"Blessed Avigliana," she prayed. "I need your clarity of vision, to help me see clearly. I need the mantle of your surety, to help me see which of my doubts are true and which are malignant tricks. I need to feel your touch, so I can find the path to wisdom."
Her whispered words fell like lead coins into the silence of the shrine. They tapered off. She simply sat there, on the cold stone bench, listening to the sound of her own breathing. Trying not to cry. Feeling alone.
She wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and stood. Mechanically, without conscious thought, she washed her hands. There were layers of thin ice on the water in the jug and the marble basin, which she had to break. Both would be back within the hour.
Her bare feet were numb, her breath misting in the chill darkness of the shrine.
Most of the candles had burnt down, allowing the shadows to pile up in deep drifts, blurring edges and muting colours.
The exemplar Avigliana di Sarvos gazed down unseeing from the tapestry that was the shrine's focus. Her aura of wisdom seemed pale and sickly in the flickering candle-light. The rabbits that played around her feet looked mangy. Her expression, which Thomasina had always considered to be so beautiful, a combination of worldly and divinely inspired, now struck her as smug.
She splashed a little water on her face. Dried her hands on the rough towel. Pinched her cheeks to restore a little colour. Stepped over the threshold, and slipped her frozen feet into her fur-lined slippers. Rabbit fur, she thought, incongruously.
Bruno was waiting for her at the bottom of the steps, impassive. She knelt down and hugged the dog, burying her face in its warm fur and canine stink. "At least you're something real," she whispered in the dog's uncomprehending ear. She did not allow another tear, and pushed Bruno away before he could lick her face.
Then, girding herself, she strode down the corridor towards the temple she knew would be at best half-full. The acolytes opened the doors at her approach, bowing their heads with a whispered acknowledgement of their preceptor. She stepped out into the light to deliver a sermon about the importance of finding the right question.She hoped nobody among the congregation would guess how desperate she was for someone to give her an answer.
A potent Winter curse has fallen on the Highborn territory of Bastion. It comes with cold sleet and lazy wind, and as the Winter progresses, the sleet becomes stinging hail. The wet weather brings with it an insidious malaise, that creeps into the soul and heralds despair, doubt, and despondency. It whispers that staying in a warm bed is preferable to trudging through grim weather to hear a long sermon in a cold building. It suggests that the paragons and exemplars are distant and irrelevant; the shades of heroes long since gone. Who knows if they were anything like the priests claim, anyway? Stories for children, told to adults, passed off as truth.
It is a grim winter in Bastion, and faith is hard to come by.
Obviously, this curse strikes at the very core of Highguard - but it could also be seen as an attack on the Imperial faith itself. The White City is in Bastion, and it is where the basilicas of the paragons and exemplars are built. This curse supernaturally damages belief in the Virtues, undermines the power of the Imperial Synod, and threatens the faith of the entire Empire.
Bastion is under the influence of a malediction that strikes at the heart of the Highborn people. It strikes at their faith.
During the Winter Solstice, every congregation in Bastion will provide its owner with only half as much liao rounded down. Perhaps more importantly, it will provide only half as many votes in the Imperial Synod. This reduction also applies to the selection of Highguard senators (the senator for Necropolis is due to be appointed this season, for example). If Highguard is called on to allocate a national Bourse title, the ability of the priests of Bastion to influence the outcome will be likewise diminished.
The magisters of Highguard have determined that the curse is Winter magic, and of the twentieth magnitude. It has largely run its course, but the last lingering traces will likely persist until the end of the Winter Solstice.
Any character who has spent time during the last three months in the territory should feel free to roleplay its lingering influence in the form of creeping doubts about the relevance, and efficacy, of faith - regardless of whether that be faith in the Way or something more personal. Or idolatrous, as the case may be.
The lingering effects of the curse faded completely by the end of the Winter Solstice.