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We were not one of those sects that forbid familial contact. Nor did we forbear carnal pleasures to initiates as long as those divisions did not distract from the holy orders. So, indeed, I did have people to excuse myself from before my journey. No lovers, of course, I was too advanced in the Order to keep such unseemly un-necessities. But I did have a mother who I furnished with lodgings in the mercantile district overlooking the bay. I went to pay my respects at the golden hour, when the sun’s disc just hits the horizon and all becomes ablaze.
The ships on the harbor with their mighty prows, bows, and oars became orange while the tide they rocked on looked like liquid fire. The buildings of the city cast up their shingled roofs as radiant crowns of light, and all the people’s faces, their clean, clear, bright, and pleasant faces, all said, “Saint’s protection, Brother,” to me. I greeted them in turn and smiled to hear the dock workers calling to each other as they unloaded their cargo.
Near my mother’s house, a painted statue of Saint Bonaven stood, arms outstretched. A pot-bellied woman of portly nature, Bonaven was the healer of the sick. She caught the sunlight embodied it, her painted cherry red cheeks sent every ray to me and those in the square. Such a sight! Who could doubt her divinity seeing the sun itself paint her in the radiance of Light?
Not I. Falling to my knees, I stretched out my arms and said, “Saint! Healer! Bless my journey!” And the statue: one eyelid closed then opened. It had blinked.
Astounded, I rose. I mumbled an apology to those who had to stop walking because I had fallen. They, good souls, seemed more amused than irritated.
But as to the statue— for I surely could not have imagined it– it awoke in me a state of transcendent awe, a state I continued in until I reached my mother’s house. Indeed even there I had to ground myself in the real world for I felt light as if I would drift away into the clouds.
From that miracle, I returned to the ordinary, quotidian world. The house I had supplied to my mother stood under a small shingled roof, already fading from brilliant orange inspired by the sun to bluish twilight colors, as if the Saint’s imitatio Dei had used up all the magic in the air. I knocked on the green-painted door and enter finding not only my mother at her little circular table, but my sister too. They were engaged in latch-hook.
I have mentioned that I am the youngest of seven and Alisoun is the sibling directly proceeding me being a year and a quarter older. Plain of face and blonde of hair, her eyes were as quick as her tongue. In philosophy and logic she out-striped most men alive. Her husband, a noted doctor, was almost as quick as she was.
My mother, older now and more bent, kept her hair conservatively wrapped around her head save for one wisp that graced her forehead with a thread of gray.
“Alisoun, mother,” I said, sweeping them both up in an embrace.
When we parted and I stood by the hearth, they asked me questions about my life and I told them of my mission to convert the heretics east.
“The eastern roads are dangerous,” my mother said. “Motley, can’t somebody else go?”
“The eastern road has had the Army on it for the last six months,” Alisoun said. “Mother, it’s safer than the streets here.”
“I will be in no danger. The Saints will protect and there will be three of us,” I said.
“Holy men often come to bad ends,” Alisoun said. “Don’t rely on the Faith for everything. Remember the man in the floodplain.”
I remembered the story. It ran thus:
A man builds his house in a floodplain. Predictably, it floods. He climbs to the roof and soon a boat comes by.
“Jump in,” the boatman says, “or you’ll drown.”
“No,” the man says. “The Saints will save me.”
The boatman heads off thinking the man crazy. Soon another boat arrives and the men in it call to the man, “Jump in, the water is rising fast!”
“No, the Saints will save me.”
That boat too leaves.
Then as the water is to the man’s waist, a galley arrives and its captain says, “Ho, there, man, grab this rope or you’ll surely drown.”
“The Saints will save me,” the man says.
The galley leaves, the water rises, and the man drowns.
Standing before the Saints he asks, “Why didn’t you save me?”
“We tried. We sent two boats and a galley.”
The Saints help those who help themselves.
“I will not forget,” I told my sister. “But I have received a portent from Saint Bonaven herself foretelling success.” I relate the apotheosis of the statue.
