Ivan was enjoying a long-awaited rest. In fifty years, the old butcherspawn had never given him a vacation. Not a single day. It was always, “Ivan! The parishioners!” or “Ivan! A letter!” or “Ivan! I’ve slaughtered three cows, a mountain goat, and a sparrow in a divining.”
“And what did you divine?” Ivan had asked foolishly.
“Why, that you would clean it up! Get to it. The bodies are in the auditorium. Oh, and do remember to let the other animals out of your quarters.”
“Of course.” As the Cleric left the hall, his voice echoed back around the corner to Ivan, “That is where I have always kept my pets.”
That week had been monstrous. It had taken him three full days to clean the auditorium, and then, “Ivan! Where have you been? We’ve had business to attend. Did you know that the kitchen has lost several animals? They think they’ve been stolen.”
Exhausted, he’d nodded and listed: “Three cows, a mountain goat, and a sparrow.”
“Yes! No, not the sparrow, but the others. How did you know?”
“You killed them. In a divining.”
“A divining? I would never! I assure you, I have no memory of such a thing. Not even the gods can foresee the future; I would not waste my time on such a foolish endeavor.” Despite these protestations, the High Cleric’s face had been a guilty smile.
Emotionally dead after pulling entrails from chandeliers and wall sconces, Ivan had simply asked: “Where did you get the sparrow?”
“Oh,” the High Cleric enthused, “it was in there already, nesting in the rafters.” The High Cleric winced, waited, and then smiled, seemingly certain that Ivan hadn’t noticed his admission of guilt.
In answer, Ivan had yawned and said, “I’m going to bed,” then without smiling, “right after I visit the kitchens.”
“No Ivan, it wasn’t me, I swear!” the Cleric had pleaded. “It was a monster. A big scary beast… named Ronald. Yes! Ronald!”
Stopping, Ivan asked, “And how do you know this?”
“I… I? I saw it in a vision! Of course! Yes, a vision! And… and there’s more! If you go into the kitchens the beast will return again. It will come back in four days and all of Trel will suffer for your arrogance. Ivan, I have seen it. Do not test my visions!”
“Of the future? The same future that cannot be seen?”
“Yes, the very same!”
“And what is this creature like?”
“Well… it is… well, it’s big. With horns… and… Bah!” the Cleric had sighed. Then, with a dismissive wave, “This lie is too much work with no reward. I shall be in the chapel when you wake.”
The High Cleric of Trel was the nation’s unquestioned ruler, and that was exactly how he behaved.
That incident had been two months ago, right after that woman had broken into the library. Ivan still bathed twice a day; cow’s blood had the nasty habit of seeming to never go away and there was something about picking up a dead bird that screamed carcass rather than raw meat.
But now, he hadn’t seen the High Cleric in a month and it was spectacular. He might’ve thought he’d get bored without the Cleric’s constant pestering, but that had been nothing more than the foolish fears of a man who barely remembered what a joy his life had once been.
Ivan had once had hobbies, but in recent years, there had been no need. Hobbies were for those who had nothing to do, and Ivan had far too many tasks. Now that he had time, he hadn’t bothered rediscovering them. It had been fifty years, and he no longer cared for his old interests. So instead, he’d spent the last month doing very little, and right now, the only thing Ivan wanted was the High Cleric’s continued absence.
Although, it was odd to think that he’d once held a respectable position within the priesthood. He missed Iraskle. The man had been a rare breed, one who understood the value of simple living. When Iraskle had been ruler of Trel, there were no grand balls where guests were unexpectedly splattered in red paint to represent the birth of Harvest, no requirements for parishioners to present a single button or a golden ox before being admitted to the chapel – so far only one ox, but an entire wing of the university filled with buttons – and most importantly: no divinations.
No, every day with Iraskle had been the same. He’d rise early and eat a simple breakfast of oats and fruit. Then he’d attend to his subjects in the chapel till noon. Afterward, lunch and a nap followed by religious studies in the library, before a late supper with the local deacon to discuss matters of state, and finally, bed. Of course, as Iraskle’s private historian, Ivan had been required to partake in the same, wonderful schedule.
Perhaps that is my problem, Ivan reflected. I did it all backwards. Retired from eighteen to thirty-five and then I worked for the rest of my life. Thinking of his current master, No, it’s him. He’s my problem.
