NB: This act includes content that may be disturbing for some readers. Not recommended for children.
Jaq approached the crossroads in the thin light of a foggy dawn, followed by Feste. Crossroads always made Jaq uneasy. They were places of possibility. They were also places of evil. Evil always lurked in possibility. The thick fog and thin light added to Jaq’s unease. Feste was uneasy because Jaq was uneasy.
The wind shifted. The thick fog rose like a curtain. There, at the center of the crossroads, a young man sat. He was not much more than a boy. He was covered from head to toe in filth. He seemed to be asleep or, perhaps, meditating.
Jaq was delighted to encounter another soul in the loneliness of the bleak morning. Jaq was good natured to his core. His happy voice chimed out respectfully, “Good morning to you, young sir.”
The young man’s eyes opened slowly. They were very bright and blue next to the filth on his face. They lanced at Jaq. On the ground next to the boy, Jaq noticed the naked blade of a short sword.
Jaq was good natured to his core. He swallowed the fear in his throat. His happy voice chimed out again. It filled the silence. The silence hung oppressively where the sounds of the birds and insects should have been. “Why are you sitting in the middle of the crossroads, young sir?”
The silence extended to the very limits of Jaq’s smile. When it wavered, the boy spoke. “I don’t know which way to go.” His voice was deep, rich, and almost ancient.
Jaq was good natured to his core. He wanted to help the boy. His happy voice chimed out again. “Perhaps, I might be of some assistance to you, young sir.” He affected a short but courtly bow. “I know these lands very well and all the lands around them too. Tell me where you are going, and I am sure I can help get you there.”
“I’m looking for God,” the boy replied.
Jaq, who was good natured to his core, was also very pious. He was delighted by the boy’s response. “Oh, in that case, any direction will do, so long as your heart is true.” Jaq approached the boy, attracted by his piety.
“I want to kill God,” the boy answered. “I want to find God and kill him too.”
Jaq stopped. The blood drained from his face. He had never heard such strident blasphemy spoken aloud so brazenly. It sent a shiver through his spine. He instinctively looked over both shoulders. He was worried that someone else might have heard the words, even though he knew they were quite alone. Jaq’s mouth struggled to move. He made no sound. Feste began to bark and growl.
The boy stood gracefully. Jaq saw that he was wearing only filth. It covered the boy from head to toe. The boy walked towards Jaq slowly. The sword swung from his left hand. The wind shifted. A horrible stench drifted off the boy. It was like rotten meat and stale ash.
The boy approached Jaq. “Do you know where I can find him, where I can find God?”
Jaq’s mind was tangled in a knot of panic and the horror of the boy’s stench. Jaq’s good and pious nature did not know how to respond to the boy’s blasphemy. The dawn broke into morning over the boy’s shoulder.
Jaq blurted, “Look for him in your heart! God is in all of our hearts! Everyone of us!”
“I don’t feel him in my heart,” the boy said. The sword sparked in the fresh morning light. Jaq’s tunic was pierced. He felt a sharp prick above his heart. The boy was very close to him now. The stench was deafening. “Should I look for him in yours?”
“It’s a manner of speech,” Jaq cried. “An allegory! Not to be taken literally.”
“I’m not looking for an allegory,” the boy spoke into Jaq’s ear. “I am looking for God. I want to kill him too. Can you tell me where he is, yes or no?”
Jaq’s mind struggled through his panic and the stench. Feste’s barking was frantic. The sky was so blue. Jaq had never seen a sky so blue. It was going to be a glorious day.
“I know a man,” Jaq blurted. “A conjurer. He speaks with God. He tells fortunes. He must know where to find God.”
“Where is he? What road do I take?” the boy asked.
Jaq stepped away from the boy’s sword. He felt death‘s disappointment over his shoulder. The sky was as blue as he had ever seen it. The sun was warm and soft and soothing on his skin. The wind shifted again. It took the boy’s stench with it. The air was fresh and clean. The music of nature danced joyfully in Jaq’s ears. He had never felt so whole and still and perfect.
He surprised himself, when he answered, “No, I will take you there. ”
It had been a slow morning. Oswald had expected it to be slow. It was normally slow the morning after the Holy of Holies. Old women and young people were Oswald’s most frequent visitors. After the holiest day of the ecclesiastical calendar, they were always too full of God to have their fortunes foretold. The priestesses understood the power of ceremony. The Holy of Holies was their most powerful ceremony.
Fortunately, for Oswald, not everyone belonged to the one true faith and not every one of the faithful practiced it purely. The morning had not been entirely wasted. One worried old woman had insisted on three increasingly complex castings. A handful of young men had dropped by for their normal gambling tips. A young woman also wanted to know if she had surrendered her maidenhead in vain. Blessedly, the casting revealed to Oswald that her heart had not picked falsely.
The lilacs were also in full bloom. Their perfume filled Oswald with joy. Their colours delighted his eyes. In his quiet corner of the busy market, Oswald was happy to sit with the lilacs and watch the comings and goings. It would not matter to him how many visitors he had that day, he told himself over and over again.
A gnawing anxiety confused the serenity of the spring morning. In the time between Oswald’s few visitors, he had already cast his own fortune four times. Oswald knew it was dangerous to cast his own fortune. If a casting was not considered objectively, one could never be sure who or what was talking through it. He understood the dangers all too well, and yet he couldn’t help himself. Before he realized what he was doing, he was already puzzling over the results. It was an unconscious scratch at the itch of his anxiety.
“Calm yourself. Calm yourself. Calm your doubts,” Oswald muttered. He quickly dabbed essence of sandalwood on his forehead, eyebrows, and earlobes. “You have the gift, you have the gift, you have the gift. You are the eyes and ears of the Lord. You are the eyes and ears of the Lord. God is great, and he loves you. God is great, and he loves you. You have the gift. You are the gift.”
He cast five coins and quickly covered them with a plain wooden bowl. Over the bowl, he tore fresh basil. He breathed deeply and counted slowly to five in the Father’s tongue. “Bring light into my darkness, oh Lord,” he whispered to himself. Then, he uncovered the coins.
His first impression of the casting was confused and uncertain. Like before, he knew there was a message, but he could not see it. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and looked again. He looked for the meaning that was within and between the coins rather than the meaning in the coins themselves. Again, for the fifth time that day, he discerned something evil and menacing in the casting. It failed again to coalesce into a clear vision. He didn’t know if God was unwilling to share the foretelling or if Oswald was incapable of understanding it. To complete the casting, Oswald opened his heart and ears for the third and final impression. He looked for meaning in the world of the coins. His head fell back, he thrust his chest out towards the sun, and he let his arms hang limply by his sides.
Oswald jerked violently at the sound of his name and almost upended the little table at which he worked. He turned to the voice, his knee aching.
A tall man with a kind and familiar face walked towards him. He carried on his shoulder the stick and bundle of a holy wanderer. His tunic was well worn and faded. Oswald could just make out the stars and white roses. They would have been very bright the day the man had first started on his unending journey. He was followed by a small white dog and, a few paces further back, a young woman — no, a boy with short hair — who wore ill-fitting clothes. A short sword hung awkwardly at his right hip.
“Good and gracious morning to you, magi!” the kind looking man called out again. “I am so very glad to see you again!”
Oswald, still muddled from the confusion of the casting, did not recognize the man, even though he seemed very familiar. Oswald blinked his eyes quickly and shook his head to release the hold of the casting. He thought he heard his godsvoice mutter, “Do you see? Are you listening?”
“Magi Oswald,” the kind looking man chimed again. “Do you not remember me? We prayed together not one week ago. You cast for me too.”
Oswald was sure he recognized the man. He could not find a name or a memory to go with his kind face or strange gait. It seemed impossible that he would forget such a man. The man approached Oswald’s table. His hand was outstretched in blessing. Oswald saw something like concern in the eyes of this friendly and familiar stranger. It might have been fear, but Oswald saw nothing for him to be afraid of.
“I’m Jaq! Do you not remember me? How strange.” Jaq motioned to the little white dog. “What about my little friend, Feste. He is not so easy to forget!”
Oswald lied, “Yes, I remember you, Jaq, and little Feste too.” He leaned over his table to peer at the little white dog. It also seemed to be — almost imperceptibly — nervous and afraid. “I am sorry for my confusion. You arrived as I concluded a casting. I am yet somewhat lost in it.” He cupped his hands and held them out to receive Jaq’s blessing. He spread the blessing over his face, hair, ears and arms in one motion.
The boy approached the table and stood a few paces away from Jaq and the dog. He was tall and long of limb. His thick brown hair was cut short in the fashion of a girl. He looked a little older at this distance. Unlike Jaq and the dog, he seemed completely at ease.
Jaq motioned to the boy, “My young master here seeks — ”
Oswald cut him short with a wave of his hand and a smile. “The less you tell me the better. I can see that our young friend here is not a believer. I’d prefer he not have any reason to dismiss what I will share with him today. For his own good.”