“A trick of the light,” Alisoun said. She pulled some wool through with the hook. News of the divine light did not impress her nor slow down her distaff work.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “When does one receive such a trick in so bright a light?”
“When one is in the right frame of mind,” my sister said. “Zesu Abtoinos said for years a ghost crossed his room at two past noon everyday. And what was it? The reflection of his neighbor’s brass cart coming back from market.”
“A potent it is,” mother said. “You always doubt, Alisoun. It must come from your husband. A doctor is too stoic, too hard-hearted to witness the Saints.”
“Mother,” Alisoun said. “Faith is good, but it won’t do to believe everything. Both Bonaven and doctors heal, yet they say Bonaven spoke to birds and that no mortal can do.”
“Technically,” I said, “the Saints are between Mortals and Spirits, only assuming their true form upon their death.”
“And in mortal form, you believe they can talk to birds?” Alisoun asked.
“The Hexaliturgy is unclear if this is a universal holy power. Only Bonaven and Patricio are attested to speak to animals,” I said.
My sister rolled her eyes. If I’ve ever only had one complaint, it isn’t that she loved less, but didn’t love the Saints more.
The sky darkened and the stars flamed in the firmament. The kettle, the drum, and the dragon shone up there and as I walked back to the monastery in wonder at a nature that so completely encompassed beauty, I went by several revelers intoxicated with the night and their liquor.
“Merry monk,” one called out to me, a woman with lush black hair and the type of button nose a lesser poet like Incendious would write about. “Come here, master monk.”
Curious, but not hoping for the best, I headed over. The color of her cheeks suggested heavy drink, the smell was of wine. Her friends twittered as birds do, I nodded to them and created an uproar as if dawn quick approached and they had to sing the sun to the world.
“Master monk,” the woman said, throwing her arms around me. “We have a question of the-ology.”
Her breath reeked, and I extracted myself smoothly by ducking out from her embrace.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Do monks abstain from terresti-al pleasures because of necessity or because of their own edifi-cation.”
“Our own edification,” I said. “Not all Orders abstain the same pleasures.”
“Oh,” she said leaning in close. “Does your Order abstain?”
“It does not,” I said.
Hearing this, she flung herself upon me again and tried to peck my lips with her own. I again extracted myself in the same way as before. The woman’s companions in nearly as much drink as she was twittered wildly, all blushing at their friend’s daring and drunkenness.
“Yet,” I said, backing away smoothly. “We do not generally engage those who have temporarily lost their senses. While the alcohol stirs your blood, I’d be ill-put in the eyes of the Saints if I engaged.”
“Cruel monk,” she said. “I don’t care about that. If you spare the rod, you spoil the child. I’m drunk, I’m willing, I’ve got an empty bed. Please, while the wine still sings in my head and the act is thus magnified…!”
“No,” I said. “While the act is thus diminished. I cannot.”
I nodded my head and faded into the shadows.
It was true that the Order of the Golden Rose does not put any prohibitions on its monks about vices such as drink and fornication, but I was not some spring initiate anymore and in my own view such things are distractions. I had a girl when I was the age of those revelers. I had not thought of Dreyah for many years. Dark-skinned, dark-eyed, a relative of the Emperor. A bad choice overall, but it is possible that we made the Saint’s blush. But as it was, there was nothing that intrinsically kept us together and we drifted apart. She had a good life, I had heard. Married to the governor of Donaeve, six children both boys and girls.
I arrived at the hill without another event and scaled it up to the dormitory.
I only packed a single haversack. Monks by tradition were only supposed to eat via the succor of the Faithful as they traveled, but in a faithless land I thought rice-rations of the type the Imperial Army provided it soldiers would profit me more than charity. The rice-ration was a ball of white rice soaked in a broth conveying three meals worth of energy in one sitting. I packed one change of clothes and seventeen rice balls.