Ivan still remembered the day his peace had been taken from him. Iraskle had been sick for nearing two weeks, his chambers draped with fabric covering the walls, windows, and doorways so that no evil wind could enter and thereby claim him. The air, a foggy mix of incense and sick, had become thick and putrid. Even though Iraskle had not awoken in five days, Ivan had refused to leave his side. “Every moment must be documented,” his old friend had often said. “Even the unpleasant ones.”
On that day, all of the deacons had gathered, including the governors of the farthest regions like Rori and the territory of Gable. Both the whores and the scryers had agreed – the fortunetellers, as always, speaking second; out of professional courtesy, of course – that this would be Iraskle’s final day. Indeed, the death rattle had already settled in Iraskle’s chest.
Iraskle’s face had been, for three days, an unceasing grimace. His jaw was clenched, the muscles of his cheeks and jaw tense and strained. His skin had become pale, with sweat beading on his hairless pate, soaking his pillow and linens. His spectacles had been removed and placed on the desk beside him and Ivan remembered thinking how odd it was that this minor difference should make Iraskle look so foreign in relation to all else that was wrong. The last whore had left to attend another patient hours before, and so it was that two scryers, a historian, and fifteen deacons awaited their leader’s death.
Ivan had been sitting by his side, the other sixteen men and one woman standing mournfully with hands held together at the pelvis, their eyes darting to one another asking, “How long must we wait?” but none daring to speak the thought aloud.
They did not wait long. Iraskle’s breathing had slowed to almost nothing and his tight grip upon the bedcovers lapsed. When all had thought it the final moment, his eyes – bright and with an eerie glow – snapped open, and he took a heavy breath and spoke:
“Three hours hence, at Sailor’s Wharf, a man in the hat and robes of Dydal will disembark from the ship Minnerva. He will ride upon the back of a giant cat, on his shoulder, a single white dove, and around his neck, a completed gasket, circles infinite in number. A man of endless titles, he comes to claim another. It his Him, he will be the High Cleric of Trel.”
There was no second breath, just one last shudder and then death. Every eye shot from Iraskle to the two fortunetellers, who stared at one another, mouths agape. It must have been that neither scryer was willing to deny the prophecy of a dead man, for the first licked his lips then spoke.
“By Mystic, it is true,” said Scryer Mystic.
“Fate agrees,” said Scryer Fate with an unusual grin.
The Deacon of Trel nodded then led everyone in a prayer for Iraskle’s soul.
Despite the resounding endorsements from both scryers present, it had been Ivan alone who’d made the journey to Sailor’s Wharf. Out of grief and love for his lost mentor, he had decided to place his faith in Iraskle’s prophecy rather than his own judgment. From the chapel, somber bells and whining trumpets announced the High Cleric’s death to his city, accompanied by the drizzling rain; a clear sign that even the heavens mourned the death of their beloved Cleric.
When he reached Sailor’s Wharf, the single berth was empty. By tradition, Sailor’s Wharf was reserved and preserved should Sailor ever return to Trel’s harbor, and thus, no other ships ever docked along the pier. That day, for the first time since the fall of the Mother’s Temple, a ship did dock at Sailor’s Wharf. The light misting rain that fell in the city was joined at the harbor by a fog that drifted in from the sea. The birds and people that normally crowded the docks were missing; the birds chased away by rain and the people retiring out of respect for Iraskle. The city had loved its High Cleric as much as Ivan had.
The ship did not arrive three hours after Iraskle’s death, as had been foretold, so Ivan had been forced to wait alone, atop a horse in the fog. Half a bell passed before it finally arrived. The first sign he’d had was the splash of water and shouts in the distance. At most, he could see a hundred yards through the fog and as the voices grew louder the bow of a ship cut through the wall of gray mist. The ship, a stunning vessel like none he’d seen before or since, was built of a light-colored wood, which despite the damp, held the color of sand. As he watched, the ship curved its path to pull up alongside the farthest end of the lone pier. Though it had appeared monstrous at first sight, the ship seemed smaller the closer it came. Still, the ship was massive, sporting three separate masts, the smallest of which towered more than seventy feet above the deck.