Oswald winked playfully at the boy. The boy smiled. It made Oswald strangely uneasy. The boy was unsettling and confusing, in the same way that the casting had been. There was something about the boy that Oswald could not see.
“To begin,” Oswald spoke with a flourish in his voice, “I will need something that belongs to you other than your offering.” He winked at Jaq.
“Oh, yes, of course.” Jaq smiled and placed a copper coin in the offerings bowl.
Oswald continued, addressing the boy. “I see that your clothes are ill-fitting. I gather that you have not worn them for very long. They are stolen, I’d expect.”
“Borrowed!” Jaq chimed out happily.
Oswald smiled at Jaq. “It makes no difference to me, my holy friend. My only concern is that I acquaint myself with something that has been near and dear to our young friend. Otherwise, the veracity of the casting could be compromised.”
The boy’s eyes seemed to glimmer with malice, but he smiled again. Without speaking, the boy removed his scabbard and sword from his belt and placed it on the table.
“I can also discern that this scabbard has been recently borrowed as well.” Oswald ran his fingers along its ragged leather. He hesitated before touching the plain but expertly crafted hilt. “The sword, I believe, is rightfully yours. Am I right? May I draw it?”
The boy’s face was filled with unimaginable hate. Oswald flinched and realized it had been a trick of the light. The shadow from a passing cloud had cut across the boy’s face. The boy’s face and smile were now almost beatific. With a nod, he gave Oswald permission to draw the sword.
There was now only Oswald and the sword. He felt the boy’s smile, but there was only Oswald and the sword. There were others, but there was only Oswald and the sword. The sword seemed to sing when it was drawn. It gleamed like water in the sun. It felt like a living thing. “Is this the light in the darkness, oh Lord?” Oswald asked himself inwardly. He gently stroked the length of the blade with his finger. He heard no answer to his question.
There was a sudden shift, and Oswald’s mind was clear again. A profound anxiety crawled into his spine. The sword, he realized, was neither a toy nor ceremonial. Oswald could feel the death it had intimately known — a sacrilege — but he could not perceive what it might have been. He withdrew his finger from the blade as if it had been pricked by a thorn.
A veil was torn from Oswald’s memory, and he remembered Jaq. Oswald had cast for him only a week earlier. The holy wanderer had wanted guidance on where he should next look for God. They prayed together, and then Oswald cast for him, using tea leaves. Oswald had seen in the leaves a dark storm rising in the east. The storm, once found, would carry Jaq to God. The lightning of the storm would point the way.
“Are you alright, magi,” Jaq asked Oswald. “We can wait a few minutes, if you would like to rest.”
“No, no, I am quite alright.” Oswald dismissed Jaq’s concern with a wave of his hand and a weak smile. “To begin, I will need something of the boy’s with which to acquaint myself.”
Jaq looked to the boy in alarm. The boy watched Oswald, smiling.
“Dear magi,” Jaq whispered, “the boy already shared his sword with you. It lies before you on the table. You have already studied it for several minutes.”
Oswald’s face did not betray the panic in his heart. He looked at the sword. It did not seem at all familiar to him. Had he looked at it? What had he seen? He could not recall.
“I know, I know, my holy brother,” Oswald lied. “I was only jesting with you. I’m not so old yet! Castings need not always be serious and dreary affairs.” He laughed and clownishly straightened his robes. He also tugged playfully at his grey beard.
Jaq laughed heartily and forcefully. “Oh yes, I see now! Very funny.”
Feste yipped nervously.
“Tell me, my boy, on what day were you born?” Oswald asked.
The boy told him.
Oswald had not expected the boy’s voice to sound so old. It seemed almost ancient.
“And at what time?”
The boy told him.
“Yes, yes, I expected as much.” He stroked his beard. “And what of your mother — blessed are they who give life — on what day was she born?”
The boy told him.
“Now, that is very interesting!” Oswald began to relax. He found surer footing in the art and science of the casting. “Very unexpected. Very unexpected. I can admit that I did not anticipate that. We magi see and know very much, young man. We don’t see and know all. That is true. That is truth!”
Oswald reached for the coins he had used for his own casting but thought better of it.
“Jaq, my holy friend, did we not use tea leaves when you were last here?”
“Yes, that’s right, magi!”
“Then, let us return to the leaves once more!” Oswald arranged three small wooden cups in front of the boy. “Let us see what lies in the past, present, and future of our young friend here.”
From one of the deep pockets hidden in his robes, Oswald produced a small burner of his own design and making. It was made of iron and shaped like a candle. The fuel was concealed in such a way that a casual observer could not see how or what it burned. With the snap of his finger, he ignited the burner. It was one of his favorite sleight of hand tricks.
“Young man, I want you to focus your attention on the flame. Think carefully of that which you seek, as I prepare the tea.”
From another pocket, Oswald produced a small tightly sealed copper box. He placed it carefully in front of the cups and opened it. In the box, there were three different kinds of tea, carefully separated. He held his hands above the tea and prayed.
“Oh Lord, you are great! Oh Lord, you are strong! Oh Lord, you are generous! Reveal your will today, if it pleases you. Let me be your eyes, my Lord, if it pleases you! Let me be your ears, my Lord, if it pleases you! Let me be your gift, my Lord, if it pleases you!”
He put a pinch of tea into each cup.
Oswald took out a little kettle of water he kept under the table. He held it over the burning flame.
“Do not lose focus, young man, the strength of your focus will determine the clarity of the casting.” Oswald made a motion, reaching from the boy’s eyes to the flame. “From your eyes to the flame and into the kettle. The water shall find you. From your eyes to the flame and into the kettle. The water shall hear you. From your eyes to the flame and into the kettle. The water shall keep you.”
The kettle whistled sharply and suddenly.
“Praise be to you, Lord!”
Jaq echoed Oswald, “Praise be to you, Lord!”
The boy said nothing.
With sharp movements of the kettle, Oswald expertly dropped boiling water into each cup.
“Now, my boy, pick up the first cup. Yes, that’s right. Draw deeply of its fumes. Think of a moment from your past. Whatever comes to mind. Hold that memory in your mind as clearly as you can. Now drink of the cup, but leave some of the tea in it. Good. Look deep into the cup. Keep that memory clearly in your mind. Now swirl the tea from left to right. Good. Now turn the cup over here. Leave your hand on the cup, while I pray.”
Oswald placed his hand on the boy’s hand. It was warm and very soft. A child’s hand.
“Let me be your gift to this boy, oh Lord!”
Oswald looked into the boy’s eyes, which were coolly serene and, perhaps, amused.
“Good. Now we will do the same for the two other cups. For the second cup, I want you to focus on something from the here and now. Something you can see or hear right now. For the third cup, I want you to focus on that which you seek. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded. Oswald carried on. When the third cup had been turned upside down, Oswald prayed again.
“Dear Lord, we thank you for this gift we are about to receive.”
With a flourish, Oswald turned over the first cup. He peered into it.
“Yes. Yes. I see an absence in your past, my boy. I see a great loneliness. It seems to have always haunted you, despite your loving and caring parents. You have no brothers or sisters. You were properly cared for. I see no hardship in your childhood — except for that loneliness. It consumed all that was good and happy in your young life, didn’t it? I see that your parents —” Oswald hesitated. He saw the death of the boy’s parents. He could not perceive the why or the how of it. Perhaps, the boy was hiding their deaths from himself and from the casting as well. “Your parents. I’m sorry. Recent and untimely deaths. I’m sorry.”
Oswald resisted the urge to look at the boy. Instead, he peered into the second cup.
“I see Jaq and little Feste here. You found each other only very recently. The relationship —” Oswald looked quickly to Jaq and saw fear in his eyes. “The relationship is new and uncertain. They often are in the early going. You must open your heart, my boy. Trust must be shared for it to grow. Trust in the companionship you have found. Cherish it. I see a long road ahead for the two of you together.”
Oswald peered into the third cup.
“This is strange. Very strange.” Oswald had never seen this pattern in the tea before. It resembled the pattern foretelling death, but this boy was far too young to die suddenly. It could not be right. The leaves themselves seemed to be unable or unwilling to express what lay in this boy’s future. Oswald improvised, as he sometimes did, hoping his many years of experience would guide him truthfully. “There is great uncertainty ahead of you, I am afraid. I confess I can’t quite see what it is you seek. Your goal is ill-defined or, perhaps, too grand. The uncertainty may lay in your own heart. The loneliness of your childhood has turned to hopelessness. You are too young to be hopeless. Without hope, there is little that can be accomplished. Without hope, you will not find what you seek. Put your trust in God. Trust God, and you will find what you seek. Of this, I am sure. God is hope. God is everything. Praise be to you, oh Lord!”
Jaq echoed Oswald again. The boy said nothing. Oswald waited to hear the customary reply. Then, he waited for the boy to say anything at all. The silence became palpable.
“Tell me, old man,” the boy finally asked, “does God tell you these things?”
“If it be his will,” Oswald replied. He blushed under his beard.
