Sage, if you don’t know, comes in little bundles that look something like a miniature bail of hay; at least if you buy it in a little new age bookstore or in a French Quarter shop in New Orleans it does. My particular little bundle is held together with red thread, and is adorned with what must have once been an attractive piece of yarn, the color of which can only be described in terms of Crayola’s “burnt” offerings, a mingling of umber and sienna. My wife gave the sage to me in a cute little Voodoo love kit long before we were married, and it seems to have done the trick, even though the directions in the kit were never followed.
Perhaps I never followed the directions because I am no more than an intrigued skeptic. I don’t believe in magic, ghosts, witchcraft, or Voodoo. I believe that things have an explanation. Usually.
Jung once pointed out that it is that which we cannot explain that unnerves us, though, and I find myself in the precarious position of “unnerved skeptic” tonight. I have had more than a brush with the unexplained, and tonight I am planning to open myself up to something supernatural.
I have at my desk certain means for protection. The sage, my wife says, should help to ward off evil things. My oblique skepticism is at harsh discord with her spiritual intuitions, mysticism, and general claim to psychic awareness. We often point out that our opposite systems of belief are a good way of balancing each other out; besides, we agree on almost everything else in life. The sage is to be burned and the smoke and ash applied to the subject. I am told the sooty fumes help clear the air spiritually as well. I have also a nice pair of blessed rosaries procured outside the Basilica in Mexico City from a street vendor who had an honest face (though he preferred to give me the second rosary in lieu of making change when I purchased the first). And for added effect, I have perched just under my nose the mysterious bag of incense whose aroma has infected my life delightfully ever since my wife, then my girlfriend, presented me with the little Voodoo love kit. These things are for protection.
It is also worth mentioning that my wife’s quirky brand of spiritualism has led me to incorporate into my protective paraphernalia an already burning candle, the aroma of which is a sweet incense intended to promote sexual arousal. Daemons are attracted by the pleasant smell, but it provides a ready flame for the combustion of the aforementioned protective sage.
If this doesn’t seem humorous to you, then it is because you have less trouble believing in the supernatural than do I. I can generally explain away all of the oddities that occur in life, and the supernatural is not necessary for my comfort in the real world. I am a believer in materialism, a philosophy with no room for spiritualistic vices, even those as benign as religion. In earning my degrees, I have learned more than I could ever truly need to know about science, physics, and psychology. Bumps in the night, seeming telepathic connections, precognition, and even extra sensory perception can all be explained away. Usually.
What I have experienced, however, cannot be denied. I have been contacted, unwillingly no less, by something sinister. I have tried to satisfactorily explain the experience to myself, but no matter how I try to smother his lucidity into a waking dream or psychological episode, this daemon haunts me in a very real way. Calling it to me again shall be no great effort, I think. I’ve learned the way by foolish, disbelieving wordplay. This daemon is called That Which Watches, and the Walker Between Worlds, and its names are many, but even mentioning, writing, or thinking them too frequently puts me ill at ease.
So doubt as you must. I couldn’t respect anyone who would believe whole heartedly. A month ago I would have taken a deep breath and blown the dust off of a physics or psychology volume to explain any anomaly that crossed my path. Just keep your hand on the doorknob of superstition, no matter how small your spiritual closet is, as you follow along. The daemon awaits, and he will address you directly. This time, I will summon him in ink, hear out his tale, and will allow him to set it down.
First a few words of warning. I have no sturdy relationship with any fathomed god, a curse of too much academic pursuit. God forsakes the learned, which is perhaps the deepest reason that no philosopher’s stone has ever turned an ounce of lead to gold. There will be no further miracles for me, the miracle of birth having been the last (and also demystified for me, in the light of the difficulty of finding effective contraception. It seems more of a miracle if something isn’t born. Not to mention that the “miracle” of birth seems to be taking place an easy billion times a night for the creeping, crawling insects that continue to invade every cracked window or ripped screen on the planet). God’s absence has not been a problem for me in the past. In fact, I felt quite comfortable with my decision that God didn’t exist at first, because it soothed away all of my abandonment issues and the questions about why prayers were neither answered openly nor by the mysterious means that His advertiser’s suggest. The problem is that when you’ve come to accept Jesus Christ as your personal fakir, to accept all holy works as compendiums of nice stories for the unenlightened in a time before Freud, Descartes, and Einstein, the appearance of an undeniable, ignominious, immortal, and irritatingly actual daemon is a threat to one’s sanity and comfort in the real world. So forsaking my formerly stalwart materialist ideals, I have within reach (formerly only decorative mementos) my rosary beads, though my absence of faith may prove them useless to me.
Some would say that the presence of a daemon is proof of spiritual things and therefore proof that God does exist, but unfortunately, this daemon has assured me otherwise and has also been quite compelling that he is a speaker only of the truth. My last warning has to do with just that issue. That Which Watches, Juxlatho is his name, speaks only the truth. He assures that most daemons do so, but I have discovered that it seems not to be to the advantage of mortals but merely a device by which daemons entertain themselves. Lies would be easy enough for a daemon’s venerable mind to conjure and conceal, but the uncovering of a lie is a sort of moral victory for a mortal, one that a daemon would not likely allow us. The joy that Juxlatho seems to most relish is the torture of the truth. Much can be said, all true, while still misleading. Though every word were true, the message one takes away may be very far from the truth. Omission, wordplay, and tricks of the psyche that our greatest mortal thinkers have yet to discover are the playthings of the daemon, and our suffering is his main delight. So listen with caution, and have even greater care with what you take away. I can promise no protection except that you have not yet read too far to turn away. But in another page, that will no longer be the case. The daemon is surpassing cunning. Now, having cleared my conscience as best as I can, I shall call upon the muse, as of old did Homer and Euripides.
I ink the summoning:
Spirit of Watchfulness! Daemon of forkéd, truth-worn tongue!
‘Splay before me your divided tale.
Pleasure take in telling your vicious truths, deliver Naivety into the traps of your song.
Honesty uncover where you see fit, and make of foolish man the food of mirth,
Salt the wounded traveler’s hide, Set him hind-ways in his course.
Show me, as you will, my erroneous way moments past misfortune’s ripening.
Walker Between Worlds, Watcher, Meddler, Spirit of Prophetic Malice!
Enter my pen thereby to inherit a worldly immortality, Against your twice otherworldly one.
Grief in your black heart celebrate!
Tombs exhume, Sexton-Phlebotomist, of your victims fallen
And with their clotted blood my pen transfuse.
Let never truer words deal harm!
Jagged cut the fabric, and use my waiting mind, my ears, my tongue,
To carve your visage in the hearts of another world’s men.
“Well Enough!” Thus spake Juxlatho, and the words rolled out like thick ink across a night sky. “You are waiting for me to tell you of Prophesy, or of Fate, or of Destiny: for me to tell you which are real. How they are real. You are waiting to know your own ends, as I know them.” Here the daemon paused, just as I needed him to, as you probably needed to as well, because the heart jumps up at the mention of one’s own end. It gave me time to ponder my impending death, for it is appointed every man once. And it gave me time to look into his eye, his slightly averted, glistening eye, of no color that I can tell, and to think about his knowing my end, just as he knows yours, to think of his image of me, a pile of barely animate dust, no quintessence, but an ephemeral clay pot of ashes. A whited sepulcher. And mine in particular with no certain soul. If you are luckier than I, then perhaps you know your soul exists, but I, under his gaze, grew all the more uncertain. For an instantaneous millennium, my heart stopped, and then Juxlatho began again to weave his inky tapestry.
“Lessons leave their deepest branding-scar when they arrive as parable; thus I will tell you how it came that the one called Sagesse should be the fulfiller of Prophecies. And whether he did it by fate or by choice, by destiny or deliverance, by deviltry or Providence,” and at that the daemon chuckled his throaty, starry night chuckle. It was not a laugh of itself frightening or unfriendly. It was an amiably mysterious sound. “You are waiting to learn how another, Prince Aiden of Maybourne, the lowliest of souls, came to the highest of mortal posts.”
There was a chill like death and a smell in the room somewhat familiar. Often it’s been said the smell of sulfur accompanies daemonkind; however, it is not the smell of sulfur. It is a smell more pungent and less repugnant. The aroma was pleasant but foreboding, like the matchstick that lights both the after-sex cigarette for young lovers and the one for the last-request of the prisoner to be executed by firing squad. Perhaps a bonfire of vanilla plants would smell like the daemon.
It towered over me, seeming to be seven foot six or so judging by its horns’ proximity to the ceiling. It gave the impression that it was that small by choice. The daemon’s crackled skin, a charcoal covering as it seemed, was so black that it reflected nothing, blackness in the dark. He looked about my office unimpressed, and made toward my globe, a nice one in a tall cherrywood floor stand. His head tilted in bemused interest and the globe began to turn slowly on its axis as he reached toward it. Then when his crackled coal-like flesh contacted it, it stopped dead. I noticed immediately the cessation of all sound from outside. I had not noticed the chirping of the cicadae on the night breeze until they stopped. And the air hung still. He brought the world to a halt.
“He was a boy when first I took interest in him. Sagesse Ducréateur was his name, though he forsook his parental moniker early on. He was diseased and wretched, standing in a stream. The boy was not much more than four feet tall, he was covered in scabs, and his eyes were nearly swelled shut. He was filthy and almost naked. Sagesse tried to clean himself, but the disease made him wretched; it covered him in painful boils that turned to unsightly scabs. His own father’s aversion to him in his time of greatest need entertained me for a time, but it had become nothing but routine negligence over some weeks… until his father left him there in the stream, nearly blinded by his swollen, infected-boil-eyelids. Sagesse did not notice that his father had absconded until a group of men passing by brought his attention back to his surroundings.”
“Whut are ye doin’ lettle boy? Come away from thar!” a fat wayfarer called out to him. He was the common sort of man who demands much of everyone else but puts forth little effort on his own part, one those disgusting gits whose shirts show the stains of their last dozen meals. “That’s clean wutter, that. Ye canna be in the town wutter, ye. Ye’ll have tuh go a-round town, go south stream.”
Sagesse was scared and alone, and that’s when I began to take deeper interest. I looked into him and saw many possibilities. It is a distinction of my position as Walker Between Worlds that I may look into one’s future and see what might become. It is also at my discretion to reveal these futures as I please. There was something of interest to be had of Sagesse, both past and future, as it turned out.
“Git out o’ thar!” The fat clod went on.
“I’m sorry sir, my father told me to,” Sagesse splashed toward the shore. The wayfarer retreated at the approach of the diseased little boy.
“I don’t care whut he did tell ye so. Ye canna go in thar bein’ all a scab, and ye canna go in town neither. Off with ye to yer father then!”
The piggish lout covered his mouth to fend off the “scabbers,” as they vernacularized the disease, and stumped away. Sagesse was alone. He painfully pried open his eyes with his fingers, searching out his father. The old blackheart was nowhere to be found. Only the old man and myself knew where he had gotten off to. Afraid to go too far and miss his daddy’s return, Sagesse stayed by the stream for quite some pitiful time. It was nearly in my being to interfere, for all the crying he did. But the tears did more good for his infections than his worthless father ever would have done for the boy.
It was several hours before a group of monks came from the Monastery of the Source. Covered from head to toe in earthy brown robes, layers of cloth wrapped around their heads to protect against Sagesse’s disease, the monks came to retrieve him, and he lurched forward down the path toward what I had seen of interest in his future.
I kept my interest in him in the tepid coals for some time afterward, and instead I followed pirates. I gave them curses to worry with and made their tall tales true, much to their dismay. I gave them dreams to chase, and the seafarers and I entertained one another briskly. But always in mind I had the Prophesy, and knew that all the world would one day be subject to Its unfolding. It follows that I turned my tastes to royals as well, the most despicable of all breeds. There is a class of men within every class of men that makes itself least worthwhile, and in royalty the worthless are rife. For every butcher or weaver that underestimates the value of his time on earth, there is a royal twice as dark of heart. And estimating the rarity of royals compared to tradesmen, that marks nearly all the world’s leaders as worthless.
