Thursday, July 29, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XX

“Citizens of Ariel,” Marl’s voice boomed again, though I could not see him. He must have been speaking from inside the Temple. “Today, we do not killed a man. We kill a thief, a heretic, a disruptor and corrupter of the peace. An enemy of the people who disrupted the Profusion at the heart of all things.

“We kill not for retribution, but the health of Ariel. The Temple...kills no criminals. Instead, we kill crime. You see, evil does not exist until humans do it. Evil doesn’t enter this city, but evil does come out of it. Evil courses through it. So Ariel must be cleansed. And this city will be pure.

“The Jade Temple of the History of the Profusion has seen many wicked cities, and has purged all of them. Evil comes, and evil falls away. It does not endure, it does not triumph. But it threatens, it threatens us perpetually. But we will not be deterred. The laws of the Profusion live forever. They will endure when this city has long since turned to dust.

“May the lingering grace of the Profusion extend to this soul mercy in his next life, for he will not find it here. Amen.”

Great silence fell, marking the customary pause for reflection after any Historian has spoken. Then the procession started toward the scaffolding again. Two Greens had had to hold Batyst upright the entire time that Marl spoke.

Adlasola turned and buried her face in my embrace. “It’s so terrible,” she said. “I see but I cannot see this.” I gathered her in a muffling embrace. I wasn’t going to watch it either. I was too numb to take it in. In all my years of Temple service, I had never seen an execution before that day. I was reminded of nothing other than the night I held a beggar child of my own age, as he breathed out his rattling last. Suddenly, that seemed an execution, too; the boy had starved because Temple taxes had forced him outside of his own parents’ home. I hadn’t thought of him again until today.

Batyst and his guards reached at last the scaffold. The metal shoes the Temple had given Ryn thudded heavily against the wood. A workman shimmied up the beam to tie the rope in place, in accordance with the ceremony and so that spectators would see it was not tied too short or too long. I held Adlasola and shrank further inside myself. They would know our names by now. They had long known our faces, and would soon bring both together. And Batyst was going to die. No longer did I permit those electric shafts of hope that had pierced the morning, fierce fantasies that the Blooded would come storming the stage and carry Ryn Batyst away.

For there would be no riot. No one else knew enough of the Blooded to bring together. Whoever else had been with him had surely been killed or captured. There would be no rescue because there was no longer any Blooded movement. Ryn was going to die for nothing.

I stayed in the square because there was no place else to go to, no building the Green Guards could not eventually reach. If the Temple of History decides that at last it once you, there is no place in all Thaeron that will make you safe.

The workmen handed off the rope. The executioner placed it around Ryn’s neck and arranged him so that he stood squarely over the trap door. He asked the prisoner if he had any ultimate words. Ryn stood silently, weaving back and forth with weakness. I nearly screamed at him, rage that he would die without protest.

But I will remember. I’ll not forget the glint of sun on the spinters of the planks or the bored faces of the workmen or the feigned nonchalance of the guards. I’ll not forget the slap the trap door made against some support when it fell from beneath his feet. Ryn made a hoarse rattling sound, and after a while there came a shameful smell when his bowel and bladder voided. And then Ryn Batyst hung still at last, the horror of it caught like hoarseness in my throat. And the crowd, in bored satiation, broke up and walked distractedly away.

We of course could do no differently. “Del,” Adlasola said, “we perhaps must leave.” The great Temple doors were opening, even as two Greens dragged the body of Ryn Batyst back beneath the Temple where he will be, like all Thaeron’s dead, incinerated, so that his spirit can follow the traces of the grace of the Profusion to whatever place among the stars where it still abides in full.

It was time now, as well, for the noon rite, when Historians lead the faithful in prayerful contemplation of that moment when the Profusion fell, and ended the great morning of all human history. Indeed, it is the studied genius of the Temple to align the turns of history with the seasons of the day as well as the hours of the year. Thus we remember that History is in no wise past, but something to be contemplated in different modes – we are fast approaching that time of year that most marks the present, for example, when the dusk of autumn will doubly mark Thaeron’s certain place on the edge of future darkness, even as summer afternoons mark the long decline that we call the wars between the cities, when so much of the grace and wisdom of the Profusion did slowly wane, and so much machinery was slowly lost. All of it will soon be gone entirely – that is what dusk and autumn both must surely mean. Sunset, that time when the first Faith once again brings all the world together in colored beauty, is only a reprieve. Darkness soon shall come, however long the light might linger.

Dimly, I nodded. She took my hand and I took her wrist. We walked away together, supposing that the Historians would not think to find us both together into the Gates. She of course had to lead the way; only she knew the tavern to which she had referred, and I was too dispirited to ask. I kept watching the dust that the great river of pedestrians kicked up beneath its feet.

“Faster,” she said, and I did try. The Greens especially frown upon all lingering. But even keeping with the crowd, another two or three eternities oozed by. I kept contemplating the moment when Ryn Batyst hung still, and thinking that he had not said a thing. Why not? Why would one not even decry one’s own murderers? Thinking this, I could only be relieved that a great rank of clouds had come to blot out the sun. The sudden darkness seemed appropriate.

“In here,” Adlasola said, and led me off to the right and down a set of stairs. The oldest saloons were dug into the ground like cellars, to keep the merchandise chill. And it was cool, dark and dampened like a cave. “A miner’s bar,” Adlasola said, referring to those poor souls who cut Ariel’s white stone from its surrounding mountains, or from the riverbed whenever they redirected it.

“Yeah,” someone laughed from behind the bar, “you’d think they’d want to get away from it, wouldn’t you?” From the darkness emerged a man perhaps fifty years old, the crags and lines of his face exaggerated by light of the torch he carried, his back and shoulders firm but slumped, muscled but showing the accumulation of several years of well-earned accommodation.

“Course,” he said, “I shatter my leg, and what do I work with my Guild to get? This godsdamned miner’s bar, with all the same old faces. Should’ve took the payout.” His grin faded as he recognized Adlasola. “Corner booth, backs to the door. No names. I’m sorry.”

I looked around to find the bar around us empty; there are no other torches or candles in the darkness. “He needs to see if someone else walks in,” explained Adlasola. “At this time of day, I think it would not be a miner.” She placed a silver coin out on the table when we reached it. Her confederate joined us momentarily and slid a pitcher of ale between us precisely where the coin had been. He poured out three glasses and sat for a long time gazing at the darkness we all sat in. Neither I nor Adlasola hurried him.

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