The ceremony was all pomp and circumstance such as demons and Renaissance people loved.
Unfortunately there was no visible audience; this had to be a private affair. But it was all very impressive, there in the otherwise deserted inn, with the rain hammering overhead.
The pilgrims marched through the room, all dressed in their holiday best. They bore their candlesticks, which they retrieved from Aretino. They marched down the aisle and mounted to the stage. Azzie, master of ceremonies now, introduced each one, and made a short complimentary speech about him or her.
Eerie things began happening. There was a strange popping of curtains. The wind took on an uncanny moan. A pungent, unearthly smell suffused the space. Most prominent was a wind that sounded like a tormented soul trying to get in.
"It's not the wind," Azzie said.
"I beg your pardon?"
But Azzie refused to elaborate. He knew a visitation when he heard one. He had presided at too many to be deceived now, when an unearthly chill seemed to settle on the building, and curious thumping noises came from all over.
Azzie only hoped this new force, whatever it was, would hold off making an appearance for a while. It seemed to be having difficulty finding its way. And the Hell of it was, Azzie didn't even know who or what was hunting for him. It was an unusual situation, a demon being haunted by what seemed to be a ghost. Azzie got an idea of what lay ahead then, the vast chasms of unreason that threatened now to engulf those fragile edifices, logic and causality. With just the tiniest movement, it seemed, those things might cease to be.
After the speeches came a short, tasteful interlude that featured singing by the local boys' choir, an all-Europe- class group that Aretino had booked for this occasion. Some thought St. Gregory himself was putting in a ghostly appearance, for a tall thin shape had begun to materialize near the door. But whatever it was hadn't quite got it right; it faded out before it could fully materialize itself, and the ceremony was able to continue.
Next, the contestants massed their candlesticks on the altar and lit them. Azzie made a short speech congratulating his contestants, driving home the premise of his play by pointing out that they had done well by simply going about their natural pursuits. They had won good fortune through no great effort, and that good fortune was by no means the concomitant of good character and good action. On the contrary, good luck was a neutral quality that could happen to anyone. "As proof of that," Azzie said, "here stand my contestants, all of whom have earned golden rewards this evening by nothing more taxing than being themselves in all their imperfections."
Throughout all of this Aretino sat in a front-row pew and was busy scribbling notes. He was already planning out the play he would weave from this material. It was all very well for Azzie to think it was sufficient to stage a sort of divine comedy, but that was not the way of art. The really good stuff was contrived, not improvised, and that was what Aretino planned to do with it.
Aretino was so busy writing that he didn't realize the ceremony was over until the pilgrims were all around him, pounding him on the back and asking if he'd liked their speeches. Aretino curbed his natural acerbity and declared that they all had done well.
"And now," Azzie said, "it's time to get out of here. You won't need your candlesticks any longer. Just pile them in the corner there and I'll call up a minor miracle to get them back to Limbo. Aretino, are you ready to lead these people to safety?"
"Indeed I am," Aretino said. "If it's possible to get off this island, I'll find a way. Are you not going to accompany us?"
"I intend to," Azzie said, "but I may be delayed along the way by circumstances beyond my control. If that should happen, you know what to do, Pietro. Get these people to safety!"
"And what of you?"
Azzie, Aretino, and the little troop of pilgrims went forth into the stormy night of the doom that was falling upon Venice.