Aiden Maybourne, second son to the King of Westend, typified his rank. He was generally despondent despite his wealth. Here the daemon paused, and looked, I think, pensive. He had before him every opportunity to pursue any of the arts or any business ventures of his choice. Aiden was a young man of limitless resources both of physical ability and of financial wherewithal. The prince was the author of his own fate, and a poor author at that. Until the Prophecy took hold.
You will want to know more of the functioning of Prophecy.
People are no judge of spirits. They judge their liquor improperly, and put so much stock in royal sanguine with so little proof. And what is the merit of royal blood? Ordination by some God? A “supreme being” as imaginary as divine right itself? The barbaric notion that might makes right, pover hache derechio, put the first kings in office. It was later that their condition as monarchs was attributed to the will of gods, and with good reason as well. Common folk look upon the luxuries of kings with malicious envy. A king needs a hearty excuse for his excess, an excuse that would put fear into the hearts of those who covet his lifestyle and position; therefore, it is the will of God. Any to defy the king should be stoned as blasphemers. That is the source of the rule whereby would-be usurpers are kept in their place.
I heard the royal blood trickle and ooze in the veins of one whom the Prophecy would use deeply. The art of Prophecy is little known and poorly understood by mankind, so I must elaborate. To put a Prophecy in words is to ruin it. It is a vision and a reality to come, and words cannot truly capture a thing ever. Words, your words, are slippery inventions of man. Crude. Clumsy. Incapable of accurately capturing reality. In essence, inarticulate. Your words, those of every language of mankind, are of poor value, which is why a picture is worth so many more than a thousand of them. The exchange rate is to your extreme disadvantage. But suffice it to say that, to borrow some of your prattle, I could foresee that affliction would come on the world and great carnage amongst countries. I alone knew, then, that the prince would be great on the world, on Ainvar, that all would serve him, and that his kingdom would be an everlasting kingdom. All his ways would be truth. In truth he would pass judgment on the world, and all its provinces would make peace at last. The sword would cease from his world and he would be praised as omnipotent sovereign.
It was while Sagesse bathed in the creek, it was at the abandonment, that his path and the path of the young man who would someday be monarch of all monarchs began to bend toward one another. A bath, a cleansing, a new beginning. As Sagesse sloughed off the dead flesh and scabs of his disease, so did he slough off the miscreant father that would have led him astray into endless mischief. Now there was only me to do that for him. Me and the religions of men.
And this other one, this royal one, the prince—I wish there were more about him to tell, but he was terribly uninteresting. Even knowing what was prophesied for him, I could not stand to give him my attention. Nothing ill befell him, he had his every want, and he was happy with the wealth he was born into. He was a good friend to his friend and a fair and honest lover to his lovers. In short, he did nothing of interest to me. So I gave him over to a succubus called by the name Nephista. She took the prince around the time that Sagesse was taken into the monastery. It was beneath my dignity to play upon one so bland as he, but to Nephista he was beautiful, and it would improve her devilish moods to see of what transgressions she could make him partake and with what lowly forms.
Now, a daemon knows that there are ways between the worlds, and the worlds of existence are many. Your world you know well, and mine you know well enough to fear. The world of Sagesse and Aiden, the prince, is quite another, but its goings-on are just as real and just as significant… or just as trivial… and at this the daemon laughed again, his silk worm laugh, as those of your own world. Ainvar, Sagesse’s world, is very much like your own.
To pass from your world to the other side, the Otherworld, Hell, Hades, Purgatory—none of your names or ideas for it are quite correct—to pass from yours to the Otherworld is simple enough; death is the spell that opens that gate. But the ways into your world from the Otherworld, the infernal and fiery place of my birth, or the ways into Sagesse’s world from the Otherworld are less broadly known to men. Birth. That’s the simplest way, though it has its pains and vicious downfalls. To pass into your world through birth often means to be a helpless babe in the hands of any random imbecile. And there are many other ways to pass from the Otherworld into the light. Only I am powerful enough in the art of passing to come and go as I please, but many other daemonkind can find their ways.
Nephista entered through a common enough portal. Given the right combination of events, and a good succubus knows them as well as a man knows to breathe, one can pass through from that world to this by way of a looking glass. I will not list all the exigent circumstances, but let it suffice that Nephista awaited a pretty young lady in her chamber’s looking glass. She was a sister of the prince on his mother’s side only. The girl was quite struck with herself, and spent a portion of every day in conference with a floor length mirror.
You will want to know more about Prophecy yet.
Nephista waited as a mist in the reflection. She could not cross through without a host. As she hovered in her silvery, looking glass world, Amelia entered her bedchamber. She faced her own image in the mirror, taking stock of her burgeoning womanly attributes. Straight platinum hair ended in ringlets. The neckline of her gown plunged low between forming breasts. Soon she would be too much a woman to wear such girlish styles. She hoped.
Amelia shifted her weight and tried out which stance would best reveal the curve of her hip. Her lips parted in a sigh to protest the bony hip line that admitted her girlishness in the clingy frock, and then turned to examine her reflection from the rear. Looking over her shoulder, she was displeased with her boyish slenderness, wishing instead for a voluptuous womanly silhouette. Dissatisfied, she began to disrobe. Her brows furrowed crossly, and that seemed to make her look older. But the thought of that made her smile, and the illusion was quickly foiled.
She let slip the thin strap of her gown, and it met no firm breast of resistance as it slid down her shoulder and rested on her elbow. She wriggled her other shoulder out as well, and stood halfnaked before the floor length mirror. Tiny nose, thin shoulders, slowlydeveloping breasts. She could count every rib lower than those small mounds. She let the gown fall to the floor, and raised her arms to straighten her hair.
There was something new about her, and Nephista could see that it intrigued her. Amelia stepped closer to the mirror, looking transfixed at the hollow of her armpit. A little tuft of downy hair was starting to come in like a pinch of spun glass, white and wispy. She smiled at the sign of womanhood and played the hairs between her fingers like the broken threads at the end of a violently virtuosic violinist’s bow. It so excited her that she skipped completely past disdaining her belly button which, she always lamented, stuck out like a big white mole, and began to examine herself more thoroughly. She stepped in close to the mirror, adjusting it, almost embracing it now, as Nephista gave her the image she longed to see. Small, but definite, the daemon showed her a proliferation of perfect little white hairs to match her platinum tresses. And as her fingers reached tremblingly down to examine them, she was shocked to feel only smoothness where she saw hairs in her reflection.
Nephista had her now in her shock. Invisible fingers spread Amelia open. Nephista took hold, and began to play with the girl, to unlock and enter her. Tiny white locks parted. Nephista had her Damsel, and the child became a woman possessed.
“This is the place blessed by the Source for the making of the brew,” Brother Mendhel pronounced in his usual officious tone. He and Sagesse had trekked deep into the caves below the monastery with the light of only one small lantern supported by the monk’s thick hand. “Here the Source is strongest for that purpose.” Sagesse listened and grunted under the weight of a heavy cask. He had been in the care of the monks three years since his father abandoned him. Sagesse’s boils and scabs had long been prayed over and, by unnatural power, eventually subsided. For days he had returned to the stream, spent all of the daylight hours there, but his father never returned. Now he was searching for something else to occupy his mind and asking the monks more questions than they could appreciate.
“Why this spot, do you suppose?”
“It is blessed by the Source. We ask no more of the Source than its blessing, and we must be thankful when that blessing is given. Ask no more.”
“Ask no more!” Brother Mendhel was stern, and his fat lower lip quivered as it snapped shut. Large bloodshot eyes imposed themselves angrily under a heavy thatch of underbrush eyebrows. “The Source is good. The ale is good, and we are thankful. It is always done this way, and has always been done this way,” he grunted, swirling his finger around in the sign of the Source and ending his gesticulation by pounding his finger against his barrel chest with a thump.
Sagesse pursued another topic: “Would you mind it if I cleaned out the casks before the next brew? They really are quite disgust—”
“You’ll do no such thing!”
“Perhaps we could make a crisper tasting ale if—”
“No!” Brother Mendhel ended that subject for the day as well. “You will work in the garden house tomorrow. There you may clean what you like, so long as you don’t clean the soil from the roots of the plants. Perhaps you think you could improve them by removing what the Source has deemed necessary to them as well.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way. I am sorry; brother, I did not know.” Sagesse was content to ponder that for what amounted to only a few moments before he began again to badger the old monk for information. “Perhaps what enriches the ale has to do with growing something in it, just as the soil helps to grow the plants that nourish us. Tell me, brother, has anyone ever tried to find out what was in these dirty barrels?”
“Mightn’t we be able to improve the ale if we could improve the—”
“The Source is good! The ale is good! You cannot improve upon the Source’s work! Be thankful, or you will have only water to drink.”
“But how does the Source—”
“Perhaps that would give your mind something to ponder. There will be no more ale for you until you have completed seven days’ silence. It begins now!”
“Brother—” The reed thin boy looked up at the monk in disbelief. Asking, pondering, deeply concentrating on anything at hand—these had always been the only way to settle his mind. If he couldn’t speak, he would be miserable with unanswered questions.
“It begins now! Perhaps you will be satisfied with your ale next week.” The stocky old monk reached into the folds of his coarse brown robes and produced a red ribbon. He tied it in a loose loop around Sagesse’s neck. The boy was now marked, and all of the monks would know that he was observing a vow of silence. “Now, boy, take with you a cask from that wall,” Brother Mendhel indicated a batch of ale that was ready to drink.
With a quiet sigh, and an averted gaze, Sagesse retrieved the heavy cask. Brother Mendhel gathered casks under each of his own thick arms. The boy staggered under the weight of just one, but the sturdy monk seemed hardly to notice his double cargo.
“You want wisdom. Here is wisdom. Mysterious are the ways of the Source. It is the Source of all creation, the Source of all blessings. None are higher. Hallowed be the works of the Source, and hallowed be the places that the Source has given for Its blessings. Glory be to the Source for all that is good in the world.”
Sagesse’s mind was already racing to what seemed to him the next obvious question, but he was not allowed to vocalize it. If the Source is the maker of all things, then why has it made things that are evil? Why has the Source made a world where predators stalk prey and where people starve because the crops go bad? Where innocent children are neglected and inflicted with the scabbers. Is not the Source also the creator of all things evil?
“To the Source we owe our existence, and to the Source our keeping owe. The Source doth grant us light to work by in day and the dark of peaceful night for slumber.”
Sagesse eyed the small lantern still dangling from Brother Mendhel’s finger, barely lighting their way as it swung back and forth under the barrel in Mendhel’s right arm.
Then why must we work in the dark? And if the Source has blessed this place, then why has the Source not provided light for me to work by in this chill, damp cave?
“All the creatures of the air and of land and sea owe their existence to the Source.” Then halting, and spinning to shine the lantern directly on the toiling boy, Brother Mendhel growled, “It cannot be other!”
Out of the shadows that hovered over the monk’s barrels he fixed Sagesse with a glare. Sagesse had no choice but to accept all of this in silence. He would have to reconcile his questions at a later time. But his questions would persist.
If I am a creature of the Source’s making, then why has the Source made a boy to wonder so at how the world works, at how the Source works? Am I a good creation? Why has the Source cursed me with a mind of endless questions that pester me ever more than they pester the monks… or my father.
Marqsam and Aiden were in the parlor, excitedly imagining their adventure to come, their Grand Tour, over a game of cards. Their educations were mutually drawing to a close, and their chance to see the world would arrive soon.
“Will you teach me, brother, something on this game of chance?” young Amelia interfered.
Aiden replied, “Triskil is not a game of chance, Amelia, it is a game of skill. And I could not, in good conscience, teach it to a young girl. Gambling is not a very ladylike pursuit.”