Figures shrouded in fog scurried across the deck on either side, in their hands objects of various sizes. Even as the ship entered view, the figures began tossing these items into the sea, eliciting the shouts and splashes he’d heard. Trunks, satchels, crates, and at one point, a cage large enough to hold a man, were all flung into the black waters. As the ship eased closer, it continued to turn, until finally, it sailed adjacent to the pier’s tip. A woman stepped up to the nearest side, waist, chest, and head showing above the ship’s rail. She too held an object in one hand, which she set on the ship’s railing. Half-turning, she beckoned to someone behind her, after which, two men the size of bulls stepped to her side. Between them, the two men held a third who looked insulted. Facing them, she nodded over the side, and in answer, the two men tossed their burden six feet down from deck to pier.
Still the ship had not stopped, and as the man struck Sailor’s Wharf, the ship began to turn back out to sea. As it did so, the woman – with exuberant force – threw her object overboard. The item soared the length of the pier, landing ten feet to Ivan’s left, where the shining metal clattered and bounced twice across the cobbled street. It was an empty birdcage fashioned from metal. Ivan’s eyes followed the ship, now vanishing into the fog. As it slid into emptiness, he noticed the ship’s name in black letters on the rear; Minnerva.
Startled at this turn of events, Ivan had dismounted from his horse and sprinted to help the man whose arrival had been foreseen. Before he reached him, the man was already on his feet, hunched and wobbling. Old, even then, he wore a long gray beard with hair and sideburns to match. On his head sat the pointed midnight blue hat of Dydal, on his torso the matching blue robes, and hanging from his neck, a solid disk, six inches in diameter on a fine silver chain. The robes were torn and slashed like the man had been in a sword fight or mauled by a bear. Bloodless scratches crosshatched his face. Ivan knew him as a man from either Trel or Vigil for his skin held the chestnut coloring common to the Dren clans. Seeing Ivan, the man thrust his arms out to either side.
“Behold!” he shouted, and by his accent, he was indeed Trellish. “I am He! Carver of Mountains, Traveler of the Seas, Holiest of Holies,” the voice was high and shrill, almost grating. “Harbinger of Truth and Right and Good. It is me! Your High Cleric to be.”
Ivan recalled being unable to think at that moment. It might have been the grief or the shock or maybe the sheer audacity of the sight that had brought the thought to mind, but the question that followed was not why the man had just been tossed from a ship, or where he had come from, or for that matter, what his name was, but instead he asked: “What about the cat? You’re supposed to be riding a giant cat.”
The old man frowned. “The blood-addled thing wouldn’t cooperate. ‘Tis a sea lion now.”
“And the dove?”
“The lion ate it. Kindrel was quite upset, but that’s unimportant. Where is Iraskle?”
“He’s passed on,” Ivan managed.
“I see. And the deacons? Why are you here alone? Wasn’t my arrival foretold?”
“The deacons have convened. They are electing our next ruler.”
“Ah,” the man sighed. “All is well then. Who are you?”
“My name is Ivan, personal historian to Iraskle. Excuse me, but you said that you would be the next High Cleric?”
“Yes,” the man said.
“But the deacons did not believe you would come; only I alone am here to greet you. Aren’t you worried they will elect another?”
“No. It shall be I, it is fated. It is meant to be. You are a historian, yes? Then you must know much of the gods?”
Back then, Ivan had still had pride, and it was with this lost emotion, that he had answered. “Yes, I have studied much and I am widely considered the foremost scholar amongst all in the priesthood. How can you trust so much in fate?”
“For I am here. Do not worry yourself over the matter. To whom have you sworn?”
“Alchemist, as all worthwhile scholars choose.”
“And what art do you practice?”
“Yes, alchemy? Mathematics? Biology? What do you seek to discover?”
“Why…” Ivan began, confused. “History, obviously.”
The man snorted. “That has already been discovered,” he said. “You have failed.”
Insulted, Ivan had felt that he must defend himself. “I take offense at what you imply, Sir. I was hand-picked by Iraskle to be his historian because of my accomplishments. And your assertion is wrong, there is much to be rediscovered from the Age of Gods and before, and I seek to do so.”
“For what purpose?” the man asked, but continued before Ivan could respond. “History is an abomination. It is a hindrance to society and man. Too often it becomes an excuse that taints morality and twists judgment.”
“How can you say that!” Ivan had proclaimed, more a reprimand than a question.
