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Ishopia, which the locals call Astandul, was a small port town, and un-walled. It looked out over the Soleda Sea on a kind of peninsula like a long finger. The area running up to the town was grassland, of what is called Roose Grass, a blue-green fat-bladed, but short weed. The air from the ocean washed over the town and caused the grass pollen to spread far and wide. A small Army contingent had captured the entire peninsula in a day with no notable resistance.

The people of Ishopia did not come out to greet us as an Imperial town might, for monks are popular in those, but instead deliberately ignored us, giving slanted glances as if we were something dirty.

“Friendly,” Tigula commented as Yonas drove our cart up toward the mayor’s palace where the Army contingent had settled. The building was a poor affair with a low-slung wall. It had a fountain, but was otherwise made of very shabby white adobe stained by grass pollen so that it was an ugly off-green color. Despite this, it was large inside.

The commander, a Malabe Sirkis, greeted us with wine and cheese. Yonas refused us the wine (though there is nothing prohibiting our Order from drinking). The cheese was sheep’s cheese and not to my liking. The commander, seeing this, said, “The cheese disagrees with you, Brother Motley? Get used to it. This town lives on it.”

Indeed this was true. The town specialized in sheep cheese and sold at the markets and out of homes, the distinct cheese could be found everywhere. It overpowered the mouth and burned the nose, overloading the sense of smell and rendering taste inert for several minutes. The temples sold it too.

On the second day in Ishopia, we each went to a different temple to confront the false priests. My chosen temple, a red brick building with a flat roof called The Circle of God, met me with the same sort of cheese at the gate.

Two men dressed as monks greeted me each with a silver tray. On one was the hated cheese, on the other wine presumably to cleanse the palette.

I shook my head to indicate I didn’t want the food and instead told them, “I come from Adea and wish to speak on behalf of the Barque Imperial Cult, Orthodox Religion of the Empire. Is your priest here?”

The men exchanged looks a bid me follow them. The priest was in the meditative garden and as I was led through the temple, I wondered at the exact nature of the Heresy for the layout of this temple was near enough to a standard circular temple in Adea. I was more surprised when coming into the garden, the head priest, dressed in white and black robes, had a copy of the Hexaliturgy open on a stone pedestal in front of him. His wooly white beard hid his entire face, but I could tell he was looking at me sourly by the way his eyes crinkled. He regarded me with them as if I were a snake.

“Adea sent you, did it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m here to denounce your false beliefs and instruct you on returning to the Faith.”

“Bah,” he said, closing the Hexaliturgy with a solid thud. “We are of the Faith. We follow the Book more faithfully than you fools out of Adea.”

“I was under the impression you were polytheistic spirit worshippers,” I said. “Clearly I’ve been misinformed.” Something wasn’t right here.

“I could accuse of the same thing.” The priest jabbed a finger at me. “Too distracted by saints to worship the Deity.”

“Now wait,” I said. “The Hexaliturgy says in chapter 4 verse 21 that the Saints are the Divinity’s agents in the world.”

“They are. When they’re alive,” the priest said. “But they are all dead now. Praying to them accomplishes nothing and further it deifies them. A clear blasphemy.”

“Nobody is under the impression that the Saints are gods,” I said. “They’re intermediaries, just as monks, and pardoners, and priests are. We don’t say priests are gods.”

“Are you sure about that? The common folk aren’t that smart. Given half the chance they’ll wallow in the filthy streets. Many of them see the saints as gods. And so do many of the clergy.”

“I doubt any of the clergy does,” I said. The nature of the Heresy was now clear to me. “How can you approach the Divinity without intermediaries?” I asked. “Is it not like the tale of the Firefly and the Sun, where the lesser light thrives to fly to the greater and ends up being burned?”

“Nothing in the Hexasliturgy supports that claim. It says all may reach Divinity through prayer and supplication.”

“It does say all may approach divinity, but it means a state of holiness, not the Divinity. You’re taking literal what is metaphorical.”

“I see nothing in the text that states it is metaphorical,” my antagonist said.

“We can be reasonably sure it is,” I said. I was beginning to believe that the Heretic is worse than the nonbeliever. The nonbeliever is an empty vessel ready to be filled, but the Heretic has been full of bad wine for so long that nothing can remove the taste. The Heretic is dangerous because he believes things that are almost right and so his hideous corruption is hidden from sight. How quickly could such a thing deceive the populace? It would spread from one source as some virulent plague!

“The commentaries make it clear,” I said.

“The commentaries are not part of the text,” the priest said. “All those writings of the Cult Fathers is mere interpretation and none of them stay close enough to the text.”

“Surely Boucca—.”

“Boucca! The man who thought women had four less teeth than men because he couldn’t be bothered to check himself? That Boucca?”