“Tell me where he is,” the boy said. “I want to find him. It is he whom I seek.”
“Why, he is everywhere, my boy.”
“I told him the same thing, magi,” Jaq chimed in. It sounded to Oswald’s ears like a warning.
“Everywhere,” the boy scoffed. “He is not here. I do not see him. Do you?”
“Of course, I do,” Oswald answered. “He is the air, the sky, the flowers. He is the sunshine.”
“Nonsense,” said the boy. “He can’t be in all of those things. If he is real, he must occupy some place. He must have a form. Like you or I.”
“If?” Oswald’s throat constricted. He had involuntarily echoed the boy’s blasphemy. “You must be careful of what you say here in the city, my boy. You are not on the land anymore. In the city, you must be more cautious. I will — I am able — to overlook this transgression, but, if a priestess heard you, there would be much trouble for you.”
“He is a troubled young man, magi,” Jaq warned.
“I know exactly what I am saying,” said the boy. “I am not afraid. I will not be ruled by your superstitions.”
“Lower your voice, boy,” Oswald spoke harshly for the first time. He had humored the boy for too long. “I see that you are not afraid. Fearlessness is not the same as courage. One leads to folly and the other to glory. I don’t need to hear God’s voice to see which path you are on.”
“You are a fraud,” the boy said. “You play at divination for a few coins and convince yourself that it is good because you think God speaks to you. You are little more than a thief. You prey on the weak and the feeble and the gullible. You are a coward. Too weak to steal by force, you swindle the weak with lies and superstition.”
The boy’s rebuke stung hard. It was as if Oswald’s deepest doubts had suddenly manifested themselves in the form of this cool and arrogant boy.
Fury flooded through Oswald. His heart raced. His eyes searched the table for he knew not what. Near to hand, he saw the wand he used in his charm rituals. He seized it and raised it high above his head. He pointed to the ground with his left hand and prepared to curse the boy. Oswald would quell this boy as forcefully as he quelled his own doubts.
There was a flash of unanticipated movement. The boy’s sword entered Oswald’s abdomen effortlessly. The unimaginable pain ended as quickly as it had started. Oswald was surprised. The sharp pain had been infinitely long and, at the same time, instantaneous.
Oswald inspected his surroundings. The sky was blue. The flowers bloomed. The boy’s face was calm, almost serene. Oswald’s murder, judging by the indifference on the boy’s face, seemed not to affect him at all. The boy might have been scratching an itch.
Over the shoulder of the boy, the market carried on unaffected by the violence of Oswald’s death. People in the nearby stalls haggled over fruit and vegetables, as they had always haggled over fruit and vegetables and would always haggle over fruit and vegetables. Jaq’s kind face had not yet registered the lightning fast violence before his eyes. Feste, the little white dog, seemed to understand. He did not mark the occasion of Oswald’s death with a bark or even a whimper.
The tools of Oswald’s trade lay before him on the table: old, worn, small. He had been so proud of the burner when he perfected it. It had taken many years of tinkering in his little workshop. What did it mean to him now? What was the memory of that pride? Nothing. In a moment, even the memory wouldn’t exist. There was no God, no life after death, and no foretelling that was true independent of the imagination of his gullible victims. The boy was right. The boy was right. I am a fraud.
Dread wracked Oswald’s body. The world narrowed around him silently.
The sword was out of Oswald now. He fell forward. He caught himself and leaned on the table heavily. Blood oozed across the table. Oswald’s eyes found the coins with which he had cast his own foretelling. At last, he saw what they had told him, and what the other castings of the morning had tried to tell him. Death, death, death, death and, again, death. Even the boy’s casting had been a warning of his death. The leaves could not show him a future that lay beyond his own death.
Oswald coughed blood. He looked from the coins to the holy wanderer’s eyes. They were wide with shock and horror. Oswald felt a smile creep into his lips.
If the castings had foretold his death, it meant God had worked through him. Despite his doubts, God had worked through him. If God had done it now, he might have done it before too. There was no reason to doubt it. Oswald felt light for a moment — almost saved — then heavy with the weight of shame. God had been merciful. Oswald had been weak. God had always been merciful. Oswald had always been weak. At the moment of the final reckoning, Oswald had doubted God, had doubted everything. He had failed God. He had failed himself. Oswald felt no pain in his body. He felt only shame in his soul. He hoped God might forgive him, but he knew he could not expect it.
Joan realized she was feverish. She caught glimpses of concerned faces close to her own. She heard bits and pieces of prayers murmured over her. She sometimes felt hands rubbing her arms and legs with warm and healing ointments. Her sisters, she was sure, were trying to heal her — save her. Joan did not know from what she was being saved.
She was reminded of the little mosaic that was tucked away in a tiny prayer room in a far corner of her temple. It, like her experience of the fever, was a mix of broken and fragmented colours. The bits and pieces of the mural meant nothing on their own. When one could see and understand how each piece played a part in the whole, the palm leaves and pomegranates became beautifully and indubitably apparent.
Joan had a fever like this once before, when she was very young — too young to truly remember it. She had heard the story of it so often and had so often told the story herself, it felt to her like she remembered it, even if she knew it was impossible. The memory of her fever was much like her faith. Her faith, much like the entire course of her life, had sprung from that first fever.
Joan reminded herself that she was feverish. The coherence of her thoughts were an illusion — like the coherence of a dream, which splinters and fractures on waking. Where was she, she wondered, and how did she come to be so deeply feverish? She tried to open her eyes. The darkness persisted.
She imagined what it must be like beyond the darkness. As soon as the fever had set in, her sisters would have immediately brought her to her own room and bed. They would be fretting now, huddled over her in prayer, darting away now and again to retrieve an ointment, a herb, or a relic. Ginette would be desperately and vainly trying to oversee their efforts. She was too young and too inexperienced to lead her strong-willed sisters. Joan had named Ginette as her spiritual heir precisely because of her youth and inexperience. She was no threat to Joan’s authority.
A memory began to take shape in the darkness. It was a strange feeling. Joan felt she was somehow a part of it even as she watched it from afar.
Joan welcomes a holy wanderer. He is agitated. Even in his agitation, his face is kind. Joan’s heart is open to him. She always feels love for these wanderers. Their life is so different than her own — so much more lonely. While many priestesses consider them a nuisance and a burden, she always receives them warmly when they come begging for food or shelter or benediction. Had Joan been born a man, she too might have found some solace on the wandering path.
The holy wanderer kneels before her, head low, gaze averted, arms out. He is begging not for food nor shelter but for sanctuary. That is strange. From whom would a holy wanderer need sanctuary? The bailiffs are in pursuit. He begs her to protect him, to exercise her ecclesiastical authority. No, she realizes, he doesn’t want protection for himself. It’s for the little white dog that is with him. No, that’s not right. Bailiffs would not be in pursuit of a dog. There is something missing. The memory disintegrates. It occurs to Joan that it might not be a memory. It may be a dream.
Joan awoke, screaming. She was hot and sweating. She struggled against the sisters who held her down. Ginette’s face was among the shadows of the others. She was poised and calm, like the First Mother herself. It is a side of Ginette that Joan has never seen before. Joan continued to struggle against the combined strength of the sisters. It was like she was possessed by a terrible demon. Her mind was calm. Her body moved violently of its own volition. Vowels and consonants spat from her mouth incoherently. The sisters managed to contain her more violent movements and held her firmly against the bed. Hands steadied her head. Ginette anointed her: forehead, nose and chin. The sweet scent of lavender filled Joan with an uneasy calm and the darkness returned.
Joan thought again of the story of her childhood fever. Joan’s mother had repeated and repeated the story until Joan was old enough to tell the story herself. Her poor and almost crippled mother, with Joan in hand, had begged her way along the pilgrimage route to the great shrine of the First Mother. After they had cleansed themselves in the Mother’s tears and circled the shrine seven times on their knees, Joan had mimicked the adults and adopted the seven postures of the true daughter’s supplication. A great shiver tore through Joan’s tiny body. She fell, and the fever took hold.
Joan’s mother nursed her near the shrine, in a dilapidated hut reserved for the horses, donkeys, and oxen that the pilgrims used to travel to the shrine. Her mother was sure Joan would die when she started to violently shake and scream incoherently. A sister of the shrine, drawn to Joan by her desperate sounds, heard not noises but words. The sister who found Joan rushed to find two other sisters. They confirmed what the first had heard. Joan was speaking in the Mother’s tongue. It was a sign that she had been blessed to serve the First Mother as a priestess and, perhaps, in time, as a high priestess.
The path to the priestesshood was not easy. Joan’s childhood was given over to study and prayer and service. The First Mother, and the sisters who serve her, give freely of their love. They also demand discipline and devotion from those who hope to serve. Only the truly devoted and pure are allowed to take their vows. Those who are called are tested over and over and over again.