“Easily. Think to what you know. In Vigil, Justice kills the god of Death. The Call is born. To free her children, the Mother strives to bring Death back. Her efforts fail and the pantheon breaks. Better had she simply forgotten, no?”
“What are you talking about? I have never heard such a myt-” Ivan tried.
“Again, in Vigil, a Smith turns Butcher. In worship, his subjects follow. A city and then a nation are rebuilt in blood. Better had they simply forgotten, no?”
“Perhaps, but-” Ivan had no chance to finish. The man continued.
“Those with reason turn to delusion. They split away, a war is fought. But in Atherahn, the lands of Lock are an ancestral home and so the tyrants war without surcease. Better had they simply forgotten, no?”
“Justice stands over his final kill. He weeps for his dead apprentice. Sanity frays and an apprentice returns. The aspect changes. Better had he simply forgotten, no?”
“But that is not my point.” the man’s voice had become serious and transcendent. “You chose your patron foolishly, for Alchemist represents science, discovery, and creation. She stands for the new, for innovation, not for the mindless prattling of academics. You must have an art of creation to be a true acolyte of Sybil.”
“You would claim that history is worthless?” asked Ivan, his certainty waning.
“No.” The man’s eyes had started to glow, in the same way that Iraskle’s had as he’d spoken his prophecy. “I only say that despite your supposed knowledge of the gods you have sworn yourself to one out of tradition rather than reason.”
“But Sybil represents knowledge,” Ivan protested.
“Knowledge earned, knowledge applied, but not knowledge for its own sake.”
“Knowledge read is knowledge earned.”
“Yes, but only if you understand it, and clearly you do not.”
The memory still made Ivan distraught. He knew the man was wrong, but had no counterargument. “Your words are wrong,” was the best he could come up with.
The glowing in the man’s eyes faded and his voice returned to normal. “They are not mine,” he said.
Ivan was at a loss. “Then whose? I see no other here, Sir.”
In his shrill tone, the priest spoke. “I am the Voice of the Gods and Alchemist speaks. Who else would chide a student?”
“Then to whom should I swear?” Ivan demanded.
The old man scratched his chin in thought. “Have you heard of the god Servant?”
The man shrugged. “No matter, I suspect you shall come to know him rather well.”
Baffled, Ivan remembered standing silent for a moment, motionless at the end of the pier. While he was lost in thought, the old man shuffled past. He recalled questioning his life’s choices. Had I really sworn to Alchemist because it was expected? Even now he wasn’t sure.
The man’s shouting recalled his attention.
“A single horse?” he said. Ivan’s eyes drifted to the foot of the pier, where the old man was fiddling with the horse’s bridle.
“Yes,” Ivan said. “You were to be riding a cat. It was fated.”
“No,” the man drawled. “Only foretold. An error in judgment.”
The old man shambled onto Ivan’s horse.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
“Borrowing your horse. I must attend to my new subjects.”
“You are not the High Cleric!” Ivan shouted. Already hating the man, he’d continued. “And you will never be. You are not even a deacon. The High Cleric must be a deacon.”
“Dydal was not a deacon.”
“You are not Dydal.”
The man smiled.
Satisfied he’d finally found an argument he could win, Ivan repeated himself. “It is tradition that every High Cleric be a deacon. I am right. You shall look a fool.”
“Will I? Tradition is the fool’s game, and since I do not play…”
“But the deacons are not even here to meet you,” Ivan said. “It is likely that they have already elected another.”
“Then he shall be removed,” the arrogant wretch replied. “I shall see you soon.” At that, he set the horse to a trot and left Ivan alone at Sailor’s Wharf.
When Ivan made it to the top of the hill and back onto the university grounds, the deacons had dispersed and the old man had indeed been elected High Cleric. Ivan did not know how it happened, but he’d heard rumors the man had barged into the chapel where the deacons had cloistered, and that afterwards, Scryer Fate had returned to her cottage furious and soaking wet. Ivan had tried to ask the Deacon of Gable what had happened, but the man would say nothing except, “The man spoke in the voice of a god, and that god was angry.”
“Which?” Ivan had asked. The deacon refused to answer, but pointed out the window and down the hill to the forbidden, marble plaza where the Mother’s Temple once stood.
“But she is gone,” Ivan said. The deacon shook his head and wandered off.