“I admit that his knowledge of anatomy was uncertain,” I replied, “but there is a certain dialectic fault in claiming that invalidates all his work.”

“His interpretation would have us all offering up meats to the saints like some sort of Tarqor savage!”

I knew the passage he meant. Now, we were dealing with interpretations of interpretations, dangerous ground. Boucca assumes in the passage that a sacrifice must be made to gain favor with the Saints. Depending on how one translates the runic word Terii gives either a horrifying vision of cannibalism and blood sacrifice or a benign instruction on working for the common good. Considering Boucca’s take on sacrifice elsewhere and the historical context in which he was writing, I think his meaning can easily be deciphered. I informed the priest of this.

“If you say so,” he said, “but such airy and obtuse words are ripe for mistranslation. We shouldn’t trust in words not of the Text.”

“So, you’re set in your ways? Your heart is made of stone?”

“It is.”

“Listen,” I said. “General Polycate sits in Kathage with an army of 20,000 men. In a month he comes here to burn this town to the ground, unless by then you renounce your Heresy.”

“You think threats will turn us from the Truth?”

“Think of your congregations!”

“Think of their souls! You would have us become idolaters of men and bow down to the statues of the long dead? It’s the Sin of Shirk; attributing the Divine to things not Divine!”

“I will do my best,” I said, raising my hands. “Saints protect you.”

“God protect you,” he said.

We parted on worse terms than when I arrived. This was bad, I reflected, worse than I imagined. I expected some kind of Heathen Cult, something that would allow me to throw down their false idols in a storm of righteousness or else preach bombastically in the streets. Instead I find a subtle damnation working like a sickness in the hearts and minds of the afflicted populace. No poultice of words could sooth, for what bombastic speech could I warrant? I could not declaim my own god and parade him around in the streets against the peasants. I had to confer with Yonas on what to do in this case. I had no experience in these matters, but Polycate’s burn and purge method would not do. These people were too close to salvation to be dealt with so finally.

I returned to the military enclave that held the city. Brother Yonas was already there and looked distempered as if his afternoon chat, like mine, had not gone well.

“Heresy is the foulest crime on the globe,” he told me as I came in. His face, normally mild, frothed with rage like a horse chomping at a bit, and his eyes darted around in agitation. “That priest said such lies against the Church! When I informed him of his folly, he brought monks to enlighten me. ME!”

“I encountered a similar problem,” I said. “Were they talking about direct contact with the Divinity?”

“I would never presume to be so familiar with the Creator,” Yonas said, more to the ceiling than to me.

“I even tried the Parable of the Firefly and the Sun,” I said.

“What’s that? — No, I don’t need to hear it,” he said as I began to open my mouth. “How could something this vile start?” he went on. His voice trembled. “And how many have died under this unclean system and now can’t gain entrance into Paradise?”

“Not too many, I hope. What we need to do is approach the clergy with the proper doctrine and superior dialectics,” I replied. “Additionally, we need to start morning sermons in the town square.”

Yonas agreed and we set out careful plans on what we would sermonize about. The Parable of the Firefly was one lesson we could tell, and I worked out a speech about how the Saints benefit our lives by carrying prayers to the Greater Spirits who when act in accordance with the Divinity’s wishes. The structure of the Celestial Hierarchy would be much stressed and we would have Tigula as a plant in the crowd to cheer our message of truth.

Tigula did not like this last part however. As he said it: “Isn’t that dishonest? It makes the crowd think it agrees with the speakers through a trick rather than letting the crowd see the truth for itself.”

“Don’t be so simple,” Yonas said. “The clergy here has led the town astray. It is our job to lead them back to the truth. A shepherd doesn’t discuss his plans with the sheep or let them decided. We need to use every method necessary.”

While Yonas and Tigula fought a philosophical battle about sermonic ethic, I decided I would mingle with the townsfolk to see if I could glean any information about the people here. I knew the clergy to be corrupted, but how did the commoners feel about the Saints?

Shedding my robes and donning a simple merchant’s robe, I went to the docks first. Growing up by the Port of Adea, I have always felt comfortable around sailors and often blessed ships before their journeys. Inquiring about, I found myself in the company of a loutish second-mate.

The man’s face resembled a crushed prune; wrinkled and flat, dark from constant sunlight.

“The Empire wants to control everything,” he said. “When they get done with the Earth, they’ll go for the moons and the stars, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“The Faith must be spread,” I said.

We were sharing words over two wooden goblets of rice beer. The shipyard tavern was open to the sea and it was spacious, not at all like the dark gloomy bars in Adea. We could watch the ships pull into the harbor, the sun catching their sleek prows, oars, and sails.

“I was born in Almaine,” he said, punctuating his words with sips of beer. I cursed myself, he wasn’t local. I should have noticed.