In the long hard days of her apprenticeship, Joan was thankful for the comfort that her hardship earned for her mother. As the mother of one who had been called to the service, Joan’s mother was entitled to the modest but sustaining support of the sisters. True, Joan’s mother had, in many ways, lost a daughter to the service. She received in return a life of basic comfort that would have otherwise been unattainable in her crippled state. For this, Joan thanked the Father and the First Mother too.
Joan’s thoughts drifted in the darkness to the sermon she had given for the Holy of the Holies. When had that been? Two days ago? Perhaps longer? No matter. Joan and Ginette had quarreled over it, she recalled. It was the seventh and final year of the great cycle, by custom a time of forgiveness and reconciliation. However, this year, the Holy of Holies fell on a moon day for the First Mother. Ginette argued it was a sign that the First Mother wanted us to be mindful of our need for each other, men and women, church and state. Joan saw it differently. Without the possibility of children, there could be no reconciliation. This year’s reunion of the Father and the First Mother, she argued, was purely spiritual, with no lesson to be drawn about the affairs of the family or the state. Ginette argued passionately and intelligently for her interpretation, quoting scripture and secondary sources. She was too young to understand the world outside the gates of the temple. Theology, Joan had learned after many long years of struggle, was politics by another name.
A girl is there too! She is carelessly standing a few steps behind the holy wanderer. No, it is a young man. Tall, lanky, and a thick shock of brown hair so closely cropped at the ears and neck that he is easily mistaken for a tall girl. He makes no effort to signal his rank or status. He also doesn’t seem to understand Joan’s status as a high priestess. Perhaps, he simply ignores it.
Joan is crying. No, not Joan but a much younger version of Joan. She is not much older than the boy. She is wearing the plain wool habit of an unsworn novice. Judging by her age, she must be very close to taking her first vow. Why is she crying?
Joan’s mother slaps her again, much harder this time. The slap itself is no reason to cry. The sisters often hit Joan and with much more strength than her feeble mother can muster. Why is she crying?
“If you speak those words of blasphemy again, I will cut your tongue out myself.”
The face of her mother is filled with the horror of rage. Joan has never seen this side of her.
“Who will provide for me if you leave the service? Where will I go?”
They are together in the simple room the sisters provide to Joan’s mother because of Joan’s apprenticeship and service. They are drinking tea.
“Mother, I don’t believe. I have no faith. The mystery of the Father means nothing to me. I don’t feel the First Mother in my heart. I pray and pray, and my doubts are never silenced. I can’t take my vows, if I don’t believe. It would be the worst kind of blasphemy. I can’t enter the service. I won’t take my vows.”
Her mother strikes Joan again.
“You can and you will, Joan.” Her mother takes a deep breath and carefully refills their cups. “You know the prayers. You speak the Mother’s tongue. You speak the theology as well as any of them. You will learn to lead the ceremonies. You were meant to be a high priestess. I made sure of that.”
Joan does not look at her mother. She does not want to see the face of this horrible person she does not know or understand. Her eyes remain fixed on the little teapot on the table. She counts the chips in it.
“Joan, think carefully of what you are saying. There is nothing for you outside the service, beyond the walls of the temple. You are a woman born outside of the embrace of marriage. You have a crippled and broken mother you can’t care for. No father. No family. Outside these walls, your only choice will be to pretend to love the first man who takes an interest in you and hope that he doesn’t leave you the moment you give birth. Pretend to believe, if you must. It will be better than pretending to love a man you feel nothing for. Pretend to believe and, in time, you will find your faith. Your belly will be full with food instead of an unwanted child. Your bed will be dry. Your mother’s too. That should be reason enough to believe.”
Her mother is no longer her mother. In her place, Joan sees the boy from the temple. The boy’s calm blue eyes look into hers. He is too close to her. No man is ever allowed to be so close. He seems to know all of her doubts. He seems to know everything about Joan — the lies that go all the way down.
Joan awoke. Ginette peered down at her, with soft concern in her eyes. She stroked Joan’s hair. They were alone.
“Holy sister, how do you feel?” Ginette asked. “Can you hear me?”
Joan struggled to speak. Her throat was constricted, her tongue limp, and her lips numb. The sounds she made were curiously like the Mother’s tongue.
Ginette smiled serenely. She shushed Joan like a baby. Her fingertips caressed Joan’s cheek and forehead. There was nothing soothing in her touch. Ginette’s fingertips brushed lightly across Joan’s lips. They opened involuntarily. A tiny dark vial appeared from somewhere deep in Ginette’s robes. Joan tasted something bitter but strangely familiar. She thought again of her mother as the darkness returned.
“You have done well for yourself, my daughter — for us.” Joan’s mother speaks softly. “You’ve achieved more than I ever dreamed for you.”
Joan strokes her mother’s hair with one hand and holds one of her hands with the other. The fingers of her mother’s free hand strokes the fine silk of Joan’s light blue robe.
“A high priestess and at such a young age too. You have come so far and you will go even farther. I wish I was going to live long enough to see all that you become.”
Her mother had been right. In time, Joan talked and prayed her way to a kind of faith — fitful, fragile, and unsatisfying. She found instead her true calling in the ebb and flow of the intrigues of the temple. Her false faith was unsatisfying but it was also a source of strength in the perpetual struggle for influence and power. She was not shackled by a blind and unwavering piety. She easily shifted her beliefs and scriptural interpretations to suit the needs of the game. In time, she became very very good at the game. She was already a high priestess, the youngest called to the office in living memory.
“Mother, the final moments before the crossing over are a time for self-reflection. Is there any weight that you would like to take from your soul to hasten and ease the journey?”
A curious look flashes across her mother’s face. Joan senses that her mother wants to share something. She shakes her head instead. There is a moment of regret in her mother’s eyes, even shame. She smiles weakly. Her eyes fill with tears. The sadness in them shifts to pride.
“No, my conscience is clear. I am ready to put my heart and soul in the hands of the Father. Please ask the First Mother to beseech him on my behalf.”
Joan pats her mother’s hands. They are folded carefully on the thin blanket that covers her. She turns to the old familiar teapot. It sits on a plain and worn table that is next to the bed. There is one cup. Into it, Joan taps several drops of tincture. She looks again into her mother’s moist eyes. She realizes she feels nothing for this old frail woman who is about to die. She taps more tincture into the cup, not out of mercy but for the sake of haste. She has much to do, as she always does. She has plans. She has so much left to achieve. She will not stay on the fringes of the empire forever, in this backwater hamlet. The game, she is sure, will take her further, much further. She will be at the center of power one day. Of this, she has no doubt. Joan pours tea into the cup. She holds it to her mother’s lips. It will only take a few sips for her to cross over quickly and painlessly.
Joan stands in preparation for the final blessing. She sees herself in the mirror. She is no longer a young woman. In a way, she is much more beautiful than she ever was. Yes, the light blue of the high priestess’s habit is fetching on her. Confidence and power also have a way of highlighting the finest of her features. She admires herself long enough that she fails to deliver the final prayer for her mother as she crosses over. No matter. It makes no difference. The rituals are for the family of the dead. Joan is the only family her mother has ever had. With no one else to witness her passing, it makes no difference. Joan couldn’t care less if the rites have been done properly. She looks down at her mother. In her place, the holy wanderer bows before her. The boy smirks over top of him.
“Why did you bring him here?”
“He is a troubled young man,” the holy wanderer pleads. “He needs the Mother’s love, her guidance. To find the Father.”
“We sisters welcome only the pure or the repentant in this holiest of temples. I see nothing of purity or repentance in him — only arrogance, the banal arrogance of youth.”
“He is young, dear sister, and he is arrogant, but he is lost and it is the lost we wanderers are duty bound to find and deliver to God. God is good, God is everywhere, God is even in this boy’s troubled soul.”
“Praise be to you, Lord!” Joan replies mechanically. “Can the boy speak for himself or is he too troubled to beseech me on his own behalf?”
The holy wanderer steps back from Joan. The boy does not step forward. He watches Joan from where he is instead. The silence that fills the temple is rich and voluminous. Even the little white dog is still and quiet.
“Can you help me find God?” the boy finally asks her, with a voice that sounds much older than his appearance. “Perhaps, you can ask the First Mother to show me the way.”
Joan does not like the tone in his voice. “Kneel when you speak to me, boy.”
“Why?” A faint and curious smile appears at the corner of the boy’s mouth. He takes a step towards Joan. The wanderer noticeably flinches. The little white dog whimpers restlessly.
Brilliant sunlight breaks through the broad window high above the entrance of the temple. They are all washed in it. “To show the respect you owe me. To show the respect you owe to God.”
“I owe you nothing. I owe God nothing. You are a frail old woman in a pile of expensive robes. God is a lie that you use to justify your power. I see nothing to respect in that.”
The boy looks strangely beautiful in the sunlight. She turns and strides to the nearest door. Joan has heard enough.
“Wanderer you may stay. Tell the boy to leave the temple before I have him arrested for blasphemy. He will find no sanctuary here or in any of the First Mother’s temples.”
