“1 And at the foot of the courthouse, Gelon said this:
2 ‘The nature of Paradise is freedom.’
3 ‘Consider this, priests and people of the city, the ways in which man is not free.’
4 ‘Consider how in time he becomes infirm, and aged, and so he is not free from time; this too is a prison.’
5 ‘And consider how in time he is made to work by his masters for pay, or how he is made a slave; this too is a prison.’
6 ‘And consider how in time a man is made subject to hunger, to thirsting, to vices, to desire; these too are prisons.’
7 ‘And consider how in time a man is made subject to their suffering, their fear, their pain, their wailing; these too are prisons.’
8 ‘And consider how in time a person is instructed by unjust laws, and made subject to unjust laws from birth; this too is a prison.’
9 ‘And consider how in time a person is born and so they are made subject to the flesh which is the birth of many sufferings, of wailings, of pain, of thirsting, of vice and of desire; the flesh too is a prison.’
10 ‘Paradise is the freedom from this prison. It is the just and good reward for a life well-lived; it is the place where the form, the pure spirit is set free from this earth. In Paradise, all doors are broken and opened wide; all chains broken and shattered. ‘
11 ‘And consider, consider my brethren, priests and people of the city, if this is the way things out to be; with the wailings, the pain, the thirsting, the vice and desire?
12 ‘I say, no. Justice is not found in the house of law; it is not found in the house of the Immortals. Justice is the process of Paradise being brought to Earth.’
13 ‘This is the stone upon which we build a house of new law: As in Paradise, as on earth; so below, so above.’”
– The Book of Justice, Chapter 6:1-6:13
Failure. His failure weighs on him like a bull on his back, rearing on him with its hot breath, summoning all its weight on him. He knows he couldn’t have helped it; he was asleep, after all, and by the time the alarm was properly raised, they were practically out of the door. All the same, he is a failure.
He breathes in, breathes out, and feels the anger rise again. He looks out the window to the city.
Flense it, he thinks, Flense it all to the bone.
He isn’t certain if he’s thinking of himself, or the streets.
“The boot, or shoe, or sandal makes for an interesting and popular space for new innovation in foci. There are the obvious realms of movement and travel which tie so closely to the shoe, but consider also the other aspects of the boot. It fits to its wearer quite tightly, it may be tailored, made of any number of materials, may be fancy or plain, may be practical or fashionable, and it may leave prints in any number of patterns – in and of themselves tiny traces of refinement upon the earth. This is where the true depth of the focus emerges.
In my travels to Miskasea, I found that there are great tracts of land marked by vast rifts and caverns within the earth; sinkholes, underground rivers and vast valleys are quite common there and so there is much demand for guids even for those well acquainted to those queer waterways and highways. Many of these men are sorcerors, and for them a pair of shoe-foci are so invaluable as to be worth more than any of their other possessions. I have seen men use them to walk on walls; to slip through spaces unseen by the dangerous fauna that roam those fell caverns; to walk on water; and many other wonders. On one occasion, I saw a particularly braggadocious guide demonstrate his abilities by having his friend, an archer, shoot an arrow past him. He ran so quickly that he caught the arrow in mid-flight.”
– Berali Semtya, A Comprehensive Manual on The Matter of Sorcery
The mercury is mostly drained now. Days have passed into weeks and weeks into times untold; the midnight sun is merciless in its passage, a heady and impossible twilight hour that keeps all the workers and scribes in a purgatorial gauntlet of days. Once it had reached only ankle-height, the first noble walks down the staircase and into the hall that had been so darkened before. He laughs at the strange buoyancy of the mercury against his feet, and his two companions shortly follow. The walls of the chamber are inscribed with an antepyrean script so foreign to the present that even the most ancient of vampires would not recognize it.
The long corridor forward is covered with the hieroglyphs, somewhere between pictorial depictions of conquest and written ones. The thick angular chiselings form uncanny shapes in the firelight. Little warriors march in droves against a strange, distorted mass of bodies. The battle is difficult to parse; some of the enemy seems to have split off into a separate sentence, seeing them bear down on an innocent village nearby. They swept over the small towns and the countryside like a wave of inhuman flesh and bone and vividly depicted blood, or perhaps water spilling out of the unnatural mass. The villagers spill out and are herded like cattle, the dark figures around them, and they descend upon them and they are made as unto them, an uncanny reflection of their attackers. They are conquered, and then in time with arrows and clubs and blades the mass of insoluble flesh, the mass shrinking and being shorn and butchered, scalps and bones and blood being stolen from the mass until they are totally scattered. They run to the far corners of the earth; and even then they are hunted and killed where they lay, and strange circular idols that the have built are scourged and broken open like eggs. The shimmering sheet of liquid beneath the trespassers reflects upward and the ceiling acquires a sheen of starlight, of tiny shimmers of silver and gold refracted by the mercury.
And then, more narrative. Among them the host that vanquishes this unnatural enemy is a rift, a woman with a heavy, fecund figure. She bears a crown, or perhaps a halo about her head, and the many warriors bow and pray to her, or else they dance about her, or else they give sacrifice in her name. This is one of us, thinks one of the trespassers, A vampire, here in this ancient hold, being given proper respect. Proof at last.
