THERE IS A SAYING ABOUT the religious life: that it’s only for the broken in spirit, heart, and/or mind.
That was one small reason why Prosatio Silban was a former Sacreant. In his brief stint as a servant of the Flickering Gods more than a quarter-century ago, he had seen much evidence for the old maxim. True, it did not describe everyone with a deep interest in divine matters, but it was accurate enough for many that it made him glad to have shifted careers and become a mercenary cook.
It is easier to comfort a hungry body than a hungry soul, he thought. And although one can do both, the former is also more profitable.
He was watching the human panoply play out before him in cosmopolitan Soharis’ second-largest victual market. The many-harbored southern port city of the Uulian Commonwell was renowned for its shrewd traders and diverse population. Perusing and haggling at the adjacent drink- and produce-stalls were citizens of the Commonwell’s Three Cities and Thousand Villages mixing with sailors from Azonei, where men and women annually met only to mate and decide matters of national import; diminutive, bark-skinned Pastori selecting ingredients for their wealthy employers’ private banquets or simple suppers; Aydnzmir minstrels in variegated dress, humming their ceaseless soul-songs; and even one (or two) of the long-bearded, enigmatic Intuids, mystic sages from the far north pursuing an incessant and worldwide quest for knowledge.
Some of the best meals come from an exotic blend, Prosatio Silban reflected. Is it any wonder that I love this city?
The man slid unfocused eyes over the cook. “Oh. Sorry. Do I know you?”
But he was no mere spectator. His galleywagon was parked a-purpose hard by the market’s main gate, displaying a painted menu detailing nearly two dozen examples of well-prepared fare beneath the three-color legend: “THE COOK FOR ANY PRICE.” His visibility made him accessible not only to those in search of a capable caterer, but also to marketgoers too hungry to go home for a meal – or who had procured choice ingredients and needed an able hand to help utilize them.
Suddenly, a recognizable face broke through the bustling cloud of browsing passersby. A tall man of about Prosatio Silban’s age was shuffling from stall to stall, carrying a large but nearly empty basket. He was wrapped in the Rainbow Robe of a Sacreant and darting fear-tinged glances here and there, occasionally selecting raw vegetables for which he paid – without haggling – in small-denomination coins drawn from a seen-better-days embroidered pouch.
As he passed Prosatio Silban within arm’s length, seemingly heedless of his surroundings, the cook exclaimed.
“Casto Orlan! Is that you?”
The man slid unfocused eyes over the cook. “Oh. Sorry. Do I know you?”
“Indeed you do. Or rather, did. Prosatio Silban. We learned, and briefly served, together as Sacreants at the Diamond Shrine in epicurean Pormaris.”
The man thought for a moment, then slowly nodded his recognition.
“The Diamond Shrine? Of course. But that was ages ago. You’ve changed – thicker about the middle, I think.”
“Yes, well. That comes from years of sampling small tastes of a good deal of food.”
“Oh,” Casto Orlan said with a distracted air. “What are you doing in Soharis?”
“I am a traveling cook. Occasionally, my travels bring me here.”
“Oh. Does that mean you are still no longer a Sacreant?”
“That tale would take a deal of telling. Shall we trade histories at one of the local inns?”
Casto Orlan shook his head in fright. “Can’t. Won’t. There are no gods in inns. They are barely in this market. And I must stay where They are. Where She is.”
Another case of godsburn. And an acute one at that.
Prosatio Silban took his friend by the shoulders and gazed into his anxious eyes. “Orlan. What are you talking about?”
“The world is full of demons, but I am safe so long as I stay within my studies and supplications. My patron goddess and sanctuary are enough for me. And I have no business with apostates,” the Sacreant said with disdain. “Now please – I must return.”
Casto Orlan slipped from the cook’s grasp and shuffled away. Prosatio Silban watched him go, thinking, Another case of godsburn. And an acute one at that.
* * *
The Diamond Shrine’s candidates’ classroom was round and large, but sparsely occupied. Many hopeful young aspirants were admitted each year, but only a few could abide the intense discipline. Those who did were possessed of the greatest potential; they had to be, to be trained as holy intermediaries.
Prosatio Silban had been placed by his father, a tenant-farmer from an otherwise inconsequential village, who entertained high-standing hopes for his pre-adolescent son. It had been more than a year since the boy had seen his family, but he barely had the opportunity to miss them: the typical schedule included rising before dawn, then concentrated morning prayer; breakfast; theological study; lunch; liturgical study; supper; historical/text study; concentrated evening prayer; and lastly, lamps-out, shortly after sundown. Interspersed with the study periods was practical instruction on how to manage the religious lay-public in a variety of hypothetical and actual situations.
