingly with his staff.
"You will regret this blasphemy," he hissed.
Solon wanted to boast in defiance, to exult in victory, to mock the Archbishop's failure to intimidate him. However, in spite of it all, he reminded himself that conflict and division were the very things he wanted to end in his kingdom. Breaking away from the Church and making himself the enemy of the faithful was not the answer.
Burying his pride, he made one final effort to reach out to the Archbishop.
"I do not seek schism but unity," he said in as calm and sincere a voice as he could muster. "There is still a place for you and the Church if only you will turn from your stiff-necked ways."
The Archbishop said nothing further. He simply shook the dust from his sandals, turned, and left. And so it was finished, or rather, it had just begun. The antagonism between the King and the Church would only get worse. Perhaps it was inevitable, but Solon wished it were not so.