The corridor gives way to a small antechamber, where the statue of a warrior sits before the door. He is dressed in the way of the old Miskaseans, so long ago, his visage wrought of the ancient stone that made up the rest of the hall. He is clad in armor of leather and hardened cloth. He may be a fake man, but his spear is real as any other, the wrought iron tip carefully decorated with the same sort of whorls that covered the rest of the temple. It was held with a casual sort of weight, as if it were no more than a feather.
Very suddenly, a hissing whisper fills the air.
“Go no further, vagabonds,” it says, “Or face the wrath of thy betters.”
The three nobles look around for a moment, trying to track the origin of the voice.
Then, they see it; across the glimmering of the firelight, the shadow of the warrior grew and grew, an ever-shifting figure creeping and jolting across the wall. Two pinprick eyes of mercury-reflection gaze down at them, and burn with rage.
“Leave,” it said, “Or be smote by a god.”
“In those days, the Agorans were said to worship in threes; their were three great groups of gods, who were of earth and of sky and of waters, and of them each took upon three rulers. First among them were the gods of the earth, who were Itran-Betor, Imraidh and Chitern. Itran-Betor was known as a fat, fatherly figure who was the record-keeper and scribe of all the underworld and the earth. It was said that he was the patron of bureaucrats, farmers and miners, and the lord of all the riches and bounties of the earth. Imraidh, on the other hand, was a great judge of those who passed through the underworld, primarily the dead or miners who dug too deep. Where Erdanir ferried the dead and Chitern decided when and where death would happen, Imraidh was the one who decided their ultimate fate within the Deep Channel, though civilized Sondi know him as Parjat. Lastly, there was Chitern, who was the pale old man of death, like the pot-bellied Kitrini of the old Gveert, who decided and looked after the final days of men.
Next were the gods of the sky, who were said to be Vitera or Viter, Crenza and Iaze. It was said that Viter was the lord of the storms and lightning, born bearing a mighty bell which he rang to make thunder and lamp by which he made lightning. This tolling signified a meeting between the gods of the sky, and thus many such storms would be considered an omen of holy times to come, or else a fell and black disaster. Crenza, however, presided over all the winds of the world and so was the patron of all sailors and their kin, as he taught men how to catch wind in the sails and use it to their benefit. Iaze was the one who presided over the connections between the heavens and the earth; mountains, primarily, which he could shake to make earthquakes or shift to make snow drift down over the land in winter. He took the form of an old man made of stone, or else an enormous heron with golden eyes that stamped on the ground to do his godly work.
Lastly were the gods of the waters: Aghodh, Midhodh and Bidhodh. They were triplets, true relatives of one another, and so were tightly linked. First was Aghodh, who connected the heavens, earth and waters through rain, and who presided over Lake Aghodh in Agora. Then there was Midhodh, who was the lord of all rivers and also a patron of the fertility of bulls and livestock, who appeared as a bull with the head of a man and the tail of a snake. Lastly, there was Bidhodh, who was a great serpent that resided in and presided over the sea, particularly the Great Channel. Bidhodh was the most destructive and fearsome of his brothers, for he was the one who sired all manner of monsters, whales and other strange creatures to inhabit the depths of the sea.
Of course, in these latter days, these pagans are few and far between; the men of the Sepulcher have come to subjugate most of Agora, and so the worship of these gods seems to be dying, bit by bit; their temples are struck down or effaced to the new religion and so it seems that they may die out altogether. As it should be; they are not worthy of worship.”
– A Survey of Theology, Pferga Sumana, Sondi Philosopher
“Can we do that, legally speaking?”
“Damn the law,” he says, “Whoever they are, they can break in and out of one of our prisons, past several locked doors without triggering any alarm. We’ve got enough reason to lock them off.”
“Yes, Inspector,” says one.
“No buts. I need this plan executed on by next month, two months at the most. We’re down on manpower. That means we need to make up for it with reinforcements and some hard overtime.”
The executioner sighs, and prays silently for their success. This was a foolish, stupid and dangerous plan. It was also their best chance to actually catch the culprit.
“We’ve destroyed a bridge once; we’ll do it again if this keeps up!”
– Common Kalliner refrain in response to political failure.
Sol shows her one of the charcoal sketches of a client. He’s a rich man; very vain, with quite flawless skin and physique. By trade, he hunts, and so he is fit, muscled like a pearl-diver and given to a well-formed jaw. He’s nude, but has adorned himself in the pelt of a bear, and overall it makes him quite an intimidating figure with but one flaw: a scar that extended from his belly to his ribs. According to him, he fell from a tree as a child.
“He was so embarrassed by it that he insisted that I don’t include it in the final painting,” said Sol.
Varna titters a little.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I think it makes him more attractive. He just has to say that he got it fighting the bear, and suddenly it’s a very noble wound.”