I left early in the morning to visit the Priest of the Bowed Church. The Bowed Church, little over a mile out of the way, was a small building, domed and shaped as a gear with many gables. I entered through the back and announced my presence to the Priest as he busied himself with preparations for the daily service.
“Brother Motley,” he said. “Come to teach a guest class?”
“No, Father Riahah,” I said. “I am here to inform you I won’t be officiating the Rising Feast this year. The Emperor is sending me east.”
“East to Kathage?” he asked halting his candle arrangements.
“If he wills it,” I said, shrugging.
“That’s a poor place for the Faith,” Riahah said. “Always was. Even when it was a part of the Empire, that was so. They loved their heathen ocean god. And still do, it seems. Before the Empire, they used to bash little girls over the head with rocks and cast them into the sea.”
“They may do it again,” Riahah said. “Listen well, Brother. The Empire spreads the light, but the darkness seeks to creep back in and it does it with these accursèd local fairytales. Leave not one heathen faithless!”
“They will walk in the light again.”
Now, the city of Adea was a walled city since the time of the Republic, but in modernity the city had spilled out into the hill country. No, longer was it as portrayed accurately by the map that hung in the square church, depicting a smaller city neatly encompassed. In those final days, the city’s consistency was low slung brick houses nearer the walls and shingle-roofed villas out by the rolling farms and vineyards. When Yonas said the Eastern Gate, he meant the gate at the wall, not the easternmost part of the city.
I arrived at noon as per Yonas’s missive and was greeted by Brother Tigula, a stout man with a youthful face marked by acne scars.
“Brother Motley,” he said, arms wide to receive me into an embrace. “Brother of the Saint’s Light! Are we met on this journey or are we met?”
I returned the hug.
“We are met,” I said. “Where’s Yonas?”
“Yonder, I think,” Tigula said, pointing behind me.
I looked and beheld coming around the corner of a public bath, a cart pulled by two mules. Yonas bid them on from the cart’s front seat.
“Brothers,” he said to us. “Time is of the essence. If you will climb into the back we will be on our way.”
“Brother Yonas,” Tigula said, “we are the light and shall pass as the sun. I will gladly join your cart.”
I merely nodded.
The cart rolled down the road. All Imperial roads are paved with flat stones and the closer to Adea they ran, the smoother they were. The cart did not jostle a whit, until we were far outside of the city.
Tigula, a fellow whose mouth had a gift for exaggeration, told me in what was almost dactylic hexameter jokes and tales. Aside myself, he was probably the best spoken monk in all of Adea, and he lived for tales he could tell in his sermons. His stories were invented entertainments about the Saints, fictions for enjoyment. I differed from him in this because I did not believe, then or now, that entertainment was better that instruction. His sermons drew the crowds and kept them awake, but they were no better for it. The educating purpose was, I believed, the more noble and useful tool even if dragons and fairies enticed more people. The diversionary was less useful than the didactic.
We talked. The cart came with benches for four, not including the driver’s seat, and we settled close to Yonas near the front.
“Brother Yonas,” I said, “how long does it take to ride to Kathage?”
“Three weeks,” Yonas said. “We’ll cross the Army the day before or the day of, unless they’ve moved on. The Emperor, or the Imperial counsel, anyway, wants them to hold position outside the city for several—.”
“Have they sacked the city?” Tigula asked. “I’d hate to think that all those people were put to the knife.”
“There was a siege,” Yonas said. “We’ll have to offer many prayers to the Saints.”
Tigula frowned. That he did not pursue the topic was a sign that it was troubling him. I asked him what specifically caused his melancholy.
“There’s so much suffering in the world,” he replied. “A siege of Kathage, battles between three would be empires, and plenty of murder and theft to go between. I even heard today from a sailor that a great plague grips the Tarqori continent. All these people, how are we supposed to help them all?”
Yonas said, “The Saints put us here to help those we can. Focus on Kathage. Of the three empires, only one is legitimate, the others are heretical and their help is on the way once their false emperors fall to their knees and see the light once more. As for Tarqor, it is a faraway place full of heathen gods and animal sacrifices. If they have a pestilence, it is because they know nothing of the True Faith.”