“But Aiden, as you’ve pointed out, I am not yet a lady, so let me pursue what pleases me before the shackles of womanhood take hold,” the wispy youth persisted, toying with a lock of her bright hair and pouting unrouged lips of deep, natural pink. Prince Aiden allowed a half smile and a laugh just as medial.
The round parlor room in the royal palace was a place of unnecessary size where every ceiling and every doorframe were made to dwarf the very spirits of men. At a gaming table sat the two boyish young men, Aiden and his lifelong friend Marqsam. Marqs’ was the only son of the Royal Military’s general, whose death placed Marqsam in the ward of the palace. Amelia stood at Aiden’s shoulder in her nightgown. Though she sprouted in height to stand as tall as Aiden’s shoulder, she could still muster an innocent, childish pout to melt the prince’s heart.
Marqsam tried her, “Do you have any money?”
“You’re not playing for money between the two of you, and I know enough to realize that the game is much more interesting with a third player.” The two young men exchanged exasperated glances, and Aiden lazily pushed a chair out with his foot for her to sit in. She was about to complain that ladies aren’t presented a chair in such a way, but thought better of it since she was lucky enough to gain a seat at the table.
Smiling, she sat. Marqsam deftly shuffled the deck. With an adroit flick of his wrist, he began to deal the triangular cards out to his rivals, adding, “Three only makes it more interesting if there’s money involved. And failing that, all three should know how to play.”
“Maybe I’ll teach you a thing or two,” Amelia ventured.
“Highly doubtful,” chorused the young men.
“The point of the game,” Aiden began, “is to create a pattern.”
“I know, the same on all three sides.”
“That’s right—a three sided pattern, the same on all three sides. Now, the gambit—that’s the first move—“
“I know what a gambit is,” the eager girl interjected.
Marqsam was unimpressed “Good! Would you let him get on with the rules! Do you want to learn Triskil or not?”
The prince went on, “As a gambit, the first player to the dealer’s right can play any number of cards from his hand onto any side of the centercard. I usually choose to play at least three, otherwise the game may be over before you can bet. And if you have an abundance of matching cards, you’ll want to keep a few hidden back so you can be the one to complete the pattern and win.”
“Seems simple enough.”
“Seems,” Marqsam murmered, examining his own cards, “but it can get complex very quickly.”
“Especially when you’ve got a hound like Marqsam who seems to know your own hand better than his own.”
“I can tell you right now what’s in your hand, Amelia.”
“Three Toiling Man, for a start.”
“How did you know!”
“Because you tilted them when you picked them up from the table.” With a deep sigh, Aiden collected the cards and dealt them again. Some hours later, Aiden collected the sleeping girl from her chair and carried her in his arms to her private chamber. Being kind hearted but ill accustomed to the care of a young girl, he deposited her atop her blanket rather than tucking her in.
Sagesse arrived exactly on time for breakfast. The sun was just cresting the mountains. He had slept well, eager to be alone if he must not speak to anyone. All his dreams were answerless questions, though, and as he seated himself, Brother Gento, next to him, greeted the boy.
“Good morn, Sagesse.” The grey haired old monk did not immediately look at Sagesse. But after a moment of the boy’s silence, he looked over at the young figure, embarrassedly hunched over in his brown robe. “Ah, I see,” said the old monk, fingering the red neck-ribbon that explained his silence.
Across the heavy old wooden table, which was scarred from centuries of use, was seated Brother Mendhel, who explained, “Perhaps his incessant questioning will be curtailed now. He has been showing some disrespect.”
“Hmm,” old Gento responded, “Have his questions become offensive?” He eyed Sagesse and Brother Mendhel alternately.
“I should say so. Sagesse leaves nothing to the Source. He must question Its every dynamic. I would tell you of his impious ponderings, but it would be shorter to list the things that he does not question!” Brother Mendhel stirred his thick porridge and poured a little water from his earthenware cup into it.
“I have often thought that Sagesse’s questioning was, in a way, his gift.”
At that, both Sagesse and Brother Mendhel snapped their heads toward Gento. “Sagesse’s impious questioning is not, in him, a virtue.”
“Impious, you say, yes. Certainly, brother, I’m not want to question your authority on him. I’m sure that you’re doing what is best for him.”
Then Sagesse’s mind did race. He wondered over every question of faith that had ever occurred to him. He hunkered down further in his seat under the weight of the wondering and the urge to clear his name of the shames implied by Brother Mendhel. But the bravery and defiance that would one day shine in him was not yet a part of his soul, and he was all the more shamed that he was indeed questioning his faith. Of course there must be a Source; if anything exists at all, there must be a Source. But Sagesse could not be so resigned that it was an answerer of prayers to bless and to damn, choosing the course of peoples’ lives for them. The Source should not choose one of Its creations over another as a worldly king honors one man and not another.
That afternoon, when finished with his cleaning duties and having spent the minimum required time at prayer, Sagesse made his way to the monastic library to search out information on other religions. What held they in common, and what in disparity? What characteristics of religion could be counted on, no matter what faith one tried? And what, he yearned to know, was the ultimate Truth?
What Sagesse learned first, was that his quest was not an easy one. The questions he pondered had been pondered by generations of men. But the questions did not go away for him, and he would prove to have the perseverance to find the answers.
He worked in silence often with Brother Mendhel for the next several days. The large man never opened his mouth, but instead gave commands by way of gesture or by handing to Sagesse the implement he wished the boy to employ, or the heavy cask he wished him to carry. Things went on this way for most of the week before, at an evening meal, another of the monks asked Mendhel if he would need him to purchase barley during his next trip. Brother Mendhel made the sign across his mouth and throat that indicated he was observing a self imposed vow of silence. He, instead, carved his answer into a piece of wax that he drew from his pocket.
“Very commendable,” Brother Gento offered, “that you have kept Sagesse company in his silence for so long, Brother Mendhel. Tomorrow night we should celebrate. The Source has given us good ale and good company. It will be nice to hear your voices again.”
Abashed, Sagesse stared and wondered at the thought. It had not occurred to him that Mendhel had taken his own vow of silence. The last words he had heard from the big, gruff man had been Mendhel’s conversation with Gento over the breakfast table some days before.
The week of silence did not pass quickly for Sagesse. He took solace in what few answers could be found in the library. He learned that mathematics was a wonderfully sound way to find answers. He began to study the application of numbers and symbols, and soon had exhausted the resources of the Monastery’s small collection of books. By the last day, he was bursting with questions. Even the smallest quandaries had him in fitful suspense, and he knew that so much would remain unanswered, even when he was allowed to speak the questions aloud.
Late that night, his last full night of silence, Sagesse lay awake in his midnight chamber. All was black as pitch. He fumbled on the floor next to his straw tick mattress for a candle of beeswax. He crept into the hallway and lit his candle from the single torch nearest the main doorway, and then padded softly down the stairs toward the passageways that would lead him into the caves.
“Be careful not to tilt your hand.”
“Keep your eyes where they belong, ruffian!”
“Oh, spite!” Marqsam was rather impressed with Amelia’s show of sporting banter and revealed a handsome row of uneven teeth as he smiled. “You’ll never make it in a real game if you can’t conceal your cards.” He leaned back on his chair and found a place in another seat to elevate his heels.
“This is as real a game as I’m likely to get. Ten cards on the table and no bets. Hrmph. What do you boys have to wager against a sterling locket?”
“Wager?” Aiden was surprised and none too pleased. “The rudiments of the game were all I was willing to wager, and you’ve won those over the last few months. No need to make things any more exciting than that. This is just a friendly parlor game.”
“Hold, hold, Aiden. I think she can hold her own. Why not put something up. She has plenty of jewelry whence that came. One round of betting won’t do her in.” Marqsam sat back up in his seat and leaned in toward Aiden’s frown. “Besides, perhaps losing something will put the fear of the Source into her and knock this silliness out of her head.”
“I don’t like it. This is a young lady of the royal household. Amelia, I cannot let this go any further. You play for sport or not at all.”
“You’re just afraid—”
“Afraid nothing! I’ll not be lured in by being told I’m afraid to wager you. You’ve won your share of games, and of late it’s all been due to Marqsam’s coaching. And I have a feeling he’s been allowing you to win at times just to save bruising of your girlish pride.”
“She’s been winning fairly, Aiden.”
“But even I—I almost never beat you.” the prince stammered.
“That’s not a problem of her skill. Do you know the locket’s worth, Amelia?”
“Not in gold.”
Aiden stood up and placed his palms on the table, “That hardly matters. We’re not going to let her wager on Triskil. No good can come of it.”
“But you boys do it all of the time.”
“We’re men. It is accepted. I’m of no mind to keep you from doing anything you want in life, Amelia, but I’ll not be blamed for teaching you to wager with men. I’m only being a good brother to you.”
“I’ll give twelve silver,” Marqsam added.
“You’ll do no such thing!” the prince was appalled.
“Yes, it’s worth far more than that,” the princess defended.
“What’ll you take for it then?”
“Your Triskil deck will do, Marqsam.” Amelia was cool and unminding of Aiden’s outburst. Nephista was strong at work.
“I have plenty of other Triskil decks, and it’s not as well valued as your locket,” Marqsam said.
“It’s what would please me.”
The prince sat back down to the table. “I have no use for another Triskil deck.”
“Well, as you’ve not risked anything, that’s hardly at issue,” Marqsam quipped.
“I will not wager.”
“Suits me too,” Amelia was made to say, “you can just owe me.”
“That remains to be seen. You haven’t won,” Marqsam reminded her.
“But I will.”
“Fine. We play out the hand. You two may wager if you must, but let it be known that I take no part in it.”
Marqsam threw down one card, and Aiden dealt him one to replace it, saying, “I’ll draw three,” throwing down three from his own hand. They looked to Amelia.
“I’ll take none.”
“But you have…” Marqsam began.
“Perhaps I don’t have what you think I have.” Her reply caused a quizzical expression to cross Marqsam’s face, but it was soon chased away by a worried one.
Marqsam played a Ship of Sails, nervously fingering the two that remained tucked into his hand. Then, to confuse matters, he played the rest of the cards that he held, lengthening the pattern on one side by four cards altogether, and keeping only the two Ship of Sails to himself. “That makes it a two hand game at least.”
“I can stretch most of that and clear my hand,” Aiden said, placing many of the same cards that Marqsam had played on other sides of the pattern to mirror Marqsam’s moves. “Now it only takes one hand.”
Amelia turned to Aiden, placing her cards gently on the table to reveal that all of the cards necessary for a win were already in her hand. The game was hers. “You owe me,” she told the prince. She collected the cards into one pile, reclasped her locket about her neck, and took her prize Triskil deck with her as she left the parlor.
Many nights passed with the trio playing cards long after Amelia had been put to bed by the nurse. She scarcely waited for the nurse to round the corner before she was out of bed and walking toward Aiden and Marqsam’s parlor game. She showed up in her childish night gown. They never turned her away since they had never stayed tucked in themselves at her age. These long nights of gaming were only a continuation of Aiden and Marqsam’s childhood late night play. They could hardly begrudge her the same, and felt sorry that there were no other young ladies her age for her to spend time with.
Aiden had often taken her back to her bed chamber and lain Amelia sleeping atop the sheets. Occasionally, he heard a ruckus about Amelia sneaking out of her room at night, but no one attempted to connect her late night prowls with the prince and Marqsam. One holiday evening, Amelia procured from the queen permission to stay awake for the evening water symphony. It was customary to celebrate the arrival of the summer with an all night concert in the sand. The beach just outside the palace was all a collection of traveling bards that day, replete with plays and seaside madrigals. The evening was capped with hours of beautiful symphonic music, horns, harp, violins, and winds of all sorts. It began with the traditional Mass for the Providence of Sun, a tribute to the Source; the unseen “Source” was implicated as the One God who provided all. Mortals always take as evidence of the Source anything that comes to pass; it is always, in their eyes, the “will” of the Source or something like it.
