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A baker, Sistance by name, a soldier, Aralius, and a girl of ten and two years, Haini, were the final inhabitants of the city of Adea-- once the greatest city in the World. What city was finer? What other city had conquered the Earth? But an empire built on boats, soldiers, and sailors can be reduced to a single baker, soldier, and little girl.
Sistance looked to be built out of the very dough he must have moulded. Lumpy, with small button eyes, and a flowing chin behind a small beard. His voice was deep. I’d first noticed him during the death of a young boy, his son, he’d said. I think the event unhinged him as his only response to his son’s death was to shrug, say a prayer, then say a joke of such ill taste that I cannot even give print a party to its vile nature. However, it was because of this joke that I recognized him as soon as the crowd thinned enough for it to become a group of individuals again. As the group depopulated, Sistance grew more pious and overbearing. He had an irritating habit of making promises for me. If a man came to me and said, “Please, my daughter is sick. Could you bestow some of the Deity’s light upon her?” If Sistance stood nearby, he’d step in before I could speak and say, “Of course Saint Motley will.” I grew to loathe this man. His false piety grew daily until he was more a man of the Faith than I was. Angels dropped from his very mouth, his very utterances were whisked up to Heaven by golden spirits! To hear him tell it.
The soldier, Aralius, no longer wore his armor. He carried a short sword, what was commonly called a horse-sticker by the men in the ranks. His blond hair no longer held the neat and oiled locks prevalent in the army, but grew unwieldy and frazzled. Though a young man of twenty and five, he had gray in his beard and streaked through his hair. He laughed at anything. Mirth to keep the recent horror at bay, I suspect.
The girl, Haini, was a curly-haired beauty. Darling, and sweet too. She was honest and kind. Her dark skin betrayed either Ayeguan or Cedonian blood, perhaps a child of our colonization projects, though she spoke without accent.
With these three, I had ascended the Square Temple. The city lay bare before us, completely dead. The extent of the destruction wasn’t visible for here. The city looked serene and peaceful.
The sea smeared the sun across the harbor, where the ships rocked slowly.
“Ships to spread the Faith!” Sistance said pointing to the ships with a finger puffy with fat.
“It takes a crew of seventeen to work the warships. We could take a fishing boat. We could be the crabbers of the Empire. Cast our nets out for believers! Maybe we can catch sharks for the Deity!” he said, each sentence punctuated by longer and longer peels of laughter. “We’ll reconquer the world in no time. Led by God’s own Baker!”
“You fool!” Sistance said. He grabbed me by the shoulder. “This here is a True Saint. With Saint Motley, we can conquer entire nations!”
I shrugged him off. Pulling up my cowl, I said nothing and retreated into my clothing so neither baker, soldier, or girl could see my brooding features.
“Any of us could conquer a nation,” Aralius said still laughing. “Haini could do it with a flag and some rope. Look around you, Sist, there isn’t anybody left. We could row to the capital of the Eastern Empire and walk right in, plant our flag in the city center, and then walk out, because we’d not meet a soul on the way. They’re all dead, Sist. All of them.”
Turning and bending slightly to address Haini, Aralius asked, “You want to conquer the Eastern Empire?”
Haini replied in her crystal-struck voice, “Could I wave your sword?”
“Of course,” he said, rubbing her dark-kinked hair.
“I’ll make those Heathens pay!” she said waving an invisible sword about her head. She went running around pretending to slash through a hoard of enemies.
“Ha ha,” Sistance said to Aralius. “There must be others. We’re four. There must be survivors. Maybe four a city.”
“Four is not enough to convert four,” Aralius said. “Only five is.”
“It is enough when we have the Truth,” Sistance replied.
“What?” Aralius asked. “We spread the Faith at sword-point. It has nothing to do with truth. You believe as we do, or we kill you. That’s the truth.”
“Saint Motley!” Sistance said, appealing to me for assistance.
“Aralius is correct,” I said. “The view of the Faith is that Heathens often need encouragement.”
“And thus to war is to do justice,” Aralius said finishing the verse I was quoting. This verse was not from the Hexaliturgy, but from an Emperor a hundred years ago, though it was often quoted by people who thought it was Scripture. I wondered if Aralius knew from where it came; I feared I already knew the baker’s mind.
“Motley!” Haini said, bored of slaying fantasy armies and perhaps of the soldier and baker’s argument. She pulled on my robe. “Can we visit the Eastern Empire! I want to be a sailor!”
I saw no reason to deny her this, since staying in Adea would be pointless.
“Yes, I think so,” I said. “We can stock a fishing boat and travel up the coast.”
The girl cheered. Sistance nodded eagerly.
“We’ll spread the Faith to all we meet!” he said, beady eyes radiating zeal.
“No,” I said. “There will be nobody to convert. We will go to the East to see its wonders, and there will be no waiting in crowds.”