“That’s what I said! He wouldn’t have it though,” says Sol, “I find noblemen so annoying sometimes. I suppose they aren’t nobles here, just rich men, but the attitude-”
“It’s the same everywhere,” says Varna, shrugging.
“It really is,” says Sol, quietly remembering the men he served under, “It really is.”
“You kiss me, you kiss me,
My peron, my peron, my peron,
The way strange, a kiss soft
For you, my peron, my peron…”
– Nen’s Tale, traditional Agoran folk song
A darkened night; a lonely house in the woods. Three sets of footprints mark a path through the brush. A vixen traces them, sniffing the heady scent of bird-meat. She knows humans to be dangerous, but hunger has a way of making an animal unafraid. As the sun descends, another set of footprints, heavier, joins the pack. The scent is strange, uncertain.
The vixen continues, and eventually meets that lonely house in the woods, the bright fire in the house illuminating the window with a brightness to rival the sun. She slowly creeps up to the house, finds a hole in the thin wooden wall, and peers through. Three humans.
Four humans. This one is larger than the rest.
No, no, her nose says otherwise. It is corpse-flesh, rotten on the inside if not on the outside. Carrion. It has eaten the sickly-sweet carrion flesh before, but this thing smells like carrion and yet it moves. It shifts its feet and talks and titters to the other humans. One human walks up and rubs the corpse-thing’s swollen, rotten belly.
The vixen retreats. This is too strange for her. She can find food elsewhere.
“Battered and beaten we have emerged from this war for our nation and people. We are not yet broken, though, my fellow senators, and so I must suggest several things after the latest laws of agriculture. With the matters of our food mostly squared, I must bring to your attention a certain section of our suffering people, and to do this I must explicate a story of sorts.
During the war, I served as a commander, as so many of you know, and I have been given many merits for it. I have, frankly, been quite reticent to accept such achievements; most of the fighting was done by those beneath me, most of the tactical genius achieved by those closer to the front, but I will admit that I did contribute to the strategic effort in service to my country, and for this I am duly proud. I say this not to impress you but to impress upon you the importance of this story. It was during the battle for the capital – for this very city in which you stand, in which you sleep and to which you have been elected for this position of legislation. You must understand that the fighting here was particularly pitched – my colleagues who were present with me at the time shall remember – and many spies and saboteurs were sent by the perfidious nobility in order to disrupt our effort.
One such saboteur was an assassin, who made an attempt on my life by hiding in a window and firing on me from a distance. I survived this attempt only by the good fortune of a fellow citizen who walked nearby, who spotted the assassin and shot him where he stood. His name was Khyeol, and I soon became his close friend; but not before learning that he was deaf.
Yes, my friends, I was saved by a deaf man. An infirm man, as you may say – I hear you laughing. But I am his friend and I will not ridicule him with the simple idea of ‘infirm’ – no, he is a perfectly capable man in all respects except for his hearing and I will not be so cruel as to denigrate his capacities. Is this your Sepulcherite virtues on display, my fellow senators? Is this in line with your charity, senators? Do you believe in the cause of our nation or not, senators? Need I remind you that you that ridicule this man for his infirmity say of him the same thing as the nobility of old, who sequestered people like him to squalor and death? I shame you, and I am ashamed to be your fellows if this is they way you think of the common people who make up your constituency.
And I say this not to imply that men such as Khyeol are in any way truly common – only to say that they are as present here as in any part of the world and that they are as capable of bravery, of valor and of good service as much as any other person and that you do them disservice, you do yourself disservice to not give them a good chance. And we have not done them service! We have lingered and over-considered so long on the matters of the public good that we risk public ills and so we must care for the so-called infirm, the deaf, the blind, the dumb, the cripples and the lame men who are so common now after this war of ours. They may have been beaten, they may have been battered, they may have been mutilated, but they are not broken!
Let us now do a public good, instead of merely debating it. In front of you is a law to institute a national sign language – based upon the one developed here in this fine capital by the many deaf and dumb – and to institute schools for it here in the capital. This is the least we can do, as men of the Sepulcher and as human beings.
– Senator Beot Tyekate
Seonya watches the dark-haired Agoran girl with a mild suspicion as she moves in with her small traveling bag. She and Ana say that they will stay in the tiny guest bedroom together, for a few months, until they can find a better place or leave the city altogether. Seonya feels like she’d miss Ana little after she’s gone, and she couldn’t help but feel a slight, childish course of jealousy as Ana puts her arms around her and shares a drink of wine with her. They stare out the window together, grasping each other with a desperate sort of tightness that suggests a deep and abiding love.
Or at least, a very excellent honeymoon period. Seonya always had difficulty telling the two apart.
“What’s your name again?”
“Oh,” she says, “You can call me Safra. Ana and I are good friends. We just needed a place to stay. Sorry for not moving in when we said.”
“It’s fine, really,” said Seonya, “I hope you enjoy it. It’s not much. But…”
“It’s plenty,” said Ana, “At least for now.”
Seonya nods and retreats to her room, alone. At least she’s happy, she thinks, sitting on a double bed with only one body to fill it.