After viewing two short, wholesome plays, and one that the better judgment of Amelia’s nurse-chaperone would have forbade, Amelia made her way up the beach past myriad performers toward the back gates of the palace. She saw dancing sea lions and small bands of rowdy singers. Some of the so-called bards were no more than groups of uncommissioned pirates singing their lusty sea chanteys to pass the time and earn an extra pint of rum. Nephista took the opportunity to swell the desires already mounting in Amelia’s flesh. The lyrics tantalized her as she passed a group of rowdy men in worn leather pantaloons, singing bare-chested on a convenient outcropping of rocks that extended from the palace cliff toward the beach. They were swinging half-empty flagons in disrupted rhythm as they bawled out their song.
Here’s to the ladies that’s waitin’ fer us
Here’s to the bar maids between
Here’s for the maidens that drain us of lust
And ev’ry pink lip that we seen
As the simple verses progressed, the word lip was replaced variously with every imaginable pink part of the feminine anatomy, and the lusty brigands competed over who could sing that word the loudest, least in tune, and most poorly annunciated. They were all winning.
Regardless of the poor quality of the performance, the visions of the shirtless men mingled with the images of a sultry bedroom scene in Amelia’s mind. She was just returning from an encore performance of Harlion, a tragedy involving murder and incest. All these ideas boiled away in Amelia’s head. She felt steam rising through her hair, out of the top of her head, and forbid that she lay down for fear it would rise right through her groin as well, leaving a telltale spot of moisture where she had been aching lately to be touched.
She elected to go inside, out of the salt-sea air. The sun was setting, and Soon Marqsam and Aiden would be at the balcony, listening to the summer symphony. That’s where she wanted to be.
When Amelia arrived, the young men were already on the seaside balcony in the company of the king and queen, and, regrettably, a pair of young ladies about their own age. The prince had his arm around one of the girls, but it was obvious that he was trying to hide the fact from the king and queen. Also in attendance was Aiden’s older brother, the heir apparent to the throne. Most of the attention was lavished upon the crown prince, so it appeared that Aiden could get away with quite a bit of touching with his lady friend. They stayed toward the back of the balcony, as did Marqsam and his bawd.
As Amelia made her way toward Aiden along the wall of windows and doors she could hear a muffled giggle escape Aiden’s guest occasionally. She was tall and fully blossomed in womanhood and everything that Amelia wanted to be. The intruder had dark, full, rich colored hair that curled naturally. It seemed to accentuate her curves. Her cheeks were a little reddened, either by makeup or excitement, and her lips curved into a natural pout. Amelia’s lips mimicked the pout as she admired the woman’s formal dress, elegantly designed and expensively tailored to accentuate her womanly curves. The gown seemed to cling to her like a second skin on the torso, hugging her corseted figure. It was full at the hips, and dropped swooping to the floor like a set of palace draperies. Amelia’s own gown was straight and simple, well designed, but intended for a girl still coming of age.
She moved purposefully and quietly into the prince’s presence, and maneuvered herself into the space just next to him, unnoticed. The prince continued to pinch, whisper, and nuzzle his guest when he could get away with it, but Amelia laid her head against his arm, startling him.
“Oh! Amelia!” He composed himself. “This is my dear half-sister, Amelia. I must introduce you to Cassina.”
“Merry Sun Day, Amelia. How do you do?” Cassina seemed well rehearsed in pleasantries. She donned a practiced smile and removed herself from the prince’s grasp to curtsy and show respect to a member of the royal family.
“I’m well, and you?”
Aiden was amused by Amelia’s unexpected interruption. “My little sister is quite the bright star. She takes lessons on four instruments and is teaching one of her servants to read.”
“Why, that’s quite impressive! Have you enjoyed the music today?”
“I have. I’ve also seen three plays.”
“Really,” Cassina carried on, “What was your favorite?”
“I enjoyed Harlion quite well,” Amelia stated with dignified solemnity.
Aiden and Cassina were obviously familiar with the subject matter of the work, and exchanged knowing glances. Cassina tried to squelch a surprised laugh and blew a bubble of snot from her elegant nose. Aiden tried to ignore it and recover, “That’s quite an interesting play.” He handed a handkerchief to his maiden surreptitiously.
“What did you like about it most?” Cassina asked, trying to absolve herself of her snotty foible.
“I like the part about the bedroom.” Nephista allowed that Amelia was brash and unembarrassed. “That was very exciting. Something mysterious was going on, don’t you think? Have you seen Harlion?”
Aiden and Cassina exchanged glances along with the handkerchief. It would have had time to change hands several times before Aiden began to stammer, “Well—I—Yes, I’ve seen it a couple of times.”
Nephista manifested herself to Cassina in Amelia’s angry eyes. She gave a look of foreboding malice to Cassina that churned the woman’s stomach, making her suddenly ill. “You’ll have to excuse me,” Cassina said, heading to the door with a quick, half curtsy.
As soon as she was gone, Aiden became somewhat stern, “With whom did you see Harlion? Who was with you?”
“I had my chaperon, and I think I am quite able to enjoy works of art of that nature, if you’re suggesting otherwise.”
“Hmm,” Aiden appraised her with a long second look. He had not taken stock of her in quite some time, and was surprised to see a blossoming young lady. “Perhaps you are. Still, the mention of the bedroom scene to a new acquaintance seems a bit ill mannered.”
“She asked what I liked about it.”
“She did. I guess she should have changed the subject if it made her uncomfortable then, hmm?”
“That’s what a lady should do.”
“Come, Amelia. Let’s enjoy the symphony.”
Aiden offered his arm to her and they strolled to the side of the king and queen at the edge of the balcony. Quite some time passed, with Aiden checking periodically over his shoulder. Marqsam and his dam eventually disappeared, but Cassina never did return. Finally, the royals headed to their chamber and dismissed Aiden and Amelia to partake in the evening as they pleased.
Aiden pulled a pair of comfortable chairs from the hall out onto the balcony, and the siblings sat smiling and enjoying the soft, summer night air. A breeze drifted from the water, carrying the music up to them with a crisp midnight chill. A while later as the cellos ruminated over a somber melody in the quietude of a slow movement, Amelia climbed into Aiden’s lap. Then the visions of the play started to toss and turn in her mind as she fell into an induced slumber; Nephista had her way with Amelia’s dreamy state.
The prince began to feel hot, and used his one free arm, the other was supporting Amelia against his chest, to loosen the collar of his shirt. Amelia buried her face between his neck and chest, and herself tighter into him. Nephista rumpled bedsheets in her mind, and Amelia’s body began to wriggle in the prince’s embrace. She began to softly struggle against a hard spot beneath her in Aiden’s lap. He looked on her and saw, for a moment, not a child or a sister but only the woman that she was becoming, and felt the soft slip of her body against his. Moisture began to form on their mutually pressed clothes.
“I’m going to have to get you to bed!” Aiden hoisted her out of his lap and set her on her feet, shaking off the infectious effects of sexual impulse. He stood up and stretched his legs, trying to hide the hard lump of his manhood, but Amelia stared at it, clear eyed, and fell against him, placing her arms around his neck.
He lifted her in his arms, as he had so many nights before, and carried her to her bedroom. This time her breath played on his neck as he carried her, and sweat beaded on his forehead. He could feel a hot energy within her, radiating toward him and begging him to take her.
He laid her atop her sheets again and looked long upon her. The flickers of light from the torch in the hall became long and slender across her sleeping form as he closed the door between them.
Yet another night Sagesse stood by candle light, examining a keg of ale. His own experiment. Maybe it wasn’t ale, maybe not beer either. It was something though. It was something made of Barley, something in a dirty barrel. He fingered the red ribbon around his neck, the constant red ribbon. He had worn it on his first lone voyage to the caves, and he wore it again, he wore it still. It had come off one day, but the questions exploded out of him. Immediately. He thought about the scene, Brother Mendhel’s instant anger, the ribbon still twirling in his hand. It was back on before Sagesse had even come to a pause. But mostly, he thought about the questions. The ribbon was starting to turn purple now, with constant contact with his neck. It was uncomfortable, wearing thin and fraying at the edges. He thought about the questions.
Sagesse held his candle unsteadily over his experimental keg. He peered into it deeply. The clean keg had done nothing. What came out was something putrid, something undrinkable. His keg stood at the far corner for months, always with the newest brew, and marked ever so inconspicuously by a knot in the wood, a knot that he would always recognize because it looked like the face of a bearded young man.
This time he had included the slop from an old barrel, and this time it was different. It wasn’t ready yet, but there was a change going on in it. It was happening now. “The Source is good” was happening right in front of him and he knew it, but he couldn’t see it. Not right away. Not with bare eyes. But there was something to be known in that keg. There was an answer in there: the answer to at least one of his questions. Just one answer.
He stared deep into the bottom of the barrel, shivering in the cave’s cool temperature. He stared far past where the candlelight could penetrate, and stopped worrying about what light could reflect into his eyes. He looked deep into it and into the question itself, and into the soul of the changing liquid before him. There was a soul in it. “The Source is Good” was something alive in the brew. The metamorphosis was happening before his very eyes, and finally he could see it, understand it. There was something alive. Something from the gunk. Something hungry. It was eating the barley. It was taking it in and spitting it out, and what came out was the spirit of the brew. Right there, in his mind’s eye, past the candle light, somewhere that his fleshly eyes would never penetrate, the metamorphosis was happening. And Sagesse could see it.
The beeswax candle tottered in Sagesse’s hand, and his other hand sprang to his lips to muffle a cry of joy. Now he had an answer. He replaced the top of the barrel quietly and tried silently to tap it into place. He knew. Somehow he had seen.
The boy fell to his knees in front of the keg. All around him there was a vision of energy, there in the dark cave, in the night-blind dark. He blew out the candle, and still it was there, all around him. He could see how it all came together. He could understand it. Something, a thing without a name, was alive in the barrels. It was making the change. Brother Mendhel had called it the Source. The Source is good. We are thankful. On his knees, Sagesse prayed to the Source, his first honest, heartfelt prayer. It had given him at least one answer. The Source is good. Perhaps It would not let him be tortured forever with boundless questions. Perhaps if he was diligent, if he was really undeniably tortured by questions, the Source would grant him an answer. If he was created to wonder, if that was a part of Sagesse, then his creator had taken pity on him. It had granted him one answer. Perhaps It would grant more.
A whisper: “Your penance has been long, Sagesse. Let us be done with this foolishness. As you may know, I have chosen to suffer with you. I suffer for you as one of the Source’s creations. Now let us suffer no more.” Brother Mendhel reached out to remove the tattered ribbon from Sagesse’s neck. They were alone in Mendhel’s chamber, a chamber he had shared with Sagesse for many moons since the boy came into the church’s care.
“Brother,” Sagesse’s voice croaked across his lips, “I have not suffered of late. Brother…” Mendhel’s heavy brows furrowed into a thicket above his nose. “I have found an answer.”
“I prefer it to a question.”
“I have become satisfied of one question at least. Perhaps satisfied of my greatest question as well.” With a tight jawed perseverance, Brother Mendhel twirled the soiled ribbon in his hand rather than return it to his pocket. “Brother, I know the Source is good.” This made the monk nearly sigh with relief.
“I am glad of it. I am glad that your questioning is laid to rest. Now, let us have no more of this. Great suffering may bring great revelations.” Sagesse remained quiet as they headed down the long hall and into the day’s sun. The monks were assembling without for a short hike past the seaside cliffs to enjoy nature’s beauty.
“It is a beautiful day the Source has given us, brothers.”
“To hear you say it is wonderful to my ears, Brother Mendhel!” Gento’s face was creased into a sunshine smile. His hood was down, allowing the daylight and the sea breeze to play against his grey scalp and lend him color. “We must enjoy the last of the sun. We’ve had our season of its full rays, and it’s been a season something darkened for the lack of your two voices. And I see that your penance is done as well, young Sagesse! I am glad of it.”