“Tell me, holy sister, if God exists, should he not have a shape and form, like you and me, like those he has made in his own image? Why would a perfect incorporeal being, in his infinite wisdom, create imperfect corporeal beings?”
Joan stops, anchored to the floor by the boy’s question. It is a childish question. It is a question she asked herself as a young girl. She thought on it for days, until she had the courage to ask one of the sisters who taught theology. She was answered with a firm spanking and the loss of dinner privileges for a week. In Joan’s memory, it was the very question that undermined her faith.
“What is it that you want, boy?” She turns to face him. He stands bathed in the beauty of the sunlight. “Why do you provoke my anger so pointlessly?”
“I want to kill God!”
Joan laughs. “It is blasphemous to say such a thing, even if it is utterly childish.”
“Yes, and for a God who is supposed to see and know all, isn’t it strange that such blasphemy would go unnoticed and unpunished. Perhaps, he is afraid of me?
Joan’s anger turns to disappointment. The boy, she realizes, is nothing but a child who lashes out for effect and nothing more. There is no depth or meaning to his provocations. He is not worth her time. “It will not go unpunished. You are not the first young and arrogant iconoclast to die for his hubris. I will have you tried for blasphemy. Your death will be neither quick nor merciful.”
“Neither will yours.”
There is a sudden and violent movement. Joan knows she is dead before she realizes the sword has struck the altar instead of her.
“Come out, come out wherever you are!”
The boy strikes the altar with his sword again and again, calling for God to come out in a childish sing-song voice. He smashes a thousand year old icon. He slashes a copy of the scripture thought to be written by the First Mother herself. He overturns a chalice of the Mother’s tears. The altar collapses under the strength of his violence. It happens so quickly and so mercilessly, Joan forgets to call for the guards. She calls only when the destruction is complete and irreversible. It had never occurred to anyone that something so holy and so precious needed to be guarded.
Ginette arrives before the guards do. She takes in the scene quickly. Joan sees a look on Ginette’s face that she only understands now from within the darkness of the fever. Joan sees neither horror nor outrage in Ginette’s face. Instead, it is the white glow of an opportunity perceived.
“It’s a rare herb, Joan,” Ginette whispered. The inflection she gives to Joan’s name calls attention to the disrespectfulness of its use without Joan’s explicit permission. “It is a poison, truthfully. When carefully administered, it brings on a very unique kind of fever. Some mystics think it is a means to communicate directly with God. You and I both know that’s not possible. You and I both know that there is no God to communicate with, don’t we?”
Ginette struggled to speak. She only makes incoherent sounds.
“The wheel of fortune turns so quickly. A few years ago you were at the height of your powers. Today, you have lost the support of the sisters, and you don’t even know it. We are tired of your patience. We are ready for change.” Ginette brushed Joan’s lips again with the bitter herb. “The sisters would never turn against you overtly. Now, after the sacrilege in the temple, no one will question what happens to you. The incident was a great shock to your system. That a deadly fever set in because of it — well, that’s a very holy reaction to the boy’s very unholy action.”
Joan remembered the sweet milky tea that Ginnette had brought to calm her after the guards had taken the boy away. Joan preferred her tea black. Ginnette had insisted. The milk and sugar had masked the bitterness of the herb.
“I suspect the mystics are fond of the herb precisely because one can hear almost anything in the noises made while under its effects. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were speaking in the Mother’s Tongue right now.” Ginette smiled and reflected for a moment. “Isn’t that beautiful? You will die in the very same kind of fever from which your faith and your life of service first bloomed.”
Joan thought of the mosaic tucked away in a quiet corner of the temple. If one were to remove or add even one piece, the effect on the whole would be disastrous. Joan realized at that moment that the same could be true of life.
“Don’t worry, dear Joan. The sisters and I will hear only holy and pious words in your gibberish. Your corpse will not stink either. I will make sure of that. In death, you will serve as you did in life. You will be a saint one day. Your mother would be so proud of you. Now rest. You deserve it.”
After the darkness envelopes her again, Joan instinctively and mechanically starts to pray to the First Mother. She stops when she realizes what she is doing. Even if the first mother is there to hear her prayer, she would not listen to Joan now. The First Mother’s love and mercy is boundless, but only for the pure and the repetent. Like the boy, Joan is neither. She tries to picture her mother’s face but she can’t. She can only imagine something like a crude etching. It falls apart the moment her concentration ebbs. She herself begins to feel like an etching. Her thoughts flicker. A hope bursts into the darkness of her fever, a hope for an eternal life, a hope for the chance to see her mother again, a hope for anything other than what she knows awaits her.
Karn tried to quell his excitement. He knew the Emperor and the Empress were on the other side of the door. It was making his belly uneasy and his head light. The darkness of the small antechamber helped to calm his nerves. The Chief Steward had left him there to wait.
Footsteps approached. The door of the antechamber swung open. The light of a thousand candles dazzled Karn. A woman stood before him in silhouette. Her hair hung loosely around her face. She wore a long robe. It clung to her body.
“There you are, little one. Step forward, step into the light. Yes, come forward. Don’t be shy.”
Karn’s eyes adjusted to the dazzling light. His brain struggled to understand all that he saw. He knew the word for it. He could spell and define the word. He realized now that he had never truly understood the word. He knew it was opulence.
The woman turned into the light, to call over her shoulder. “Come look at him, darling.”
It was the Empress herself. Karn was stunned. He fought the urge to fling himself to the ground and prostrate himself before her. The Chief Stewart had insisted that it would please their majesties greatly if Karn would forgo some of the protocols normally expected of him. “They will want to look at you. It is a honour few people receive. Enjoy it. Be quiet at all times, and do as you are told. Nothing else.”
A soft cool hand took Karn’s. It pulled him gently into the room. The floor was covered in a rug. It was softer than anything he had ever felt. Karn sunk into it. A sweet fruity scent drifted off the Empress. It was the most exquisite smell Karn had ever smelt. Karn had tried wine once. The feeling he had now was something like the feeling of wine.
“If he won’t have a look at you, I will,” she whispered into his ear.
The Empress stepped back from Karn, turning an inquiring eye onto him. Without looking directly at her, Karn also examined her. She was beautiful. She looked much much older than he had expected. Perhaps, the portraits he had seen were from her youth. Her robe was almost translucent and hardly done up. He could make out the soft curve of her breasts through the thin material. He was certain he could see a naked nipple peeking out.
“Yes, you will do very nicely.” She touched his cheek lightly with her fingers. “Oh, and what’s this?”
At the sight of the Empress’s near nakedness, Karn’s erection had made a tent of the light robe he had been given to wear after his bath. He flushed in embarrassment.
“No need to be embarrassed, little one. No, be proud. I am very proud of you.” She called over her shoulder again. “Oh come quickly, darling, you will be so pleased. This one isn’t afraid at all.”
Karn heard a soft rustling of movement. The Emperor appeared — or so Karn assumed. His long white beard was familiar, but he seemed too small to be the Emperor. Without the armour and cloaks he normally wore in his portraits, he looked almost weak and frail. He was also much older than Karn had expected. Then, Karn realized, for the first time, that the artist could have painted them however he pleased. He thought again: however they pleased.
The Emperor studied Karn’s face for a moment. “Yes, I like this one. He will do.”
“Look at his little pecker darling. It went as stiff as board at the very sight of me. Isn’t that devine? He is still blushing too. I think he will be simply divine.”
“Yes, look at his little pecker.” Karn felt a quick sharp flick at the tip of his erection. The sharp unexpected pain dissolved quickly into a strangely pleasant sensation. “Let’s take a closer look at his little pecker, shall we?”
The Emperor loosened the knot of the belt around Karn’s waist. The robe fell open. The Emperor knelt before him. Karn felt a warm wetness wrap around his erection. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It confused Karn. He had never felt anything like it. He wasn’t sure what was happening. He didn’t dare to look down at the Emperor. His erection now felt cool. There was a warm softness touching and tapping at its tip. It was still tingling from the short flick that had turned from pain to pleasure. Now, a firm warm pressure went slowly down one side of his erection and up the other. He wanted to look down to see what the Emperor was doing. He was too afraid to. His erection was enclosed again in a warm, wet and moving pressure. Karn’s pelvis jerked involuntarily. He began to breathe deeply. All at once, it was intense and exhilarating. A physical euphoria ebbed into his body from the intensity in his cock. His face felt numb and acutely sensitive. The skin in his cock stretched to the point of rupture. A firm pressure moved up and down on his cock. The warm wet intensity seemed to pull at his erection. An agonizing euphoria exploded from the tip of his erection to the very ends of his head, fingers, and toes. He quivered and moaned. He almost lost his balance. His face tingled. He was gone. Lost.
The Emperor stood again. He peered into Karn’s eyes. He licked his lips. “A little quick and a tad bitter, I’m afraid, but he will do. I think he will do well for a night.”