One of those closest to Prosatio Silban in age and ability was Casto Orlan, an orphan. Orphans were familiar figures in the Shrine, given the Sacreantal emphases on righteous charity and collective duty. Not all remained with the institution – a goodly number were placed with adoptive parents, or ‘prenticed to nobles, merchants or tradesmen – but those who did burned with the zeal of the grateful-for-everything.
Casto Orlan was one such. None but Prosatio Silban could match his recollection of each and every feature of the six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods – from Aarein, Goddess of Humble Propriety, to Zzyzzyvor, Bringer of Restful Relief – and his devotions during communal prayer were likewise unrivaled. He was in every way a perfect scholar, if given to odd moments. For example, one morning, on the topic of divine immanence:
“They are called the Flickering Gods for a reason,” said the teacher. “Like a dying flame They dance: now easily visible, now partly obscured. Often They are completely invisible, but even then, Their presence can be warming. Only – do not be one who gets too close.”
“Why? What happens?” Casto Orlan asked.
The teacher fixed him with a belittling look. “’What happens?’ When you get too close to a flame? This is common knowledge, boy. Don’t ask foolish questions.”
The other students laughed, and the teacher signaled for silence. “Class released,” she said, and they all filed out for lunch. All except for Prosatio Silban and Casto Orlan.
“I didn’t think it was a foolish question,” said the former. “After all, the gods are only like flame – but They’re not really flame. But I think I wouldn’t like to get too close anyway.”
“I would,” replied his friend, as if to himself. “I would do anything to be consumed by Their fire.”
This conversation had intermittently haunted Prosatio Silban through his subsequent years as student, Sacreant, and most lately, cook. He had never forgotten the look on Casto Orlan’s face when he said it – very like his expression when they met again in the Soharis market. He sighed as he started to stow his gear for the evening; he secured the painted menu in its shelf beneath the galleywagon, fed his dray-beast, and pondered his next course of action.
The “sanctuary” was easy to find, and not far from the marketplace. It was a small dockside building – half-timbered, slate-roofed, barely large enough for an intimate group of worshippers – and set slightly apart from its adjoining neighbors: a whisky vendor and fatberry-oil merchant. The door was of stout oak, with a shuttered observer’s hole at head-height. Candlelight spilled through a translucent lozenge-paned window beside the door. Prosatio Silban tried the latch but found it locked. He knocked softly.
No response. He knocked again, somewhat louder.
“Orlan! Orlan?” the cook called. “I know you are within – I can see your candle.”
“I have nothing to say to you,” Casto Orlan said. “And you have nothing to say that I want to hear.”
The flame winked out. “Go away,” came the voice behind the door.
“Orlan, you have obviously considered me a renegade ever since I quit the Sacreanthood. You may be right. But it is important that you listen to me.”
“By the All-Mother, Orlan! If you do not come out, I shall somehow come in!”
A few heartbeats later, the observer’s hole opened to reveal an eye. “I have nothing to say to you,” Casto Orlan said. “And you have nothing to say that I want to hear.”
“Think back on our last day together,” Prosatio Silban replied. “Do you remember? We were still-young Sacreants attending to Pormaris’ waste-renewal system…”
* * *
The Diamond Shrine’s Sacreantal training program began with candidates’ admission at ten years of age. If they survived their initiation, they received a decade of rigorous and winnowing schooling leading (hopefully) to ordination. Each god or goddess had Its place in Uulian society, and new graduates could work at a variety of positions as dictated by their teachers, abilities and patron deities: some worked in the law courts under Maklun, the Celestial Judge; others served in the healing-houses overseen by Galien, Lady of Life; or perhaps ministered to the soldiery in service to Valmasorn, Defender of the Way Home.
Although first in their class in terms of aptitude, through a combination of circumstances Prosatio Silban and Casto Orlan were last to be chosen for their respective posts. Thus, their occupation was to make filthy lake- and river-water suitable for the use of Pormaris’ teeming population. This involved standing back-to-back hip-deep in sludge, raising their hands, and making the following supplication in unison twice-daily:
“O Calman, God of Necessary Unpleasantness, and Porthunis, Overseer of the Still and the Roiling, hear our plea and grant our boon. You have favored us with pools and streams, seas and rivers, and all that sustains life. Please – cleanse this liquid gift that Your children of this island-city may maintain their good health and rise in Your service. We will tell of Your power and grace whenever and wherever we relate the tale of Your kindness. This we affirm.”
And with that, the soiled waters unfailingly cleared.
While Casto Orlan apparently never tired of this routine, after some time Prosatio Silban longed for a change. “It’s not that Calman is unimportant in the scheme of things,” he told his colleague. “After all, everyone needs to drink and bathe! I just wish I could do something more…well…less odious.”