“Yes, brother. Though I am still a vessel of questions, I am something answered.”
“What answers have you found?” Gento’s question made Brother Medehl bristle slightly, and his eyes darted to Sagesse.
“So it please you, brother, I have been granted the knowledge that the Source is good. Profoundly I know.” There was no laughter. There was little response to be heard on the sunshine breeze for several moments. But the monks all smiled and turned to gaze upon Sagesse. Dozens of faces lit up, thinking of their own moments of realization that the Source was something real and goodψ. “Brother Gento, I have been made to question. I have been tortured endlessly with wondering about the world. But the Source in its infinite kindness has granted me reprieve from at least one question. It’s not that the question was very important to anyone in particular, but it has haunted me. And now I am answered. The Source has answered me Itself. There is the hope in me that, though I be created to wonder, perhaps I am, too, created to understand.” The brothers assembled in a more organized fashion and began to walk. Most conversation turned to the trees and the cliffs, the infinite sea.
“I must admit, you’ve made me curious.” Brother Gento tried to speak in a manner soft enough to avoid angering Mandehl and his unreasonable desire to quash Sagesse’s answer seeking. “How came this answer that the Source has given you?”
“So it please you, Brother Gento, the question is not one of much importance. I have so many more questions that haunt my soul so much more menacingly. But most of them I cannot fathom how to satisfy. It was a silly question, and that it settles my mind to know the truth of it is reason enough to believe that the Source is good. That the Source has granted me the answer… I know that my mind of wondering be not doomed to remain always unsatisfied—that the Source will yield to me those answers which I truly seek out.”
“It is good in you to wonder, to question. The Source would not otherwise make you so.”
“I do believe it, brother.”
“I do not,” Mendhel’s deep voice broke in. “The Source is known in the heart, not the head. The power of the Source can be known by feeling it. It is all around us. It is shining on the top of your head out of the sun. Can’t you feel it? It is pulling that leaf to the ground. The Source is the leaf. It is holding the leaf together until It deems fit to let the leaf dissolve back into earth. The Truth of the Source is abundant. What further proof could one need? Questioning the Source and Its ways is on the order of blasphemy. Some questions need not be asked. The Source is good, and we are thankful.”
Gento relented, saying, “You are wise, Brother Mendhel. Your communion with the Source is palpable.”
“But I am full of these questions, brothers. I am cursed with them. It matters not how I try; the questions persist. I am driven to answer them by an energy that can only come from the Source Itself. The Source is, you admit, the Source of all energy?”
“Then what of the drive to commit sins? The drive to murder, Sagesse? If you attest that all drives are energy of the Source, and not the Source’s energy used by corrupt man, then you suggest that all things are the Source’s will.” Sagesse was silent under Mendhel’s reprisal. “Certainly you must admit that man is of a general state corrupt. Not all the drives of man are completely natural to the Source. Man is a creature flawed.” Now Sagesse’s head swam with questions. Why had the Source created a flawed creature? And of all beings and all things on Ainvar, man seemed to be of the highest order. How could the Source, the creator of all things, create man with the flaws that allow him to become a murderer or a vandal? Is the Source truly good then? It must be less than perfect, in the least.
“But I know, brothers. The Source is good! It has granted me solace in a form most unattainable by other means. Only the power of the Source could grant me this, and for no other reason than to satisfy my wondering soul.”
Frowning, Mendhel spoke: “I do not bring into question the perfection and grace of the Source! How do you take me so?” Sagesse gave no answer but instead broke from the group for a moment.
This conversation led Sagesse to the first of many epiphanies on religion. Sagesse broke from the group and retrieved the leaf that Mendhel had seen falling. He stared into it as he brought it back to the group, running to catch up with them again. Here is something of the Source. He looked into the fallen leaf and saw that it had already begun to turn to dust. On its surface it was much like the living leaves on the tree, but inside it was dieing.
“Have you never wondered, brothers, how the Source goes about its work. How does it turn the leaf to dust? How does it turn a man to dust?”
“A valiant question” Brother Gento conceded, “I do not know.”
Mendhel amended, “It cannot be found out, Sagesse. Some things are only to the Source to understand. We are but men.”
“But how can you be sure!” Sagesse was beside himself, staring into the leaf, starting to see within it already the process taking place. “Cannot the Source reveal what it sees fit to reveal? Is there any harm in asking?”
“The harm is that you demonstrate no faith in the Source! You do not need to know the Source’s ways!” Mendhel was already angry and his face was hot with blood, “Its ways are impossible for us to grasp.”
“But brother, I understand the maturation of the ale. The Source is good. I understand it. I know how it accomplishes that miracle. I have been shown.”
Gento stopped in his tracks. “What does he mean by this, Brother Mendhel?”
“This means mischief. Sagesse. You have been warned. Mysterious are the ways of the Source. It is the Source of all creation, the Source of all blessings. None are higher. Hallowed be the works of the Source, and hallowed be the places that the Source has given for Its blessings. GlorybetotheSourceforallthatisgoodintheworld! You have been penitent, and your sins are cleansed. Do not test the will of the Source!”
“But I do know. I understand it now, Brother,” Sagesse was hunched into a desperate, palms-up stance walking backward in front of the two older monks. The three of them began to fall seriously behind the rest of the group.
“What does this mean?” Brother Gento persisted. But Mendhel denied him.
“I’ll have none of it! Sagesse! Another word of this and it will be your last for three moons.”
“I don’t care father. I know the Source; I’m beginning to truly understand. The Source as I know it is not unfathomable! As you say, it is all around us! It is in this leaf, and it is more than this leaf. There are things at work on it, tearing it apart, breaking it into dust. The Source is in the dust and the Source is in the things that make it. None of these things are accomplished by magical means; the way of the Source is to organize all of creation to—to work its purposes—to… I don’t—”
“You don’t know! Only the Source can know the Source’s purposes!”
“But I must know the truth!”
“Fie!” Mendhel retrieved the tattered ribbon from the folds of his robe. Gento looked on bewildered. It was not his place to interfere, but he was deeply intrigued by what Sagesse was saying. There was no immediate harm in it. And a youth must be corrected if he were truly misled, not simply made quiet. Gento wanted to know more of Sagesse’s thoughts.
Sagesse was prepared to defend himself. “No! I will not be silenced by you! You cannot make my vow for me. A vow is a promise to the Source, and only I can promise for myself! If I must be silent then it will be by my own will.” He made the swirling sign over his chest that told the men he had taken a vow of silence.
They had been dead for a long time; they were not young souls, though they were young men. What intrigued me was the premonition of the mashiach, meaning “the anointed one.” Kings are anointed, as are some holy men. When I first became aware of their futures, though, it would have seemed near impossible that either would achieve an anointed status. Mashiac. You are waiting for me to tell you how the prophecies were fulfilled. Is fate a real thing? Is choice? Can anyone make a difference, you wonder. Yes, a difference one can makeΨ. But how slight or how grand?
For many generations they had been in the Otherworld, and in birth they were clean slates, pallid, vapid, and unripe. Their previous lives were forgotten to them, and of course those are other stories entirely. I could see that there were many conditions that would be met in the Prophecy. Each boy must become a man through certain trials of life, and oh! What trials there would be. But in matters of such impending precognizance, it is worthy pursuit to test the mettle of a would-be mashiac. Thus I gave Sagesse into the hands of the most powerful man in all Ainvar, as you will come to understand, and thus Aiden I gave over to Nephista.
Twelve days passed after the holiday to celebrate the summer sun, and Aiden had made every excuse not to remain in the parlor as on usual nights. He had made excuse to drag Marqsam to this and that disparate corner of the palace, to the guard shacks outside, and finally this night to a nearby tavern, the Dishonored Damsel. But Marqsam couldn’t understand the prince’s wanderlust, and began to complain.
“I think you’ll be recognized, you know. The guards play you grudgingly to humor you, but the folk you find at the tavern aren’t on the palace payroll. Just a few short moons, and we will be on our Grand Tour! There will be plenty of new sights for us. Are you sure you want to do this?” They trudged through the muddy streets, Aiden wearing a set of Marqsam’s practice field clothes along with a mismatched hooded cape. “Why don’t we just go to the parlor?”
“I’d rather not.”
“Is there something going on? And do you need to put yourself in mortal danger over it?”
Aiden came to a halt ankle deep in the mud and stared up at the sign for the tavern. “The Dishonored Damsel. What sort of tavern is this I’ve led us to?”
Marqsam was nonchalant. “Exactly the kind you don’t want to go to—especially with that face.” Marqsam himself would have been fairly comfortable in the Dishonored Damsel with a few of his Triskil buddies from the royal guard.
“Do you really think I would be recognized?” Aiden’s voice fell to a whisper, and he slogged a bit closer to Marqsam, splashing road mud on both of them.
“We get an hour’s walk away, and probably not. But we’re right here next to the palace. People here see every parade and every appearance you make. Someone is certain to know who you are.”
“I don’t want to walk for an hour.”
“Why don’t we just go to the parlor? If you’re bored of it, we’ll call in some entertainers… maybe even a lady or two,” Marqs’ pleaded. “Is there something wrong with you?”
Aiden skulked into the dark shadow that fell from the shop next to the Dishonored Damsel. He leaned against the wall a moment and then sank into a crouch against it. Marqsam drew near, and crouched next to him, sensing that the prince was about to divulge something important. Aiden’s mouth dropped open in an attempt to reveal his lust for Amelia, hoping to cleanse himself through confession to his lifelong friend, but his tongue refused to move. All he could muster was an exasperated sigh, and then at length, “What about that pirate’s tavern?”
“If you think the Damsel is rough, then you certainly don’t want to go to the port!”
“They are all wayfarers there. We won’t be recognized.”
“True enough, Aiden, but that’s a place where trouble can be had without provocation.”
“So is the parlor.” Aiden fixed Marqs’ with a mysterious stare.
“What is that supposed to mean? And what am I supposed to read from that look? I fear me, you have been acting very strangely.” Marqsam waited for a rebuttal, but none came. “Well enough, prince. I’ll stand by your side, and I’ll bloody my sword if need be. And I won’t even require of you an explanation. But just remember that I am in your service more than any hireling. I am in your service as your dearest friend. If there’s something I should know… then I trust that you will tell me.”
“What’s the place called?”
“The Bilge Rat Tavern.”
“Sounds lovely. Let’s give it a go.”
The Source that I know is not a selfish or controlling God. I’m not certain that it is a God at all. It is simply the Source. Its sense of justice has no preference for one man over the other. All are alike on the world. I am suspicious of any faith that insists on the impossibility of grasping the ultimate truth. Though I may never be able to fully express it to another, I must know it. I must know the truth of the world.
It was then that I knew that Sagesse was quickly turning the pages of his life, stumbling forward on his appointed path more steadily.
I must have some answer. I see so many happy people, many of my brother monks included, knowing nothing, seeking nothing, secure in their faith, believing that the Source is a god that can be appeased; a god that craves prayers and sacrifices, penance and praise. That is not the Source I am learning. The Source that I know is something real and present, something eternal, more original and more lasting than mankind. What I seek is to forget the illusion of happiness that comes with limited understanding. One religion is no better than the next if it be false in the slightest. I must embrace the Source that is Reality. I know it is here. I feel It. I see It. It is greater than myself and It is within myself.
Silence and separation were his teachers. Sagesse was learning what he could not learn from another. But for now he was only a danger to himself. He would remain silent. He would remain aloof, reclusive. And in his time alone and in his wanderings, Sagesse’s new method of insight would consume him. Sagesse stared deep into everything that moved. He saw the way the world worked, what moved the blood through the veins; what was accomplished by the blood’s travel throughout the body; why the lungs craved air; why the body craved water and nourishment. He looked into the heavens and saw far, far, saw why the sun shined so bright and the moon so dim. He felt the world curving back on itself beneath his feet and imagined it a ball. He tasted fragrance on his tongue and saw sunshine with the skin of his shoulders. He felt the cooling waves of the ocean in his nostrils. He could see all with ultimate clarity. Sagesse could understand each thing that he looked into and felt and sought to know. That was his curse. And it was none of my doing.