“Oh don’t be so fussy, darling. It was a delight to watch. He positively quivered. I’m sure it was his first time too. I’m sure of it.” The Empress patted Karn on the cheek. She tweaked his nose. “You are a very lucky boy. A very lucky boy.”
Karn came back from somewhere else. His face was full of pins and needles. The intensity had fallen away. Now he felt empty and ashamed. He didn’t know why. He could not look at the Emperor or the Empress.
From a distance, there was a light but firm knock and the sound of a door opening.
“My apologies, your majesties.” It was the Chief Steward’s voice. “An envoy from the Hierophant has arrived.”
“At this time of night?”
“He insisted that the message be passed along. It bore the Hierophant’s personal seal.”
The Emperor groaned childishly. “Amritha, give the boy some fruit. Albert, would you like some wine.”
The Empress took Karn by the hand. She led him to a table full of meats and fruits and cheeses and other things he did not know. Karn had never seen so much food before. He thought of the meager bowls of gruel and soup that he and the other boys in the orphanage ate. Karn examined the table carefully, searching, and thought of his brothers.
“There is a boy in the possession of your majesty’s bailiffs,” said the Chief Steward. “He murdered a conjurer in the market yesterday and destroyed the altar at the First of the First Mother’s temples. Quite the little hellion, it seems.”
“Yes, and what of it? Why trouble me now about it.”
“The Hierophant insists he should take possession of the boy and pass judgment over him for the crime he has committed. He insists we have overstepped our authority by taking and trying the boy.”
“And what does my First Minister say?”
“Murder is a capital crime and a matter of the state and not the temple. The law and relevant scripture are black letter.”
“So His Holiness knows that he is overstepping his authority.”
“Yes, I suspect so. He is old your majesty, but not yet senile. He knows the law and the scripture as well as any. His staff are as good as yours, if not better, given your fondness for brawn and beauty.”
“It’s never easy, is it Albert?” The Emperor refilled his glass. He drank deeply from it. “What is his game?”
The Empress whispered into Karn’s ear, “Little one, try something.” He scanned the table, searching. “Here, let me help you. Try this.” The Empress held something to Karn’s lips. He opened them. She popped a soft cool globe into his mouth. “Chew it.”
The taste was sharply bitter. It was immediately overpowered by a deep and textured sweetness that covered all of Karn’s mouth. He had never tasted anything like it. He had never tasted anything better. His eyes opened in wonder and he smiled.
The Empress laughed delightfully.
“It is unclear what His Holiness hopes to gain from this particular intervention with this particular boy, your majesty, but his urgency is easily understood. The boy is to be hung at dawn.”
“Oh, little one, that was simply divine to watch. Try this too. I want to see your eyes light up again.”
The flavour and texture were alien to Karn. It was delightful. It was something like the texture of porridge but without any weight or coarseness. The sweetness was also very different from the sweetness of the first thing he had tried. Karn looked directly at the Empress for the first time in hopeless wonder and delight. She looked deeply into his eyes, drinking it in.
“I see no trick in this Albert and no erosion of my authority, if handled properly. Perhaps he has taken an interest in boys as well.” The Emperor laughed. “Perhaps, I should have a look at the boy before I turn him over. No matter. The one you brought tonight will do, and there are always plenty more. Very well, Albert, let His Holiness have the boy. Be clear that I do it only as a favour in light of the recent horror, etcetera, etcetera. Be clear that I do not recognize his authority and no precedent has been set.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Oh, I simply can’t wait anymore, darling.” The Empress took hold of Karn’s arm and pulled him away from the table. “Darling, when Albert is gone, join me at the bed. Bring your wine and your chair. I am quite sure you are going to want to see this.”
She pulled Karn towards a giant bed, covered in luxurious pillows of all shapes and sizes.
Karn had spotted what he had been looking for on the table of food. There was a small knife. It was not large, but it would do. Before the palace guards had come for him, he had heard the whispers. He had heard the rumours about what happened to the other boys taken from the orphanage by the palace guards and why they were never heard from again. If he had to die, he wanted to die doing something — anything. He wanted to follow the example of the boy who had destroyed the First Temple.
“Pay attention, little one.” The Empress lay on the bed in front of Karn. Her robe fell open. It was the first woman’s body he had ever seen completely naked. Despite her age, Karn felt his erection rise and peek out from his robe. She beckoned. “Come closer, little one. I want to show you something else you can do with your little pecker. Come closer. Much closer. Yes, much much closer.” Her hand took hold of his cock. She guided it into a feeling like nothing he had ever known. Every nerve of his body throbbed with pleasure, exhilaration, wonder and oblivion. In the confusion of it, he responded to the Empress’s coaxing hand. He started to rock against her with his hips. “Oh, yes, that’s very very good, little one. That’s very good. That’s very very good.” Karn felt himself disappear in the intense pleasure of the moment.
Cameron bit into an olive. The boy worked his way nervously into his wife. Amritha cooed her support and guidance. Cameron shook his head in disbelief.
Has it really come to this, Jerome? We were friends once, you and I. Of that, I am sure. Long ago, yes, but we were once friends. We had dreams. We had plans. Together, we would remake the Empire and the world. Together, we would do so much. We were friends.
The boy quivered. Amritha pulled him to her breasts. She wrapped her arms and legs around him, cocooning him in her delight.
I can remember the smell of my father rotting, Jerome. I will never forget that smell. Even with that rotting stench in my nostrils, I smiled when you anointed me. The power — the power that had been his — was now mine. With your hands and the tears of the Mother, I was made Emperor. It took only a moment. You sprinkled a few drops of the Mother’s tears on my forehead. The prayer you mumbled was brief and unremarkable. Is that all, I asked? You laughed. Pomp and circumstance are for the crowds, you said. The actual rites of accession were elaborated at a time when Emperors died and were born on the field of battle — not in a bed. The complex ceremonies came later, to mollify the people. No, you said, all that matters to power and its transmission is this holy trinity of men — one dead, one alive, and one holy — and the service of the First Mother with her tears. You clapped my shoulders. Rise, Emperor, let’s have a drink, and let your father rot in peace.
Unsatisfied by the olive, Cameron turned his attention to the table of food. He poured himself a glass of wine.
Could I have been wrong about our friendship, Jerome, all this time? Was I too young and naive to recognize it? When you anointed me with the Mother’s tears, I was barely a man. You had already been Hierophant for ten years or more, and the only spiritual leader I had ever known. Your friendship, your mentoring, were they all part of a larger plan to force the Church to the center of everything? In my eyes, you were the one true voice of the Father. Perhaps, I trusted you too much because of it.
Jerome plucked a grape from the bunch. He popped it into his mouth. It was out of season and tart. He glanced at the bed. The boy was now lapping at Amritha’s twat under her careful direction. He seemed to be getting the hang of it. Amritha’s voice quivered. She lay back into the pillows. She began to coax the boy instead of directing him.
I wonder, Jerome, when did I stop looking at you as the voice of the Father and start seeing you as one more man filled with human need and ambition? Certainly, the final rupture was the appointment of Joan. You were furious when I accepted her nomination as High Priestess at the First Temple. Her ambition had always concerned you. To stand against you on a religious matter, to take that stand, I must have already begun to see you in a more human light. What had happened between you and I?
On the cheese plate, Cameron spotted a small knife. That was strange. There was a strict rule against knives or anything that could be used as a weapon. The boys were almost always entirely acquiescent, but there had been occasions when they harmed themselves. It had distressed Amritha. Cameron cut himself a piece of cheese. He brought the knife with him to the liquor cabinet. He left the knife hidden behind some bottles and poured himself a strong drink. He took a deep breath of its rich and complex odour.
I remember, Jerome. It was that ridiculous story you told me. That story about the lake. That was the point upon which everything turned. Now I remember. You had accompanied me on a hunt. In it itself, this was preposterous. You said something about the need for fresh air and a fresh perspective. Absurd. You have always hated fresh air, the land and moving about on it. You prefer your stuffy libraries and books. My suspicions were aroused when you joined me that morning. They were rewarded after the hunt, as we had a drink together. You told me a sentimental story about some lake from your childhood. A lake we had seen that day reminded you of it, I think. Something about a boat and the unfinished business of youth. Yes, that was it. The story about the boat and the moment you contrived to share it were so utterly false that I finally saw through you. When your request came, slipped in almost as an afterthought, I finally understood how your stories had always been the means by which you had shaped my judgment, guided my perception, and got your way. You were one more courtier among all the others. One more man banally consumed by the longing for power, dressed in the robes of religion.
Amritha’s sharp cry of pleasure shook Cameron from the memory.
She’s always had a talent for orgasm, hasn’t she? It rarely takes her any effort at all. I suppose that’s why she eventually learned to welcome these late night romps.
“Oh, Cameron, stop brooding, and join us. Otherwise, I shall use him all up myself and not share a bit of him with you.”
“I’m coming dear.” Cameron drained his glass, and he set it down. “I shall be coming, I should say.”