“You are missing the point, as usual,” Casto Orlan replied. “We have been given the opportunity to touch, and be touched by, a living god every day for the past two years. That is no trifle. It is a gift, and a deep one at that.”
His comrade nodded in acquiescent surrender. “I know I should count myself as among the fortunate. I suppose I am merely tired of washing my robe every day and night.”
As the slow weeks unrolled for him in stenchy misery, however, the disgruntled Prosatio Silban continued to down-spiral from forced gratitude into genuine despair. Finally came the day when he had had enough.
“But what do you know of sacred service? You rejected your gods!”
The pair shared cramped quarters near the spot where they worked their aqueous miracles. One morning, Casto Orlan awoke to find a papyrus note on Prosatio Silban’s bed, atop his clean and neatly folded robe. It read, in part, “…I have converted my last measure of muck and am in quest of a new life. I do not know what that will be, but I pray that the Flickering Gods (especially Penteget, Goddess of Just Desperation) will light my path…
“Our teachers warned us of the dangers of close association with our divine Masters and Mistresses. They warned such intimacy would burn us. What they failed to tell us was that our own flames might burn out through overfamiliarity. May you continue to serve and be served by the Lambent Ones in whatever life They deem for you. Your friend forever, Prosatio Silban.”
* * *
The eye behind the observer’s hole closed, then opened again. “I remember that day,” Casto Orlan said. “But what do you know of sacred service? You rejected your gods!”
“No. I rejected their office. I still serve Them well – by serving Their creations. What do you do here? Your so-called god has taken you away from your societal duties.”
“That is Her choice and Her nature. Eimna, Goddess of Unrelenting Self-Regard, is the purest of deities. All She requires is constant and focused worship, and for that She rewards Her servitor with Her all-consuming and beneficent presence. I have never before felt a holier bond.”
“Your goddess has removed you from the normal and gods-given bond between all human beings. Surely you recall learning that some gods are not to be worshipped, only contended with? Each has Its balance against another. And some are to be strictly left alone.”
“But the Flickering Gods are more compatible with me than any human ever has been. You do not understand, and never will.” With that, Casto Orlan closed the shutter.
Prosatio Silban stood for a moment, considering his options. He could break down the door and drag out his one-time companion – but although the street was empty at this time of night, the racket would be certain to draw a roving constabulary or three. He could simply walk away and leave matters to their own devices, but it was not his nature to ignore someone in peril – even self-created peril. Or he could implore one of the other gods or goddesses for assistance. But he couldn’t be certain of the outcome; They had Their own agenda, and were not to be used as game-pieces or to navigate choppy interpersonal waters.
At least not by a self-defrocked Sacreant. Still, one could always try.
Prosatio Silban was roused from uneasy dreams by loud shouts and terrified screams.
The cook bowed his head, closed his eyes, and began to intone in a soft voice: “O divine Balwia, Source of Unremitting Selflessness, Champion of the Excluded Other, hear my plea and grant my boon. Please – help me to help You help my friend Casto Orlan. He has fallen into the trap of Your counterpart and cannot save himself. Please exert what goodwill I have stored with You, and I will relate Your kindness wherever and whenever I tell this tale. This I affirm.”
He opened his eyes and waited. But save for the plaintive sound of night-singing birds, nothing could be heard without or within; a single candle once again cast its light through the window of Casto Orlan’s sanctuary.
Prosatio Silban sighed and shook his head. He headed back to his galleywagon, thinking dark thoughts.
* * *
When sleep is fitful, awakening can be a blessing. Sometimes.
Prosatio Silban was roused from uneasy dreams by loud shouts and terrified screams. He leaped from his berth at the galleywagon’s rear and shrugged into a tunic and kneebreeches. What now? he thought.
Outside, the street was thick with people in varied forms of night-dress. In the near distance, he could see flickering brightness set against the midnight clouds. The cook allowed himself to be carried by the crowd’s surge; then he stopped, mouth agape, and stared.
A crew of Sacreants was praying to Porthunis in unison before the smoldering remnants of Casto Orlan’s sanctuary. The fire had scorched the neighboring businesses as well, but the holy servitors had summoned a convenient downpour which managed to keep the other buildings mostly intact. A small group of figures was searching through the ruins; one detached himself, waded back to the street, and saluted his apparent superior.
“We could find no body, or even remains, Madam,” the Sacreant told her. “If there was anyone inside, they must have escaped. However, to gain access, we had to batter down the only door – and that was locked from the inside. The fire evidently started in the middle of the main room and spread to the bookcases. Perhaps an errant or unguarded candle? We’ll keep looking until we find it.”
You won’t find anything, the cook thought. The Flickering Gods rarely leave traces of Their miracles, either good or bad. Unless it’s to teach Their children.
He wiped his eyes and sniffed at the smoky air before turning on his heel. But there’s nothing left to learn here.