The Source is there. It requires no faith. Faith is something exigent in man. But in its ultimate irony, faith is something Sagesse no longer needed, for the answers were all there: on the tip of his tongue, at his fingertips, before his eyes, under his nose, vibrating in his ears. Nothing is sacred. All is lost.
I cannot make the mistake of all men before me. I cannot find in the world some omen by which to understand it because every omen can be interpreted to suit the soothsayer. My visions in Mendhel’s hands are the work of daemons. In good Brother Gento’s hands they are further proof of the Source as he knows it. I cannot orient myself by interpreting beyond what I can know and see.
I seek the essence of reality. I have met in my short time in the world with many a man who seeks the meaning of life, but there is a deeper issue. I cannot solve the meaning of life or know life’s purpose without first understanding something far more basic. First I must know the meaning of the world and all the things in it. These men have sought the reflection of themselves in their creator. They place their own pettiness and humanity in the Source. They believe It sometimes angry, sometimes kind. They assign It desires. The Source that shows me the answers to the deep mysteries of the world does not desire my prayers or thanks or sacrifice. It does not want my soul. I cannot even satisfy myself as to the meaning of the word soul. Men find only themselves again when they seek to define the Source. I am no longer inclined to find a man or a face, a man who is not a man.
I look into the heavens and see the stars, beyond them other shapes: worlds beyond this world, constellations never named, perhaps never before seen. I look into the earth and I see the parts of it. The familiar parts: metals, parts of plants and animals, living creatures, living things of the smallest dimensions, a quintessence of dust, a part of things that is in everything that lives. I have no name for it, but it is there and I see it, and it is revealed. I look into anything known, and I begin to understand it. But the soul, alas I fear me, the soul I cannot see into. I cannot better define, understand, nor see the soul. Not even in myself.
But what I do see: so much, existence; a domain of reality from somewhere bending, a continuance of moments passing. From what remote point must they have all begun? I see so much in common in all things, so few basic parts making up the world, mingled in ways both intricate and trite. Does this affirm my faith? Or make a new one? Or does this destroy my faith entirely? What answers can be then, and what questions? More questions, always more.
There must indeed be some religion of religion. Religion is necessary. In our monastic lessons we learn of men who do not believe in the Source as do the monks of Westend. But the non-believers always do believe… in something. Never are we warned against the culture of men who do not seek or believe to have found some way to answer the questions that religion poses. There must be a system or a ruling mantra, a way to do right and discern right from wrong. There must be morality. On what is this morality based? Or is each religion based on the morality rather than the other way around? Farseeing cannot answer these. Deep understanding of the world alone cannot answer.
The Bilge Rat seemed aptly named on that muddy night; the mud inside was just as deep and just as full of puddles as the outdoors. Heaps of melted wax stood for candle holders long since covered in the demise of an endless series of candlesticks. An enchanting smoke filled the place, making iridescent the rays that shown from each of the scant few sources of light. Every other table or so was illuminated enough to show the design of a Triskil pattern forming and the faces of hardened men hunched over them, examining their own cards and trying to read anything in the scowls of the other fellows at their tables. The enchanting fumes seemed to emanate from a few men who held between their lips a sprig of some tightly twisted leaf ending in a glowing ember. They puffed the sprigs and blew out clouds of spicy, brightly colored smoke.
Marqsam, always well prepared for such a scene, drew a candle from his pack and lit it from the torch outside the Bilge Rat Tavern door. The Prince and his compatriot shambled in. They selected an unoccupied table in a corner near the front wall. If there had been any stars showing, light from the street would filter in through a large, severally cracked window, but as it was, only the soft glow of the waning torch outside the front door offered any light from outside. The darkness somewhat subdued the noise of the seaside haunt, but still a general racket of complaint and accusation prevailed. Scarcely had the pair taken their seats and produced their deck when a trio of sailors approached their table. I knew these sailors, and it pains me to go on without describing the time that I had spent in their company. But that is another and an equally long tale.
“What do you wager?”
Marqsam was quick to answer, “Usually a day’s pay to start.” The sailors seemed to think the answer was humorous, and Marqsam smiled as if he meant it to be.
“Likes of you, I’d say we cud put a dozen ducats on the line starters,” a gaunt man still in the shadows behind the first two hissed. He tossed a bag onto the table and sat down in the dark corner against the wall. A glint from where his eyes should be in the shadows told Aiden and Marqs’ that the dark man was keeping his eye on the front door. Anticipating something. Waiting for it. Or maybe dreading it. Marqsam set out the centercard.
“That’s a nice set o’ cards. Not from this port.” The first man began again. It was true. Marqsam had won them from another sailor, and he used them in serious games always, for luck and as a further rouse to cover his association with the palace. His face was worn to a gray pallor by sea salt air, and a few wisps of gray hair sticking from under his worn stocking cap admitted to near baldness beneath. “From where do you sail?” This last question drew a laugh from the sailor who had not yet spoken, but the balding one retained an untelling straight face, and the man in the dark corner admitted no sound or movement.
Aiden looked worriedly to Marqsam and tried to draw his own face back into the shadows. To the prince, it seemed that a spotlight lantern illuminated his own face brightly, allowing no thought or emotion to hide. Marqsam leaned in to deal the cards, saying, “We’re not currently signed onto a crew.” The laughing fellow let out another giddy giggle, and the two began to wonder if their identities were so quickly known.
“Don’t mind ‘im. He’s just got a nip too much o’ the mumbaye.” Muffled laughs and puffs of orange smoke continued to escape the laughing pirate’s nose, mmhmhm… mmhmhm… “But say, don’t I know you from some’eres?” The gray faced one continued. “Did you sail under Bailey? Towards the Jafran coast?” The question seemed directed at Aiden. “Say, what’s yer name?”
Marqsam once again intercepted the conversation, “Not under Bailey, no. We’ve always stayed away from the coast of Jafra. We like to stay closer to where Northern Ladies can be found.” The man in the dark corner had made a Triskil pattern of his entire hand of cards; it was going to be a long game.
“I’ve got it! Royal Navy!” That stopped the blood in Marqsam and Aiden’s veins. Cold all over, and suddenly clammy with wariness, the prince and his man were struck dumb for a long moment. Aiden did his best to sound comfortably incredulous. “We’ve never sailed with the Royal Navy!”
“Well that’s good. That’s a real good thing.” Any hint of a smile was gone from the gray face. “’Cause thus here is a pyrut bar. No navy in here, savvy?”
“Of carse.” Aiden attempted to mimic the pirate’s accent to blend in, and the old man raised a jagged eyebrow while he considered whether or not to take it for an insultψ. He pondered reaching across the table to grab Aiden by the throat.
“I believe it’s your turn,” Marqsam prompted him, and the old man growled low in his throat as he turned his attention to his cards. Marqsam and Aiden exchanged wide-eyed glances.
“Hrmph. I don’ like yer deck.”
“Neither do I,” came the voice from the shadowy corner, throwing his new hand of cards face up on the table. That was not the proper way to fold, face up. This was definitely not a move allowed in any version of Triskil that Marqsam and Aiden had ever played. The pair became very nervous.
“Ah well, shite. Now the game’s gone to crap, ain’t it?” The gray face threw his hand on the table face-up as well.
“That’s no problem,” Aiden permitted, “We’ll just start a game with a deck of your own.”
“Leave the bets on the table then? Awlraht… You boys stell en?” he asked his pirate henchman. They all agreed to a new game with a new deck. Marqsam was worried. This is just the sort of game he had always managed to avoid. He eyed their deck hard searching the backs of cards for a marking system, stains, nicks, changes in the patterns on the back. This is certain to be a cheater’s deck. The cards are as gray and worn as their owner’s face. That would be enough to make it a marked deck. Anyone who had played with that deck often enough would certainly recognize the different patterns of wear and torn corners on some of the more important cards. This gray old bastard has probably studied them for their wear marks, and his damned friends probably have as well. Pirates. How did I ever allow Aiden to lead me into this? We’ll just have to bet low and excuse ourselves after the first game.
The old pirate breathed in a way that could be mistaken for snoring if his yellow eyes weren’t wide open. Gray Face dealt slowly, eying the cards and the prince alternately.
“Methinks I’s got the win, boys!” Yellow teeth shined their slimy shine through gray lips. “But I’m want to let another round o’ bettin’ raise the pot. Mayhaps any yous wants to wager yer to be the winner? Hare’s anuther ten to top ‘er off.”
Such an odd way about these pirates. No idea of gentlemen’s rules whatsoever. It‘s like playing Triskil with ornery children, and they would be as sore as children for losers too.
“I believe you. I’m out.” Marqsam laid his cards face-down, respectfully.
“Me as well,” Aiden sighed, slapping his cards down face-up in what he took to be the pirate manner.
“Whut’s thus shite!? You gangrenous scabber shites!” Gray face stood up and the other two pirates followed his lead. “Yull pick up them damn cards and yull match the bet, yuh rapscallyuns!” Glinting, shining from the dark corner where the shady fellow sat, a blade sang out of its sheath. Aiden thought to complain that his cards had been seen, but the thought never escaped his lips. He pushed ten more golden coins out into the pot. Small price to get out of this unscarred.
Marqsam was angry. He was good at this game. Great at it. And it has been made a farce. He was frozen, considering his options. Why not just test the mettle of these blowhards and make them win it outright? He chose a card from his hand that would take the pattern on another tangent altogether. “Volcano. That will bring in a little fire. Let’s round this game out with all the elements.” He added it to the pattern. The pirates checked each other for a response, and gray face sat down. The shadowy fellow sheathed his sword, and all took their seats. Marqsam was stoic, angry, quietly raging behind a mask of clenched jaw muscles.
Aiden was ready to leave. He thought of offering them forty, even a hundred gold to just let them go. But a show of wealth and spinelessness would probably just get us into deeper trouble. He thought to pay Marqsam’s ten from his own pile and retract both Marqsam’s card and his bold statement. But even this pirate’s game probably wouldn’t make room for that kind of manipulation. In effect, Aiden sat dumbfounded.
The shady fellow in the corner placed a Volcano on the next arm of the Triskil pattern. He matched the bet with another ten. Marqsam could see in their smiles that they had known what was in his hand all along. His brave stand was for nothing. When the bets got around to Gray Face again, he reached out for the money without even showing his cards or completing the pattern with the last volcano. Everyone at the table knew that he had it in hand. Everyone knew that this was a game of intimidation only.
“You may as well have just asked for the money at knife tip,” Marqsam spat. “You can’t any of you play Triskil worthy of a royal shit.”
Gray Face finished tying his money bag onto his belt, and very quietly, almost sadly, said, “Thource then. Have it yer own way. How much more ‘av yuh got?” The blade in the corner sang out again, this time in chorus with the smoking giggler’s blade. The mumbaye smoker let out another bright orange, smoky laugh, and reached his sword across the table to tickle the knot in Marqsam’s throat. The shadowy character pointed his own blade at Aiden’s money pouch. No one else in the tavern seemed to want to get involved, but the clamor grew a bit quieter as interest in the scene turned their way.