“Sickness may strike anyone down,” I said. “But to be so widespread is surely evidence of a lack of Faith.”
Tigula nodded along. I saw his mood lift slowly by degrees and within that very hour he told a few good jokes and we laughed at them more than not.
Come sunset, we chose a villa to knock at, for as stated it was the custom of traveling monks to ask for succor trusting the faithful to provide. This villa was a sloping building that fit organically into the contour of the vast hill it rested on. White stucco and red tile imbued its vine-covered courtyard with a pleasant agrarian air.
A servant girl of sixteen, possibly a slave from Ayegauy judging by her complexion was sweeping the courtyard when we came in under its white arches.
“Is your master in?” asked Yonas. “We three Brothers of the Golden Rose seek shelter for the night and bread for our travels.”
She led us down a decorative hall to an inner courtyard, a miniature garden with yellow flowers and fountains. A table stood next to a small statue of Saint Bonaven, where a man with a short salt and pepper beard was trimming the vines with a little silver knife. The servant girl introduced us.
“Traveling monks?” he asked pocketing his knife.
Yonas explained who we were and where we were going. The man nodded.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve heard of our Lord Emperor’s victory in the East. I was once a member of the Army during the old campaigns when the heresy was just beginning. I must have fought a hundred battles. Let it not be said that the Empire does not repay it’s citizens.
He invited us to sit at the table, then realizing there were no extra chairs called out more. He then presented us to his family: Three young girls, a dark-haired boy of thirteen, and a lovely plump wife with a crown of ringlets raining down from her head. Tigula sang a few hymnals for them about Saint Bonaven. Then he told a good story (I’ll admit) about a fox outsmarting a bear. We received warm beds and supplies which we piled up on the back of the cart between our seats. It made sitting uncomfortable, and our legs cramped, but it meant we could camp at night for the rest of the journey.
On the third day out, the hills gave way to lightly forested country and the shoreline was no longer visible. I had never been out of sight of the sea in my entire life and I was astounded at land that could be so vast, as horizon to horizon. Intellectually, I knew land could be stretched like that, but it astounded me to see it, to really sea it. One can grow up with maps, but to actualize what those abstract tracts meant; it was amazing, it really was.
“So, this is the forest of… what?” Tigula asked.
“I don’t know that it has a name,” Yonas said. “Look, here’s a beggar.”
On the side of the road, a man dressed in extremely dirty, but very brightly colored clothes stood waving us down. He had nothing, no possessions other than his clothes. His filthy, ragged hair covered his eyes. We approached carefully, though this close to the Imperial Center, it was inconceivable that he be a bandit.
“How now?” asked Yonas.
“Brother!” the man said in a flighty light voice. “Brother, I’ve been robbed and left here. My horse, my cart, gone. I’ve been walking three days. Do you have room for one more?”
“Where are you going?” Tigula asked before Yonas, who might have said no, could speak.
“Ebera,” he said. “It can’t be too far away.”
“It’s a day and a half down this road,” Yonas said, looking down from the cart at the man. He clearly did not like the stranger’s clothes. I saw his eyes cross over the frayed hems over and over.
“You’re of the Faith?” I asked. If we could get this out of him then Yonas would have to acquiesce to his presences.
“Oh yes sir Brother. Beautiful Saint Tess, she who laid the cougar down and was herself buried by a lion. I swear by her.”
Tigula and I exchanged glances. Saint Tess in her life was renowned for drunkenness and demimondaintary, that is to say whoring, until one day she raised a man from the dead. That sealed her as a Saint, but a looked down upon one whose miraculous nature conflicted with her youthful lustful binges.
“Well, a Saint she is,” said Tigula. “Come join us.”
The ragged man sat next to me. After introducing himself as Arjin, he said he was a traveling clown and toymaker.
“It’s a terrible time we live in, sir monk,” he said addressing me. “Yes, a terrible time when a toymaker can’t travel safely.”