Oh, what does it matter, Jerome? Why do I waste even a moment of thought on you? Friendship? Loyalty? Morality? They are nothing. To you and me both. There is power, its exercise, and death. Nothing else. I am the Emperor, you are not, and my cock can still get hard enough to pierce a boy’s ass. In the end, that is the only thing that matters.
“Where do you suppose I left my slippers?” Jerome shuffled across the rug in his dressing gown, searching. “Under the desk, I suppose? Hum tum ta tee dum. Hum tum ta tee dum. Good bit of music at service today. Good bit of music. Must send a note to the new girl at the temple.”
There was a sharp knock at the door. Tristan, one of Jerome’s clerks, entered.
“Your Holiness, the Emperor has seen fit to honour your request. We have the boy who defiled the temple.”
Jerome continued his search. “Good. Very good. Have the boy brought here.”
“Here, your Holiness?”
Jerome stopped, and did not turn around. “Yes, bring him here. Why do I have to say everything twice? Go now.”
The door shut swiftly. Jerome resumed his trek across the rug to his desk. He peered into the darkness beneath, muttering to himself, “The arrogance of youth. Impossible for them to believe that an old man might still have his wits about him. Youth is far more damaging to one’s wits than old age. Of that, I am sure.”
He shuffled towards the bookcase squinting. “Ah, there you are, my dears. Why did I leave you over here by the book case? No matter. I have found you.”
Jerome slipped his feet into his slippers. His personal office was warm in spirit but it chilled to the bone. There were other offices and rooms in which he could spend his nights. They were far more luxurious. He enjoyed the austerity of this small room. It helped him concentrate.
“I suppose I should put on something a little more formal than a dressing gown.” He scanned the room to see if Tristan had thought to bring one of his formal robes. If he had, it was not apparent to Jerome in the half light cast by the two large candles on his desk. “Oh well, I suppose there are many things I should do or not do, but it is the prerogative of old age to do as one pleases in the middle of the night.”
It occurred to Jerome that he had been looking for something else before he had been distracted by the search for his slippers.
There was a sharp knock at the door. Tristan, accompanied by two of the larger clerks, brought in a tall and slender young man. He was shackled at his wrists and ankles. He also had a contraption over his mouth.
“Ah, here he is! Our young iconoclast. My pleasure, my boy, entirely my pleasure.” Jerome sighed loudly. “For the love of our Mother, remove the shackles and that contraption from his face. He won’t bite.” The clerks hesitated. “Do it now!”
The two larger clerks set to work, noisily and deliberately.
“How nice that you could join us, my boy. It was good of the old man to take a break from one of his filthy little orgies to send you to me.” Jerome sighed. “He is filth, of course, but he is the Father’s anointed filth, so one must take the good with the bad. Such is the way and the mystery of the Lord.”
The clerks finished their work and stepped away from the boy. He seemed uncommonly at ease in his profoundly adolescent body. He rubbed his wrists, to get the blood moving. Nothing else in his bearing suggested that he had moments ago been in chains and that he was now standing before the one true voice of the Father and Hierophant of all the known lands. There was a hint of the ancient in the boy’s confidence. No, it lurked in his indifference.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by you, if you are, in fact, who I think you are, but more on that later. I shan’t play all my cards on the very first trick. Tristan, bring me his things.”
Jerome shuffled behind his desk. He eased himself into the chair. His strength was so uncertain these days. He was never sure if he could manage to seat himself properly. At this time of night, he didn’t feel the need to hide his age or frailty. He fixed his dressing gown and caught the boy’s gaze. The boy did not look away.
“Tristan, please put his things here in front of me on the desk. Where I can reach them.” Tristan did as he was told. “Before you go, Tristan, please draw the sword from the sheath. I would like to look at it more closely.” Jerome cocked his head, while holding the gaze of the boy. “You don’t mind, do you?”
The boy shrugged. He seemed to be smiling. In the flickering candle light it also seemed to be a sneer.
Jerome nodded and Tristan drew the sword. At the sound of it, they both smiled. “Wonderful. Like the voice of a seraph. Bring it closer, Tristan, so I can look at the steel.” Even in the gloom of the half-lit room, the blade captured and reflected the light. The quality of the work was exquisite. It was almost otherworldly.
“This is a very fine blade. Where did you get it,” Jerome asked.
“It was my father’s sword.”
Jerome concealed his surprise. The boy’s voice was much deeper and warmer than he had expected. “Did he give it to you, a favoured son?”
“No, I took it from him.”
There was menace in the boy’s voice. The blade seemed to turn black within the lightlessness that flared between the dance of the candles’ light.
“I see.” Jerome smiled at the boy. “Well, it’s no business of mine. My only concern is with the duty a son owes the one true Father.” He patted his desk. “Leave the sword here Tristan, where we can both see it, then, go.”
Jerome felt Tristan’s hesitation.
“Yes, yes, I know all about it. Leave, Tristan, and take those two with you.” Jerome motioned to the clerks hovering by the boy. “I wish to be left alone with the boy to talk.” He tapped the desk twice with his index finger. Tristan nodded and moved towards the door.
Jerome hummed. He watched the clerks leave. “I heard a lovely bit of music at today’s service. The Mother’s work never stops, in spite of your foolishness. The likes of you will never put an end to her unceasing labours and devotion to us all.”
The boy’s gaze was unwavering. The sword seemed to quiver in the light. The chill of the room reached Jerome’s spine.
“What else have you got with you, my boy?” Jerome turned his attention to the small sack Tristan had left on the desk. “Not much of anything, it would seem. There’s a few scraps of clothing in here. Your prisoner’s smock is probably in better shape. What’s this?” Jerome held up a small lead disc. “The token of a Holy Wanderer. Ah, yes, of course. A wanderer was with you. I suppose he has befriended you and taken you under his wing. This token is the proof of that. As long as you have it, he won’t give up on you. That’s good. Fitting. It’s the sort of thing they are meant to do. Protect the lost and return them safely to the flock. It’s a great risk for him, of course. Yours is the kind of guilt with which others are easily associated. Like a stench. Blasphemy, my boy, even when — ”
“What do you want?”
Jerome cocked his head in surprise. He had not been cut off in decades. He watched the boy, expecting him to fill the silence. The boy watched him. The candles flickered silently. Jerome was impressed.
“Now, what was I looking for before I found my slippers? Oh yes! My medicine. I must remember to take it.” Jerome pulled at a drawer. He removed a small vial of tincture. “I am meant to take it with water. Would you fetch me the jug over there, lad?”
The boy looked first then moved. He poured a glass of water, brought it to the desk, and set it down. Jerome reached for it. The glass was beyond his reach. He stretched for it. He knocked over the vial of medicine. It rolled across the desk. It came to rest against the blade of the sword. Jerome fell back into his chair, clutching the glass. He took a sip of water. The boy had left the glass out of reach on purpose. Jerome was sure of it.
“Very refreshing. Thank you.” He set the glass down on the desk. He felt very tired all of a sudden. It often happened at this time of night. He decided there was no point in beating about the bush at this late hour. “I bring you good news, my boy. The Father has a plan for you, he loves you, and he has been waiting for you.”
“I don’t want your platitudes.”
Jerome’s patience broke into a righteous anger. “I am a prophet, boy,” He thundered, with an unexpected strength. “I am God’s messenger. His one true voice! Be respectful and listen.”
The boy seemed to take pleasure in Jerome’s outburst. Beneath the boy’s gaze, Jerome felt petulant rather than commanding. He fell back into his chair again.
“I am not speaking in platitudes,” Jerome sighed. “No, I am speaking of a prophecy, a very specific prophecy, a prophecy that indicates that you are the instrument of that prophecy. These are the end of days, my boy, and you shall bring them to an end.”
A moment of naked fear flashed in the boy’s eyes. It was gone in the very next flicker of the candle’s light. Jerome might have imagined it.
“Look for yourself.” Jerome pulled at another drawer. He took out a sheaf of parchment. He left it where the boy would have to reach for it. Jerome could play that game too. “It is all written down there in my own hand, in advance of you doing it. Look! The signs are drawn from a number of different sources, all very ancient, all very sacred, but they are all very specific. They all point to you. Look!” Jerome stabbed the parchment with his finger. “In brief, it says an unknown young man will come from the east, looking for God. He will strike out against superstition, he will strike out against false idols, he will destroy the old order. He will kill God. It even describes your beautiful sword. There is bit their about the murder of your parents too. One look at you and I have no doubt it has already happened. Look! It is all there for you to see. Go ahead. See for yourself. See for yourself.”
The boy picked up the parchment. He read it carefully.
“Good. You read, and I will take my medicine. Now, what did I do with it?” Jerome spotted the vial up against the sword. “Ah yes, there it is. Pass it to me, my boy, won’t you?”
A series of sharp knocks rattled at the door, signally a matter of the utmost urgency.
“Enter.” Jerome cleared his throat. He pointed to the medicine. “The medicine, boy.”