Aiden breathed into the quiet, “There’s no problem gentlemen. You can have what we’ve brought with us. Let me just untie my purse.” He reached down toward his purse and slowly began to untie it. When at last it unlooped from his belt, it thudded to the floor with a heavy jingle. Enough of a jingle to imply that the bag was quite full of money. Quite a haul for one hand of Triskil it would be. And as the pirate’s eyes all darted down to the table under which the bag had disappeared, Aiden drew quickly. His blade flashed into his hand as it had many times when he and Marqsam sparred. Before the giggling smoker could even react, Aiden bashed his blade up and out with a clang, away from Marqsam’s throat. The man in the shadows threw the table over end for end; it flew up in front of all their faces and landed with a wooden crack in front of the open entrance door. Marqsam’s own blade sprang into his hand, and he stepped in front of Aiden to interpose himself as much as possible between the prince and all three assailants. But the shadowy figure was already advancing into the space that divided them, the space where the table once was, his blade raised and blood red eyes keen on the prince. As he came out of the dark corner, the horrible mangle of his face could be seen. Oh what stories I could tell for John Silcombe. He looked like a man burned near to death, his face scarred to wrinkled pieces of meat and further covered with the straight cuts and nicks of fighting blades. Amazing that he should still have two eyes, however bloodshot they may be.
Gray face had out only a knife, but he fumbled for a sword with his other hand, and swords began to swing all around Marqsam. The first two assailants he was able to manage, parrying their blows as fast as they could deal them, but when gray face came at him with sword in one hand and gouché blade in the other, he was going to have to choose which blows to bock and let the lesser ones through.
Aiden had his back to the wall of glass and could only reach the meat faced assailant by slashing dangerously close to Marqsam. He tried to maneuver out of the safe spot. As honored as the prince was to have such a valiant sworn protector, he refused to stand back and allow Marqsam to absorb his blows. This is my own fault. My idea. My fault for running away from a little girl. A stripe of blood appeared on Marqsam’s arm, and Aiden felt that it was on his own hands. A blood red shine glinted back from the scar-face’s blade, and Aiden knew that he must avenge his protector. He must take this situation of his own making into his own hands.
Why couldn’t I stand up to the little wench? This was certainly a more dangerous situation than the one in the parlor. I should just put her in her place as a man should a mischievous little girl. Running from her would hardly correct her growing moral fault!
Aiden clenched his teeth and brought his blade down hard, no longer a parry as much as an outright attack on the scar-face’s black sleeved arm. His former timid posture must have led the scar-face to believe that he had the upper hand, because he left himself wide open to Aiden’s blade. It sliced cleanly through muscles and tendons and bit into bone. Scar Face’s sword clanged to the ground at Marqsam’s feet, and Aiden stepped out from behind his protector. Meanwhile, Marqsam and his two opponents were a flurry of jabs and parries, metal clanking in quick rhythm punctuated with grunts and near misses. Marqsam felt the tip of a blade dive briefly into his chest, but it was already out before he took another quick swing at the orange smoke blower’s neck. Smokey ducked and continued to smile and hold the sprig of mumbaye between his teeth.
The scarred pirate fell to the floor, clutching his right arm and attempting to work fingers that were now frozen into a fleshy claw. There on the floor, he spied his abandoned blade.
Aiden took on another foe, relieving Marqsam of the smoky, laughing pirate. Now they were paired off evenly. The old Gray Face by himself was no match for Marqsam’s youthful agility. The old man’s blades went flying from his hands one after the other as Marqsam deftly performed disarming techniques left and right. The old man clutched one bloody paw in the other. Marqsam must have clipped off the tip of one of the old man’s fingers when he relieved him of his blades.
“I Yield, Thource damnitall!” Gray eyes peered over Marqsam’s shoulder. The laughing pirate took a step back into the shadowy corner and raised his hands in a sign that he was ready to stop fighting and reach an equitable agreement. A general crowd of vagabond sailors was forming at a safe distance in the bar, training lanterns on the fight and beginning to conjure ideas about betting, if the fight should last long enough to set odds. From this rabble came a silence, as of a hundred men holding their breath all in unison as they watched the scar faced pirate come quickly to his knees, sword recovered in his left hand, and plunge his blade deep into Marqsam’s back. A sound escaped Marqsam’s lips, something like a grunt that ended in a gurgle. Aiden couldn’t see Marqsam’s face, but he imagined blood gurgling out of his mouth as he saw his protector slumping to the floor.
With a pained shout, Aiden took out all of the anger that he had with himself on the pirates. With both hands on the hilt of his rapier, he slashed across the sword arm of the laughing pirate, putting a sudden stop to his defiant grin. He continued his swing in a wide arc as he spun to plunge his sword deep into the Scar Face’s back. He brought his blade down hard, withdrew it, and plunged again, each stroke melting the scarred form’s muscles and sending him to the floor to slowly pool himself with blood. It was ugly. It was inexpertly executed. It was cowardly. Sounds of disgust and rude names for cowardice began to roll from the gathered pirates. Marqsam was on his knees coughing and wheezing. He tried to scramble to his feet. Aiden stood dumbfounded for a moment, and then took Marqsam’s bloodied arm in hand and helped him to his feet.
“It’s not as bad,” Marqsam gasped and coughed, “as it looks.” He sprang for the door, leaping over the upturned table. Aiden clambered over it backward, waving his gory sword in retreat. They slogged through the mire outside, slipping and sliding in the muck, fleeing the shouts and threats that burst through the Bilge Rat’s door. Soon they were leading a pirate mob by several yards. Marqsam wheezed and sputtered, coughed and stumbled. The mob behind them goaded him on, and Aiden pulled him forward by the arm. They splashed out of the alleyway and into the main street dodging jeers from nearby windows, sleepers rudely waked. A slosh of bitter urine sprinkled over them from somewhere overhead, a chamber pot announcing its owner’s disapproval of the noise coming from the band of pirates that was nipping at their heels. Marqsam slipped, his knees buckling under. The two young men slammed into the mud. Marqsam laughed out loud, bitterly laughed and snapped his head toward Aiden with a hopeless grin and a cough that speckled his dark goatee and chin with crimson.
They were in the middle of a crowd of sea dogs, sabers scraping one another and vying to be the one closest to their necks.
“Leave the one. E’s good as dead. Choke on his blood by mornin’.”
“Naw take ‘em both, canna’ litter the streets with bloody corpsuhs!”
Aiden dropped his sword. “Let him go. The sin is mine.”
“Dump ‘em i’the sea. My crew ‘as chains enough tuh hold ‘em i’ the waves.” There were more brigands around them than the prince could count from his muddy bed.
“Let him be,” Aiden insisted.
“That’s not their way, Aiden.”
“You lot’ll rot together in the kraken’s maw, yuh will.”
“I’m worth money. Let him go; he’ll bring a ransom.” Laughter broke out among the bawdy crowd, followed by the sound of windows being barred from within overhead.
“Yuh canna’ stab an injured man i’the back, not inside a pirate’s tavern, lad. That death is for fighters in war and for shipboard battles, not fer simple tavern brawls.”
“You’ll be paid handsomely. Let him go.”
“Whut, the lot of us! Yer gonna pay yer way out o’ thus to twennie odd men? No, laddie, I think not. Yer debt to Dark John Silcombe canna’ be paid in gold.”
“The hell it can’t,” said a begrudging voice from the rabble. “Look you on the rings on ‘is ‘ands. This one’s got a right cauldron o’ coin som’ers.”
“It ahyn’t right! Dark John lays dead and leakin’ from ‘is back.”
“An’ I’ll lie another night across thuh head o’ three stout barrels. ‘Ow much you worth, boy? What’ll yuh fetch?”
Aiden looked to Marqsam but there were no answers but closed eyes and labored breathing. “Each man bring his purse and I’ll fill it with silver. One large purse full. Each.”
There was little discussion of Dark John Silcombe’s right to proper revenge after that. Marqsam was stilted to his feet and sent scrambling and stumbling down the street toward the beach. No one was sent with him. He was given until dawn to return to the Bilge Rat with a heavy cart of cold currency.
First to the cathedral… No, too late. The rectory… Night. Painlaugh. Too late for what, I fear me. Iron’. Iron irony ironic ironical ironically. The pirates dragged the prince out of Marqsam’s sight through the muck and down the nearest alleyway. First to the priests, then the palace. His breath came in short, iron gulps. Blocks of dark storefronts and upper windows stumbled slowly by. Had he been able to shout, he had no sign of the royal guard on him to show; he would be a dieing stranger shut out. Toward the school of the Source. The priests. Weak. Feel It all flowing out of me. Crawl now. Moving.
A coach in the night came into view. Truly fortuitous: almost no one would be out in the night. Returning travelers, most likely. A merchant. He crawled through the sludge into its path. The coach light approached, and Marqsam sought to bathe in its slight golden ray. The driver slowed his team and shouted something into the coach. Not a merchant. A merchant does not shout to his wares. As the team brought its coach to a halt, Marqsam struggled up to his knees, sunken deep in the rutted mud of the road and held his hands as high as he could muster strength to do. There was some discussion that Marqsam could not make sense of between the driver and his passenger, a grayhaired, plump head that protruded from a front window. Then the coach lurched forward again with an angry yawp from the teamster. Marqsam rolled through the muck to get out of the way of their fast approach. Blood mingled with silt, soil, and horse shit to cake his wounds. The compact worked well to hold the life into him, but it made him ever the more tremblingly cold. The carriage went hastily on.
Toward the shore. Toward the Cathedral. The rectory. Cold mud. Something scraping. His knees and hands made cakes and prints of bristling, stony clay of the filth that he crawled through. Warm drips. He made his dung beetle trail. Clear now. Were so much easier to obtain on foot. Everything seems so simple and close; steps seem short when I am unhampered. Distant now. How this went on pathetically. However, long before the sun could rise, Marqsam crawled up the steps to the priests’ abode and lengthened his foul trail up to the rectory. He had the good fortune to slump his body heavily against its door just as a passing acolyte, the verger’s boy, was going about the vast halls there, keeping a night-eye on the property.
It was no small thing and no wonderful thing. The Cardinal was called out of his chambers. And Marqsam was healed. How was he healed… The Source of All Things in the hands of the Cardinal. Sagesse could tell of how this came about far better than the Cardinal himself, but it was by his hand, or through his hand, that the Source did Its work. The open veins became sealed. The gaping wound was cleansed and became closed. Marqsam lay in his weakness and felt his body hastened into recovery, all in an instant of light and joy. His heart became light, and he raised tired eyes to the smiling countenance of the Cardinal: a strong man, vibrant and full of life. Even at this hour of the night his eyes were clear and present and warm, and he smiled to see the Source do Marqsam’s salvation through him. They looked like old scars now, where the Cardinal’s hand rested on Marqsam’s belly. But Marqsam did not know the familiar comfort that comes usually with gazing on one’s own old scars… He knew mystery and confusion, and strange reverent comfort instead.
“Rest easy, young warrior. How came you this way?”
Marqsam sank back, abashed, words and thought failing to congeal for him. The Cardinal waited patiently for some time, but Marqsam could make no answer.
“I know you for your place in the palace. It does my heart no end of good to see that you are well now. It is a good omen that I have been given the opportunity to help you in the name of the Source.”
“I am amazed and grateful. Thank you, your holiness.”
The devil almost giggled as he delivered this last. A great maker of voices, I did not know at first if it wasn’t an imitation of Marqsam’s own laugh. But then the daemon laughed boldly, and I knew that something tickled him out of the ordinary.
“You should rest now.”
“I cannot,” said Marqsam, woozily struggling to get his feet under him. “There’s a matter to attend.”
“Have one of the acolytes undertake it. What is it you need done?”
“I cannot say, father. It is a personal favor,” Marqsam allowed. Swallowed. He scolded himself for bending the truth in the face of the holy pontiff.
“I am sure that rest is the right thing for you, my child. What needs to be done?”
“It is a personal matter… for the prince. And I must undertake it myself.”
“I am certain the prince will understand,” the Cardinal said with an anticipatory question in his tone, “if you cannot. You have barely lived through the night.”
“It is a matter of life and death for him as well, father.”
The Cardinal’s eye gleamed, and he seemed to disbelieve the gravity of Marqsam’s situation, “really, my boy, I cannot let you go in your weakened state. Allow that one of the priests here should do it for you, if one of the young boys cannot be trusted with your task.” Then with sudden concern the Cardinal wondered, “Did you come by these grievous wounds in undertaking your task?”
