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He screamed, he cried, but said nothing to me. I tried prayer, they didn’t help. I tried ointments, they didn’t help. The last Emperor of the Barque Empire died in the early morning just before sunrise during the night’s coldest hour.
This left me supposing that I was in charge of the Empire, being the only one of any rank left. I wandered the empty halls, marveled at the frescos, tapestries, busts, and statues. The ornate painted fountains, the mosaic floors; all the art already looked as if it belonged to a civilization past. Like the ancient amphitheaters of ancient cultures. They left me with a sense of something undefinable and unattainable; that which is lost can never be regained.
I left the palace no longer wishing to be confined. I wanted the sky. I went out the front gate much to the astonishment of the people there. I could hear them on the other side calling for aid, deliverance, for the officials to do something.
The great doors were operated by a pulley system. The guts of the walls around the doors were filled with weights, wires, and counterweights. To open the gates or close them, all that was needed was the crank of a lever. I threw it and watched as the system went to work moving the ropes up and down. The noise of the crowd stopped, or maybe the noise was drowned out by that of the doors swinging open.
Either way, I descended and walked out the front. The crowd stood watching me. It must have been a strange sight seeing a lone monk exit through those big doors. Finally, a balding man with muscles that looked as strong as the pulleys I’d just operated said, “Well?”
“The Emperor’s dead,” I told him. “The city Prefect too. If you have family, go to them now.”
I walked through them and they parted for me until somebody somewhere in that group shouted, “It’s Brother Motley!”
They changed then. No longer did they part for me, but rather they threw themselves on the ground in supplication. It was not unlike the devotion that some show the Saint’s statues on sacred holidays. I was not accustomed to being treated like a relic. I stood aghast at the people around me.
“Get up,” I said. “Do not worship a man.”
The bald man stood but did not approach.
“We have heard that you can cure the sick. That you took a dying child, dipped her into a fountain and the fountain turned into wine and the child lives.”
“It isn’t so,” I said. “The child died and if the fountain became red it was because her blood stained it.”
“We have also heard that you can heal with a touch. That the sickness doesn’t affect you. That doves follow in your footsteps.”
“Do you see any doves?” I asked.
“They say you are a Living Saint,” he finished.
“They say many things,” I said. “Most of them wrong. I cannot claim Sainthood. I am just a man. I have been lucky with the contagion. Tomorrow I may die of it. Go to your family. All of you head home to your families.”
“I have no family,” the man said. “They all died.” There were afformations in the crowd at this. “We wish for salvation. Surely you would not deny us that. I do not know why the Saints would visit such a plague on us, but salvation would--.”
“I can grant absolution such as any common monk can, but salvation? It is not my place.”
“You are modest,” he said, “but why be so now? If you have been chosen--.”
“I have not been chosen,” I said, annoyed. “I am a simple monk. Now, people, I must go to the sea.”
I do not know why I said “the sea”. I had not put much thought into what I was going to do now that the Empire had ended. There was no clergy either, I had nobody to tell me what to do nor anybody to do anything for. It’s a terrifying thing to be a free man with no connections to anybody.
I went toward the sea, but the crowd didn’t leave me. I picked up more people as I traveled until I was sure that I’d collected the entirety of those left alive. The crowd grew to maybe a hundred standing. You might think that a large crowd, but consider that this was all that was left of a city of thirty-five thousand. They followed at a reverent distance from me. At first they were silent except for their feet; a distinctive thunder on the on the cobblestones. Then as I crossed into the merchant district somebody started up a devotional hymn. It echoed down the streets and gave me the unnerving sensation that I was leading a troop of heavenly choirs down the empty streets.
I suppose I had intended to walk to the end of a pier somewhere, maybe commandeer a small boat and sail into the horizon, but with all the following there was not enough room at the docks to accommodate them all, so I led them out of the city through the Eastern Gate and then down the seaside road. There was a beach there and at high tide it was possible to wade a good distance out.
As I had walked with the crowd following me, I had come up with a plan. I could not guarantee salvation, but I could absolve. Now, a hundred or so people is a massive amount of people and one monk would be occupied all day trying to absolve so many.
I had once attended a mass absolvation at the Square Temple where a chalice of water was passed among the congregation while the priest (before Pius, this would have been Arcnima III) chanted the absolution. My idea was to bring them to the beach and let the tide bring the water to the Faithful. I knew enough about tides to be able to tell time by them and the noonday tide had yet to advance.
We came to the beach, I being praised as Saint Motley of Adea all the way. I wondered if I’d eventually believe that chant if it continued for years? I’ve heard politicians eventually develop delusions and who wouldn’t? To have followers thrown at your feet, rice in the air, to hear so many shout your name? Madness. My protests were little and I was swept along by the crowd as much as any person in it.
On the beach, I stopped and raised my hands. I stopped them under the high tide mark.
“Pray,” I said. The waves on the shore drowned out my voice, but the ones nearest heard and fell to their knees. The rest folded down like dominos or soldiers surrendering en masse. I cringed to see all their rapturous faces, some starting to bare marks of the Illness.The prayer was extemporaneous. I had no desire to follow the Hexaliturgy, a thing of the Empire, a thing of the past.
“Saint Bonaven save us,” I roared above the waves. “Saint Bonaven protect us,” I said.
The crowd rumbled along, punctuated by the surf. Those closer picked up the words first and those close to them carried it to their neighbors. I could hear it recede from me. In this way they spread the chant to the entire crowd. I kept them at this until I noticed the breakers were to my hips, cold dashing through my robes, and the lapping just short of the crowd. Then I stopped and held up my arms for silence.
The crowd’s silence amplified the roar of the ocean.
“ABSOLVE THESE PEOPLE, SAINT BONAVEN! CLEANSE THEM CLEAN!”
The tide came in. A rush of water crashed past me. It rose up to my shoulders and past them. I had to tread. The crowd was soaked, as was I. Confident that it was an awesome effect, I swam back.
Those splashed had retreated up to the beach, but others in the back rushed forward to dunk their heads in. They also rushed me, eager to lay hands on a genuine holyman. I let them though it tried my patience. The tide had retreated before I could leave that place.
From that day to the end of the month, I was never alone. They followed me back to the city and throughout the streets. I slept outside so they’d not run down or crowd any buildings I might have stayed in. I was asked for blessing, absolutions, and other less reasonable requests. They wanted me to raise the Dead, to heal the Sick, to lift the Cancer, clear the drought, summon the Deity. I could not do any of these things and what I could do kept me busy all hours.
They brought me gifts, food, and goods such as textiles, grains, and salt. Jewels, gold coins, animals. All of it save the food I refused, explaining it did not become a monk to accept gifts. Though, in truth, I knew that the Faith, especially the Square Temple had made a habit of it, adorning their hallowed halls with treasures innumerable.
The crowd grew smaller over time. I barely noticed when new members were swelling its ranks. Like many problems, this one started small and then exploded over the course of its duration. There were hardly any cases of disease at first. A few people died, but less than what I perceived to be an issue. If any fell ill, the crowd asked me to touch the sick and when somebody died, I said prayers. It is possible that I oversaw every single death of my followers. But one death a day seemed of little consequence to the bleeding that had ruined the Empire.
Now, I believe that these final deaths were probably proportional to that which had depopulated the city. If a few people died every day, five of one hundred, that’s five percent; increase that to the Empire’s population, the die-off would have been massive.
And the crowd shrunk day by day. The remaining became feverish in their devotion. Their Faith became a full madness, a thing of insanity as Heretical a belief as I ever witnessed, with me at the center.
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