“Your holiness—” Tristan trailed off. He was ashen. “There are reports, your grace. There are very credible reports from the palace that the Emperor and the Empress — the Emperor and the Empress have been murdered.”
Jerome’s throat went dry. It is one thing to document a prophecy on parchment. It is a very different thing to see it come to pass.
“Who else knows?” Jerome saw the shock in Tristan’s eyes. “Yes, yes, and may the Mother guide their souls.” He made a quick motion with his hand. “Tristan this is no time for formalities. Time is of the essence. Who else knows?”
Tristan swallowed hard. He gathered himself quickly. He seemed to understand. “Our spies sent word as soon as they knew. We can’t be sure who else knows.” The colour started to return to Tristan’s face.
“If our spies know, then all the others know too. There is no question of that. Send a message to that new girl at the temple. We must meet at once. Filth and filth’s wife have left no heirs. Many will move to the fill the vacuum. The girl and I must find common ground for the sake of the faithful and quickly. We can’t be divided any longer. Go now quickly.”
Tristan slammed the door shut behind him. The boy continued to read. He seemed to have heard nothing.
“And you, boy,” Jerome pulled at another drawer, “I am setting you free. That, as far as I can tell, is my part to play in this prophecy. I deliver you into its hands. May the Mother guide you.” From the drawer, he pulled a small medallion attached to a chain necklace and flung it on the desk. “And take that. It will help you on your journey.”
The boy looked up from the parchment. “What is it?”
“The medallion is the Mark of the Prophet. No one, not even the Emperor — or whomever will take his place — can interfere with you now. So long as you carry that with you, you are a messenger of God.”
“I’m not a messenger of God. I want to kill God.”
“Yes, yes, I know. If the prophecy is accurate, you shall.” Fatigue once again washed over Jerome. “Whether or not you are his messenger, that is for God to decide.” Jerome coughed sharply. He suddenly felt sick to the stomach. “Our world and way of life is very old, my boy. Too old. It is time to let it pass over into new hands. You, I suspect, are the Father’s instrument for doing so.”
The boy folded the parchment neatly into a square, and palmed it. He picked up the chain. The small medallion glistened in the candle light.
A sharp hateful pain burst in Jerome’s chest. He fell back into his chair. Agony twisted through every part of his body. He trembled. He was sure he had more time. Were his calculations wrong?
“Boy, pass me the medicine.” Jerome motioned with his head. “I need it.”
The boy watched Jerome.
“Boy, I need my medicine. I will die without it.” Cold sweat rolled down Jerome’s forehead. “Please.”
The boy smiled. He put the chain around his neck.
“Boy —” Another impossible burst of pain tore through Jerome’s chest. “Please, pass it to me. Please. I beg of you. I’m not meant to meet the Father yet. Not now. I have things I must do first.”
The boy picked up the vial. He placed it in front of Jerome — just out of reach.
Another hateful pain tore through Jerome’s chest. It filled every part of him. Then, it drained away. A curious lightness replaced it. He could not move. He felt light, very very light. The candlelight danced on the ceiling of his office. He was reminded of the sun playing on the surface of a lake. He had always wanted to learn how to work wood, build a boat, and sail on that lake. It was so familiar to him; he had always loved it; he had never found the time. He had always wanted to return to that lake and build a boat and sail it. Now, he realized, he never would. All the time that was left to him was not even a moment. Everything he had ever done, all that he had ever accomplished was lost in this one regret. Why had he left such a simple dream undone?
“Boy, I have struggled my entire life with doubt. I have never been sure — really sure — that God exists. Now I know for the first time that he exists. Only God — a terrible and wrathful God — could have created a monster like you. Yes, God exists, and he deserves to die. He deserves to die because he allowed a monster like you to be born.”
The boy laughed. He sheathed his sword. All the light of the office went with it, and Jerome too.
I don’t understand all the noises Leader makes. I like to hear all of them. They make me feel good. Unless he is angry at me. He isn’t angry at me now. He also isn’t happy. He is looking at a shiny thing attached to a chain. He is upset. I can tell. I feel it. All of me feels it. I want to be near him. Together, we feel better. I will wait until he is not upset. He likes me to stay away when he is upset. Like now. I like Leader best. I like the fire. The fire is warm. I will lie here until Leader is ready for me to lie near him. I can see him from here. I don’t want to lie close to Boy. He smells strange.
“He wants me to kill God,” Boy says.
“Liar,” snaps Leader. My ears prick up. Leader doesn’t snap. Not even when he is angry. He must smell the strangeness of Boy too. I sometimes snap at Boy.
“It’s a prophecy,” says Boy. His noises calm and irritate me at the same time. It is a strange feeling. I can’t help but snap at him. It’s his smell and noises. I don’t like his noises. I also can’t help listening. “He wants me to fulfill the prophecy. He wants me to kill God. He said exactly this when he gave me that medallion.”
“I don’t believe you.” Leader flings the shiny chain back at Boy. I want to chase the flying thing. I don’t want to go near Boy. I lie down again.
Boy shrugs at Leader. I don’t like Boy. He smells strange.
“Why am I part of this? Why?” Leader stands. I leap up too. I wag my tail. I will go wherever he wants to go. I want to be near him and feel good together with him. He doesn’t see me. I want to bark. I know I shouldn’t! He turns away from Boy and the fire. He isn’t going anywhere. I can tell. If Leader wants me to come, he will tell me to come. He always tells me to come with him when he goes anywhere. He likes me to be with him. I like to be with him.
“Maybe it’s out of your control,” says Boy. He throws clothing onto the fire. He was wearing them before. They smelt really bad too. Boy looks at a little lead disc. The fire catches on the clothing, and the light flares. Boy puts the disc away. “The prophecy says I will be helped by the pure and the innocent. Others too.”
Leader turns to Boy. “It says? It says? Where does it say this?”
“He wrote it down.” Boy pulls a square out of his pocket. He holds it out to Leader. “Here.”
Leader takes the square. He opens it. He stares at it. The paper is bothering him. I can feel it. If it bothers him, he should stop looking at it.
“I think this bit is about Feste.” Leader wants me! He is looking at me! I stand and wag my tail as hard as I can. Call me and I will come, Leader! Call me and I will come, Leader! Oh no! He looked away! Oh no! Not yet! He doesn’t want me yet. He is looking at Boy again. I will lie down again. I am sad. I want to be near Leader.
“Why would a dog matter?” Boy asks.
“I don’t know. I also don’t know why God would pick a petulant boy like you to be his executioner.” Leader holds the paper out to Boy.
“No. Tell me more. What else do you see?”
“Why? Can’t you read?”
“I can read. The meaning is not clear to me. It’s like a riddle I can’t make sense of.”
“You wouldn’t be the first person to say it of scripture. You won’t be the last.” Leader looks at the paper again. “Here, this part. I think this refers to the spiritual leader of my order. He is said to wander far from here, to the east. I think this means you are meant to find him. He will help you on your journey. I do know not why, but it would seem so.”
“Where can I find him?”
“I will show you.”
“I don’t need you to show me. Tell me the direction and leave.” Boy’s smell is really bad now. Really bad.
Leader thrusts the paper back at Boy. “No, I made a pledge,” Leader seems scared. “You have my token. I will see you safely home.”
“There is no home for me to return to. I destroyed it. ” Boy draws his sword. The sound hurts my ears. Boy’s smell is awful. It is all around me and Leader. “Perhaps, I should deliver you to your home.”
Leader crouches. He looks into the fire. “It’s true. You don’t need me. You may not need me, but I need you.”
Boy’s face is mean. “Why?” he asks.
“I have looked for God for many years.” Leader looks sad. I want to make him happy. “I have looked for him in holy places. I have looked for him in profane places. I have gone on pilgrimages. I have tended shrines. I have mortified the flesh. I have indulged the flesh. I have taken every path to God that is known to the faithful, and I have never found God. I have never found him.”
“What does it have to do with me?” snarls Boy. His bad smell is everywhere. I want to bark! I want to warn Leader.
“You are going to find God, and I want to be there when you find him.”
“You think I will find him?”
“Let God’s will be done, and may the Mother’s love aid him.”
“If you stay with me, I will kill you. If not today or tomorrow, then someday, I will kill you.”
“Yes, I have every reason to believe that you believe you will, but I have a hunch that you won’t.”
“No. A bet, perhaps.” Leader pokes at the clothes burning in the fire. “You held onto my token. I saw you pull it from the pocket of these clothes you are burning. You could have let it burn with them but you did not.”
“A bad wager, I’d say.”
“It is a wager worth taking, if the payoff is God.”
Boy sheaths his sword. “Sleep. I will take first watch.”
I run as fast as I can to be near Leader. I want to jump at him. I know I shouldn’t. He lies on his mat, and I lie next to him, as close as I can. He is not happy. He feels scared. Very very scared. I don’t understand why. The fire is warm and Boy doesn’t smell as bad anymore. Leader is still scared, so I am scared too. Leader shivers, and I do too.
A PDF of the complete novella is available here.