“We don’t deal much with the Faith there,” the sailor continued. “We trade our wool and the rest of the world keeps on fighting.”

“Surely you must wonder where everything comes from?” I asked, gesturing to the sea to indicate everything.

“Not really. I have other things to keep me busy. I believe there’s probably a god or gods, I just don’t know or care much about them.” He paused for a second then said, “Nor do they seem to care much about me.”

“But the true of the world is revealed,” I said.

“So the Empire says,” the sailor said. “And yet, even with the same book of revealed truth, the Empire, South Empire, and Eastern Empire all fight each other.”

“The other ‘Empires’,” I said, “are using stolen imperial assets and deluding the people in matters of the Faith. They’re Heretical Rebels.”

“Sorry, holy man,” he said, “but it’s not my fight.”

I sighed, seeing it would be useless to pursue the point with this man, I shifted topics.

“How is the world these days?”

“It’s still going,” he said. “The Island Nations are at war. Dorathena is suffering a drought. There’s a great plague affecting Cedonia, and—.”

“A plague in Cedonia?” I asked. “I heard it was in Tarqor.”

“I don’t know about that, I got my information from a ship captain out of tCaro. He said that the whole land’s been decimated from tCaro to the Setane Mountains.”

I frowned. tCaro was in the Empire. I did not know of the Setane Mountains. My knowledge of Cedonian geography was limited. I knew Cedonia as a large peninsula jutting off of Tarqour, but the fine details escaped me.

“They must have done a great sin to be so afflicted,” I said.

“They say it is so contagious that even looking at the sick with spread it. The captain I talked to said they were docking, but when they pulled in close, they saw a great black dog walking like a man and slaying men with a sword. Seeing such an omen, they sailed back home.”

“A black dog? The captain you spoke to saw this with his own eyes?” I asked. “That is what he literally saw? That’s not a metaphor for the severity of the pestilence?”

“He said he saw it.”

“Men say a lot of things.”

“Men see a lot of things,” he replied evenly.

“A black dog with a sword is lifted right out of a pre-Imperial text,” I said. “A very bad omen. A spirit of death. A very bad omen. They believed this before the Faith, of course, and can’t be taken seriously.”

The topic turned again, and other goblet contents disappeared. Toward evening, I bid my adieu and returned to the enclave.

On the marrow, we went to the town before first light and set up a traditional service. We borrowed boxes from the enclave for podiums, and put Tigula into peasant clothes (he still protested, but weakly and less so when Yonas was around). After the sun came up, we began to address passersby. Soon we had a crowd, but unlike those in Adea, this crowd contained not a single smiling face. I looked out over the assorted men and women seeing not a single friendly feature.

I told them the Parable of the Firefly; their expressions didn’t crack. They looked angrier. They were completely silent too. Tigula nervously said, “Maybe we should listen to what they have to say,” and this was angrily shushed.

I started the sermon Yonas and I wrote the previous night. Yonas, standing some ways distant, shuffled about, looking uncharacteristically nervous.

“People of Ishopia!” I said. “We come from Adea—!”

“Foul servant of the Child Emperor!” somebody yelled.

“People of Ish—.”

“It’s Astandul!” the crowd roared.

“Citizens of Astandul,” I said. “We are aware that your priests have told you it is possible to commune directly with the Deity, so we have selected several passages from—.”

“Take your foul idolatry away from here!”

My grip of the crowd loosened, I could see it happen, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried to go forward with the sermon; they wouldn’t let me. Soon, shouts echoed around the square. I tried once more to tell them of the Saints, but at the word “Saints” the crowd surged forward, homicidal intent on every feature. I caught one glimpse of Tigula vanishing under a sea of fists, disappearing as if under a wave, and then I and Yonas of one mind fled.

We ran down narrow cobbled streets fleeing the mob. Our every step hounded, the people of the city pursued us with a single mind. Yonas went ahead of me and often a door would swing open and Yonas, like a madman, would swing his fists blindly into whoever was stepping out into the street. Eggs, fruit, clay pots, rained down.

Finally, we arrived at the Military Enclave, dashing past the guards who met the crowd with knife, saber, and spear.

The moments grew more tense, until we were told to leave. The commander and his men escorted us through the streets, the crowds pressing in on both sides.

I had heard of riots, but this is the first I’d ever seen one. The crowd, animal-like, snarled and barked and chased us across the field and out from their city. We escaped and with the remaining soldiers set up camp on a hill with a copse, where we could watch the town. The command dispatched runners to Polycate. As we waited three days for a response we saw men come out into the field and begin to dig trenches. I watched with a thrill of terror, recalling the black dog who slew men like sheep and feared that the omen was coming true here by virtue of my very hearing of it.


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