“I really cannot answer you, though I am ashamed for it, father. Only, please, allow me to go. It is my duty to my friend and the Prince Maybourne.”
“I would never hold you against your will, Marqsam. You are always welcome in the Cathedral of the Source and at my door. The Source has aided you here, I am certain, to further your purpose in this world; it is the will of the Source that you continue on. With great thankfulness to the Source of All Things, I bid you farewell. Be safe, Marqsam; you will serve the Source further yet, I feel.”
The Cardinal did not know as I do the import, the ultimate truth, of his statement. He knew only what his limited ability could foresee. The Cardinal was privy to the prophecy. But only to a mortal extent of understanding, and lessΨ…
Marqsam, panting already from his ordeal, winded his way down the long, rockhewn staircase that led down from the cathedral to the beach, stumbling, catching, and recatching himself as he went. He stamped fast through the slow night sand, pumping legs and arms and blood and sweat to approach the palace from a gate behind, where his bloodied tunic and his terror-struck disposition, limbs all a panic, drew the guards’ alarm before he was recognized. Long halberds and sternjawed gazes drew down on him as he advanced.
“Haaalt!” It was a worried scream, “Who approaches?”
“It’s I,” he chortled, “Marqsam.”
“What’s happened you? Are you followed?” The halberds shrank with embarrassment. Though his wounds were stopped, Marqsam was still soiled front and back. His arms and wrists, back and chest were made of dark road.
“No, sirs. No time.” Where he was not muddied he was bloodied. “I’ll tell you when next we play cards.” They stared after him as he began to ascend the steps from the lower garden bulwarks to the palace main. He lowered his gait to a jog wondering now what to do. He was sent to fetch a ransom, and Prince Aiden was at the mercy of rogues. Certainly though, Aiden would not want him to approach King Maybourne with the truth of their reprobate story. Two more guards gave Marqsam query as he entered the palace, and he dismissed their concerns, leaving them to stare confusedly at one another. Marqsam made for the parlor, where to gather his wits.
He bore no torch to the round chamber where he often sat with the poetic prince. It was dark when he stepped in, and he allowed the door to close behind him, leaving him in the embrace of the little night within. Marqsam stood in the middle of the room and thought. He thought very quickly of a million things and of nothing. No plan offered. He began to pace, and his mind began to clear. He thought about the tracks of filth that he was pacing onto the marble floor beneath him, invisible in the dark. He toyed with the sound of his leather boots, slowing his walk to make a somber music of the sound. A young voice emitted from the darkness.
“Where have you been?” Amelia asked, her voice surrounding Marqsam so that he could not gain her location.
“What are you doing in here, Amelia?”
“Where is my brother?”
None of these questions found quick answers. A pause filled the darkness and threatened to crush their chests.
“Amelia… You should be in bed now.”
She drew the curtain aside, and a diffused little moon crawled through the cloudy night sky to reveal the brown, criss-crossing trail that Marqsam had plotted in the dark.
“You’re filthy. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“I have to… I haven’t the time.” Marqsam’s stance was suddenly potential. His thoughts still did not match.
“Where is Aiden?”
“I can’t tell… you… I can’t tell anyone.”
“You’ve said too much already; now you will have to tell, fool.”
This time the silence grew out of Nephista and smothered only Marqsam. He turned his shadowed eyes away from the possessed girl and tried vainly to imagine not revealing his conundrum at least to Amelia. Amelia’s thoughts turned to church.
On seventh day, Amelia had been apprehensive at the thought of entering the cathedral. She felt, of a sudden, ill when she saw the hideous decorations that detailed the edifice. She halted, feeling that she would never be able to sit through the morning mass. The thought of the sacramental leaf melting on her tongue, the bitter thicktea feeling of it dissolving in her saliva churned her stomach and stopped her in her tracks. Her mother, the queen was near enough behind her that she came nearly in contact with Amelia and asked the girl what was wrong. But Amelia quickly grabbed her nursemaid’s hand and began to scurry back toward the palace, able only to croak out the word, “sick!” King Maybourne watched the little scene and peered after them a moment, Amelia hastily dragging her nursemaid away and the nurse holding her wide silkflow hat to her head as they went. The king turned back toward the Cathedral, took his wife’s hand, and went piously to church.
Amelia suspected something of her reaction at the cathedral and of her experience at the mirror. She suspected something of her womanhood. What are the highest concerns of the flesh, and what are the concerns of daemons? They are by no means the same.
She took Marqsam’s hand and jerked him toward the hallway. He followed dumbly, limply. “Be quiet. I can tell there’s something secret in you, Marqsam. You can tell me all about it while we get you cleaned up. My bath chamber is close by and far enough from prying ears. Good that you caught me just when hot water was drawn.”
She led him quietly to her bath and then followed his muddy trail with a damp towel. Then they were concealed. The clothes were the worst of the mess, and Amelia peeled the filthy rags gingerlyswift from Marqsam’s shivering soldiertorso. His boots and leggings were in a pile next to the door. Amelia’s pensive eyes slipped along the waistline of his breeches, and climbed the hard creases of his muscular stomach. Her dainty fingers softly inspected his freshly healed scar. She began to undress herself and a knock at the door startled the couple into a burning panic.
Came the muffled voice, “Are you ready, mistress?”
“I’ve done undressed—I’ve done it myself, nurse!” Amelia paused with both hands on a guilty button, listening. “You may go. To bed. I won’t need you anymore tonight.”
There were a few footsteps in the hall, and then the footsteps returned. “Good night, princess.”
“Until tomorrow, nurse!” Amelia said in the nurse’s native tongue. Her eyes sparkled at Marqsam with mischievous success, and her fingers pried quickly through buttons and picked pins from their folds.
Marqsam began to see the full impropriety of his position. “What are you doing?” He was treading on thin ground being thus closeted away with the young princess. Aiden’s time was slipping through Marqsam’s muddy fingers.
“It’s obvious there’s quite a mess to clean up,” Amelia whispered. Her bodice fell limp around her waste, and Marqsam stood dumbfounded. This was no longer the little girl he had become accustomed to. “What has become of my poor brother? Is he as poorly kept as you? Dirty boys,” she flirted. Her breasts were full and perfect, whitepristine scoops of impression. She worked hard to push the stiff fabric of her new dress down around her hips, now soft full hips of a woman. Her now muscular thighs were all perfect moonstone skin. She danced naked to the bath and silently slipped in. One foot, the other. Shiver. Quiet splash the legs to warn the senses. Warm drops from her fingers rushed over her skinsilk breasts to cling ominously to her pink rosebud nipples.
Masrqsam knew himself to be a lecher. His mouth watered and thoughts of friendship, class, and heroism began to blur together and occupy one side of an even scale. Propriety, honor, respect. All of these and more added together, but did nothing to tilt the scale. The greater the terms in number and weight, the more amorphous and meaningless became that other side of the scale. He stood and stared at Amelia in the massive streakedmarble tub, now the perfect woman, wholesome and white, her eyes all of melted caramel. And when slender fingers reached out to untie Marqsam’s breeches, the scales dropped, and failed Honor completely.
He climbed in with her, transfixed, and sat half numb, half omniscient, as she washed the roadblack from his arms and calves, ankles and wrists. Marqsam’s mouth hung at a gape while Amelia, sitting tightly composed before him in the water, paid special attention to the gentle cleansing of his hands. These soaps and oils were foreign to him. They were from another world, and he was transfixed, immune to his greater concerns. She poured bowls of steaming water through his hair and fragrant oils over his bruised flesh. This was masculinity. These were wonders revealed. Amelia’s soft fleshed worked at Marqsam until all that was hard about him became pliant. And at the vital moment, in a final rush, she pitched forward onto his chest and muffled a cry in the curve of his neck. Marqsam fell backward into the water. He looked up through the rippling surface and saw Amelia’s mischief renewed.
Paths were diverging. It came upon me to subtly intervene. I caused Nephista to relent. All was suddenly clear in the soldier’s mind. Amelia jerked his sputtering face to the surface, and he thrashed out of the tub. The girl appeared hurt and confused, and seemed ever so much more like his young friend than she had moments before.
“Aiden’s in trouble. I don’t know what—we have to do something. Now. He’s—” Marqsam’s speech broke into stammering. The slight girl stood up and puddle quickly across the cold marble to conceal her nakedness. They were suddenly aware of their nakedness and were ashamed. Marqsam reached for his soiled breeches and then thought better of it, wrapping a large, clean towel around him instead. Thus adorned, they looked like an ancient philosopher and his oracle.
“Aiden is held for ransom by a score of pirates at the Bilge Rat Tavern. I must return with a handsome reward. By sunrise.”
“Send your men!” Amelia was overcome immediately and tears welled up. In her shock she felt shamed and slighted, objectified and taken advantage of. All their faculties were misdirected. Her mind swam in tears.
“Calm, calm,” Marqsam took her into his arms. “They’re not my men, as of yet. I need your clear mind’s help,” he cooed to her softly. “I cannot command anyone outside of the palace or beyond the practice field. The king your father would certainly find out.”
“Is secrecy necessary?” she said, composing her mind.
“Aiden is possessed of a poetic soul. He wants nothing more than to partake in his Grand Tour. If Maybourne were to find that he is capable of this kind of misstep…”
“I don’t want you to go. Either of you. I love you both. But please, we must go to him!” She tried to find some little comfort in the situation: “Certainly they wouldn’t kill a prince.”
“He is anonymous,” Marqsam moaned, then when he saw her confusion he amended, “they don’t know who he is.”
Loathe as I am to deny you it, I cannot repeat verbatim the words I have been given. The daemon spoke—Juxlatho—he spoke to me, and the things he said I cannot bear to repeat. Not word for word. And as imperfect as this is, as the devil himself has told you, as corrupt and blighted as language is, I must dilute the message this much more, for it is outside my morals—had you thought I had none!—it is ethically repulsive to me to deliver it as did the daemon. But I give you a summary of the way it was, the way Juxlatho swears (by what does a daemon swear!) that it was. These are my own words, and they are, regrettably, far less artful than the daemon’s (There, now I’ve coveted for him, coveted his silver tongue).
A Circular Feast
The Incubus and the Succubus enjoyed a circular feast,
And none could say, between the two, who was the better pleased.
Of course you know the incubus is as man as any be,
And the Succubus is womanly, but like man in her deeds.
Said Incubus to Succubus, “Your taste is heavenly,”
But Succubus could not reply with Hell between her teeth.
The serpent’s tail cannot escape its fanged infinity,
So on they dined in vile repose, their heads between their knees.
Sagesse had collected nearly eleven years of life altogether. Such thoughts for such a young boy, tsk tsk tsk: ancient thoughts in some ways, always old and only occasionally reborn in odd corners and in odd heads. Sagesse was summoned to a dry, simple chamber that he once or twice a year entered to deal with the head of their order, Father Simeon. The old man was distractingly plain in his manner, his methods, and every aspect of his life. His devotion to his faith prevented him any memento of personality. He was a gray haired man in a brown hooded robe. His chamber was just like every other with the exception that every thing of interest was absent, having only its bedding and a stack of papers on the floor with Father Simeon’s writing utensils. Sagesse had arrived knowing that usually there were a few questions, maybe a token smile and an appraising eye. He suspected that Simeon would give him material for a new robe to replace his tattered one and send him on his way. When he arrived, however, Sagesse was surprised to see that Brother Gento was in Simeon’s chamber as well.
“Brother Gento and I have been discussing you, Sagesse, and I would like to know if you feel that you have a vocation within the Church of the Source,” Father Simeon said directly.
“I have been explaining,” Gento stepped in, “that you are very active in pursuing your knowledge of the Source, Sagesse.”
“Yes, a calling,” Simeon blundered on, “to take a spiritual post within the church. I understand that you have read a great deal of the illuminated works written by past monks and priests of the Source here in the monastery’s library. Do you feel that it is your life’s duty to put that interest to use in the service of the Source?”