Xandr followed the guards, hand-in-hand with Thelana. He could feel the moisture budding in her palm, her skin quivering. She would not release him, for his presence, he knew, strengthened her resolve. Shame could possess such power, but such power was an illusion, for it could do nothing to harm them. They had only to suffer their scorn and ridicule, and become pariahs. And yet, despite having lived much of his life in solitude, Xandr could not quell the racing of his heart, as though some predator were upon him. Ilmarin or no, he was like a beast removed from its habitat. Hundreds gathered around him, soldiers and magistrates and holy men, and families of royal birth, and his body quailed and shrank at the sight of them, his member like an ambling minnow between his thighs. And still he could not be called entirely naked, for he remained burdened by his sword, Emmaxis, weighed to his back in its scabbard.
The interior was cold and stony and lacked of wind, despite the searing sun beyond its walls, and the granite floor, patterned in semi-precious stones, was unforgiving against his soles. Every eye was upon them now, from the queen's courtesans in their flowing silk and lace, to the magistrates in their ceremonial garb and conical hats, to the guards in their bronze and leather. Many had not gone out to the pier to receive them, and would not have known to expect their custom.
What little air circulated the room seemed to rush out of it just then, as Xandr and Thelana exposed themselves before their prodding eyes, and waited for the jeers and the laughter with which the Ilmar were so accustomed. He was armed for battle, but could not defend against the onslaught of judgement. His only recourse was to stand there, in as proud and godly a manner as one might manage, but truly, what did he know of them and their gods?
Arriving from port, Sif had led them to a bathhouse, where he and Thelana were washed and oiled and meticulously groomed. Their bodies glistened, and their scars masked, and not a follicle was out of place. No sign of human frailty was allowed them. So much trouble for a charade. A lie for a truth. Surely, his scabbard could be altered, with a belt to gird the loins, but Thelana was adamant that they go naked before the world, so that other primitives in hiding might come forward without shame. Even the captain took increasing interest in their stand. While she did not care to preserve their traditions, the idea of a god or gods speaking on behalf of the Delian people could only appeal to her. Even Xandr could recall how the supreme god of the Hedonians---Sargonus---wore no clothing, at least the idol he had seen, did not.
Queen Frazetta acknowledged the Delian host, showing only curiosity, as though she were looking upon some extinct species of man.
It was a long bearded priest who broke the silence. "Who are these rabble? How come they to this hallowed place with such disregard for custom? Do you mean us insult? Have you no respect for our queen?"
Sif addressed the man before anyone else could answer, "Take care how you speak, priest, lest you damn yourself. Citizens of Thetis, we mean no disrespect. As you can see, I, Daughter of King Frizzbeard, Princess of Northendell, stand here in the regal accouterments of my station, as prudence dictates. But I stand here also, humbled before two great divinities."
"Divinities? What do you mean by this?"
"Have you not heard of the goings-on in Northendell? Of the giant who threatened our world and the gods who cast him down?"
"Gods?" He was about to laugh, but stopped himself, to study the two naked bodies again. There was enough doubt and superstition in him for the captain to twist his mind.
"You think us mad, to bring this man and woman before you, naked as newborns? No . . . do not let your mortal eyes deceive you. Men are frail things, prone to sickness and death and injury, to the cold of high moon, to the heat of the western sun. Men have need of clothing and armor. Gods do not."
"Jafenji, could this be true?" the queen asked him. "Might they be immortal?"
"I would ask that they grace us with their divinity, so that we may be blessed."
"Clever words," Sif answered, "but not so clever to hide your intentions. You wish to test them. Is that not blasphemy? To question a god? To doubt a god? You wager your very soul that they are but mere mortals?"
"I will give him proof," Xandr said, his voice resonating from wall to wall, "so no one will doubt us." The naked warrior moved into the center of the room, slowly drawing the six feet of steel from over his head, and where the sun painted mosaics of light against the floor, he thrust the blade down, and the sound of metal on stone resounded, followed by an unearthly rumble and flashes of light.
All who watched were stunned to silence. Even Thelana looked on, forgetting herself entirely. Xandr released the weapon, and it remained, suspended on its tip. Before that moment, even he was unaware of it. But the sword had a will of its own, whispering instructions into his mind, that he often mistook for his own thoughts. The priest opened his mouth, but no sound came out, and at last he cowered with fear.
Standing from her throne, her arms wide, Queen Frazetta addressed them, a slight tremor in her voice, "Truly, the gods of old are not bound by custom, and may come to us in whatever fashion they so choose." Her words were diplomatic, but whether she spoke out of some religious fear, or to appease those with whom she would seek a favorable treaty, he could not be certain. But his nakedness did not faze her, and he did not doubt that, as queen, she was accustomed to many stranger habits. Rather, it was Emmaxis that moved her. "Welcome to my kingdom. We shall do what we can to honor you." Without hesitation, the queen moved from her dais, unfastening the gold brooch at her shoulder, and her stola crumpled about her feet, so that she stood wearing only her crown and the gold bands about her arms and wrists and ankles. String of gasps followed. A number of others looked away or covered their faces. It was a powerful act, evoking only confidence, and Xandr could not help but admire the woman. Even stripped of her clothing, she took on a regal air.
The seeds of change were planted. He could feel it in the way they watched him, and Thelana, and the naked queen. What was for ages a sign of poverty and slavery, and debauchery, would in time fade into obscurity.