“I like that,” Aralius said. “I went to see the Holy Fountain at Rabaigo three or so years ago. Sixteen hours in a queue to see a thing you can see in every square in Adea.”
“That fountain is sacred!” said Sistance, I saw an angry gleam in his eyes.
“If you say so, Sist. Looked more like a business to me. Pilgrims go in, paupers come out. No offense, Brother Motley, but temples seem best at generating gold.”
I knew it to be true.
“The service of salvation is free,” I said. “But food for the clergy is not. The Faithful are generous. Too generous. And so we build cathedrals with that generosity.”
“And cathedrals are more important than the poor they generate?” Aralius asked sarcastically.
“No,” I said, and nothing else.
“We’re going on a trip!” Haini said while we were talking, paying no attention to us or what we were talking about. She danced around me excitedly.
“We’re going?” asked Aralius.
“I always wanted to see the East,” I said. “I hear there is grand architecture. Towers and tombs, and the like.”
“Can you work a boat?” Aralius asked.
“We’ll have to learn,” I said.
“We could drown,” he said.
“We won’t drown,” said Sistance. “We have the Deity on our side.”
“Yes,” Aralius said. “He kills my comrades, my friends, and my family. I do feel like he’s on my side”
“Heretic!” the baker said. “You’re one of those that got us into this mess. You have no Faith! PRAY YOU SINNER! PRAY!”
“Enough!” I said before Aralius could respond. The soldier had the weapon and was more than capable of ending the baker’s new faith before it left the city.
“Will the last people on Earth argue against themselves?” I asked. “Find food and bring it here. Tomorrow we’ll secure a boat.”
“Are we pairing up?” Sistance asked.
“Hanini is with me,” I said. “You two are alone. Remember, grab things that do not spoil.”
I set off with the child toward the palace. The Imperial stores would likely have all that we’d need. What food we could take would be obvious now, for it had been weeks since anybody had used anything in the stores.
We entered through the side entrance. I took special care to avoid rooms and corridors I knew to contain bodies. On the street it was unavoidable, but here I could steer the child and myself around the worse.
“This is where the Emperor lived, right, Saint Motley?”
“Just Motley,” I said. “And yes. This is where the Emperor lived.”
“It’s big!” she said, craning her neck.
We were in one of the large frescoed halls. On the ceiling a painting depicting a battle on some distant island stretched down the hall. From beginning to end, it ran the course of the battle.
“This must have cost a lot,” Haini said.
“The Empire ravished entire nations to build all of this,” I said. “Glorious wars of conquest.”
“So the Empire said. Now that the Empire is no more, I suppose a slaughter is just a slaughter without an ideology to justify it.”
“What’s an ideology?” Haini asked as she tapped a huge brass vase. It tottered.
“Ideas to motivate men,” I said, not wishing to become involved in a complicated discussion about sigils, the class of states, and the movement of armies.
“No,” I said, gazing up at the ceiling. “Not always.”
All the lives that must have been lost for the Empire that day, and for nothing. The Faith had failed, and the Empire had fallen. Civilization was over.
“Come child,” I said. “The sooner we collect provisions, the sooner we can leave the city.”
I led her down into the depths of the Hill and by either habit or sentimentality, brought her by way of the library.
“What is this place?” Haini asked marveling at the scrolls and books and tiled floors.
“A library? With books? Let me see!”
She rushed into the large vestibule and then into the stacks. She grabbed the first codex she could find. I saw that the title was A New Method for Mechanical Mineral Mining.
“Can you read, child?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“You could teach me,” she said, running a finger along the runes.
“Yes, but another day,” I said easing the book shut. “Another day.”
The rest of our trip happened without incident save for finding a dead dog in the larder. The poor beast had died of the pestilence; its face had so badly swollen that its teeth had been forced through its jowls. Haini, a sweet soul, ran to it and cried with it cradled in her arms. I noticed that she ignored the corpses of men in the streets. Possibly the horror of all those bodies was too familiar now to take note of. I myself no longer smelled their foul odor unless I thought about it. Poor child. Poor dog. Poor men. Poor country.
We returned to the Square Temple with a small amount of dried meat strips, wine, and jars of honey. The baker had grabbed Tac, a kind of dry bread. Soldier rations, they were biscuits treated in a chemical bath rendering them tasteless, but nearly immortal. Aralius had brought sacks of dry rice. He had welts on his arms.
“I thought there might be something in some great barrels in the merchant guild,” he explained. “Nothing, just water and counter flies. I guess they were desperate for food with all the people dead. Bit the hell out me.”
“You should not use rough language around the child,” Sistance said.
“Bah, I heard worse when I was her age.”
“Women don’t need--,” Sistance began.
“Without society there’s no need to follow formalities,” Aralius said. “Soon we’ll be crapping over the side of a boat, and you’re concerned about language. Ha ha ha!”
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