“You make toys?” Tigula asked.
“Yes! Wooden soldiers, horses, asses, little emperors with purple cloth cloaks, model boats with fleece sails, anything! After this, I’ll make three little monks with real cloth cassocks, just like yours, and real cloth hoods just like yours, and I’ll paint their faces. The driver will have pink lips from crushed roses, and you sir,” he said to Tigula, “will have green eyes from the ink of the lasso beetle. And you,” he turned back to me, “will have dark hair of wool to match your own, and because you look kindly upon me, two polished stones for eyes.”
“You’re an articulate fellow,” Yonas remarked from the front of the cart.
Arjin nodded and said, “I am. I have energy and am excitable, but when I was young, my parents whipped me for it, so I learned to be excitable with my mouth only.”
“You like to talk?” I asked.
“Of course, for my tongue is a springboard for my words and my words are as important as my hands for selling things.”
“We use words in our work too,” I said. “I know a few stories about Saint Tess. If you want, I could—.”
“Yes,” Arjin said. “I imagine that selling toys and selling Saints isn’t that different.”
“I wouldn’t say it so crudely,” I said. “Spreading the Faith is—.”
“You do a pitch, though, right? When I come to town, I jingle all my bells and sing:
Dare we ask nature to yield her secrets?
Dare we ask the sun to forget?
And does the sun and moon sing duets?
What divine fire rings its cornet?
What divine fire makes its coronet?”
“That’s like a devotional to me. It brings everybody out of their homes. A’ the kids. Oh, brother monks, you should see their faces. Lit from ear to ear with smiles. And their eyes! Like gemstones or falling stars stripped from heaven. That’s what I like. I gather them ‘round and take out a wooden horse, and I tell them of the stallions of Tarqor, with a swoosh, I produce a dragon of Ayeguay and tell them how the barbarian kings try to capture the dragons with nets sown of fairy wings, because they believe that eating a dragon’s heart will make them un-kill-able!”
Tigula clapped at this, his boyish face looked as lit up as all the children he described. I noticed that Yonas looked annoyed. He spoke before I could reply to the toymaker.
“Yes,” Yonas said, turning around to speak with the man. “You sell things. But we give the Truth away. Our stories instruct. Their inherent truth is what makes people listen.”
“Yes sir brother monk,” Arjin said, “but a tale poorly told no matter how true or false inspires no one.”
“This is true,” I said to Yonas. “You remember Brother Calypse? Remember his services?”
“I remember,” Tigula said. “After two minutes the Faithful wanted to leave and I did too! You could look across the congregation and see everybody’s head start to nod.”
“I’ve been to services like that,” Arjin replied.
Yonas’s frown deepened and he turned back to the mules.
As we approached Ebera, a quiet little town, the road grew rougher. With the supplies the jostling became uncomfortable. The lip of a pan of bread sat against my shin and as the cart bounced, the lip rubbed through my robe in the most uncomfortable manner.
We let the toymaker off at what might have been his house and continued on. A distance outside the town, Yonas stopped the cart and turned angrily back to us.
“Tigula,” he said. “Don’t encourage impiety in the citizens.”
“What do you mean?” Tigula looked confused, but I thought I knew what Yonas was angry about.
“You enjoyed his story. He compared spreading the Truth with the selling of common goods.”
“It’s harmless,” Tigular said. “And I liked him. I wasn’t going to remain silent. He have taken it as rude.”
“You need to be more serious,” Yonas said. “Brother Motley, you agree.”
I did not, but I thought I’d better not say so.
“None of us did what we should have done.” I said. “His blaspheme came from confusion about the nature of the Faith. One of us should have corrected him.”
“You’re right,” Yonas said. “So, why didn’t any of us do that?”
“Because,” I said, “you were irritated at him, Tigula liked him, and I was too interested in his story to do anything at all.”
Yonas considered this.
He said, “Next time we’ll do better.”
Tigula shrugged and our cart traveled away from Ebera.
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