Chapter 10: A Taste of Judgment
For fear of seeing her daughter in monks’ regalia, the butcher did not want to leave her shop. In her daydreams, which had come to nag her like fears, Alyana the Monk had two faces, one haughty and the other a terrible benevolence, full of impartial, divine love that did not know her own mother, as if Alyana was two different women, each wept from from one of the two faces of the Goddess.
When Alyana did not return, the butcher waited outside the monastery for hours that would have stretched into days had not her eldest son and daughter led her home at nightfall, persuading her she was the mainstay of children and grandchildren either too young or too slow-witted to run her shop. In the six meager hours of her fast, not one monk showed any solicitude, though many in ceremonial dress observed her from windows and battlements. As there was neither high holy day nor feast day for weeks, she wondered upon the occasion for ceremonial garb. If they were that joyful to seize the pride of her loins, she had a handful of born liabilities that counted on their fingers and moved their lips to read. She should not have coddled her well-meaning, fearless, and level-headed daughter, so that perhaps another would have become the clever one. Alyana was too good for a religious calling.
A season passed, and they were halfway to the next one, when the monks next appeared in ceremonial gowns for The Day of Divine Wells. While ostensibly only a day, the week-long festival of parades, dances, and masked trysts that preceded it once marked the butcher’s favorite time of year, which was marked on the calendar in the ninth month after The Day of Divine Wells, when all but Alyana shared a birthday party due to being born so close together. Now too old for the foolishness of anonymous coupling—even if the Holy Consort came down himself and mistook her for Coruna—and with her husband gone for the past five years now, it was simply another day to dread.
Cjantosk emptied into dragonfire-scorched streets, flocking to food wagons and wine-sellers, and congregated around lay worshipers in homemade masks and costumes enthusiastically demonstrating the sacred dance. The butcher trickled through the throngs to get to market, where the monks built a scaffolded stage, on which The Day of Divine Wells kicked off with a long circle dance symbolizing the fall of worlds from Coruna’s womb. Two dozen lithe monks robed in night blue bedaubed with golden and silver glyphs danced a circle around an even more lithesome monk in bright blue silk emblazoned with suns and stars embroidered in such fine detail they seemed to radiate light and heat. This monk, topped with a round, golden mask hammered into the two faces of Coruna, immediately reminded the butcher of her dream of her daughter, though Alyana could not have learned patience and grace in so short a time.
Though the butcher’s shop wasn’t empty, neither was it full of customers, as the overflow of onlookers had backed inside to escape the crush of the throng. Moreover, while the mob outisde grew silent to respect their beloved monks, the spectators inside were emboldened by their enclosure, and as they gawked out the door and windows, their murmurs swelled into bellows.
“We’re closed!” the butcher shouted, running up behind them. Did a dancer jerk when she yelled? When no one budged, she shouted it into a few faces, and many left, some apologizing and the others brandishing impolite gestures. When a handful of gawkers rmeained, she tied on her oldest apron, which was gory with old bloodstains, and moved toward them again. The sign of the advancing, angry butcher was usually all the incentive unwanted clientele needed, whether or not she held her butcher’s knife, but when one person remained in the shop, she seized his arm, made for the door, and stumbled, finding him immovable. This is when she recognized the erect bearing and haughty mien of the white-haired man.
“Tilonus? I didn’t recognize you.” Instead of his uniform, the Captain of the Guard wore shabby pants and a clean but threadbare indigo shirt.
“I haven’t taken in a holy day for years,” said Tilonus. “so my steward lent me these rags so I could go about as I wished.”
“But you walk like a Captain.”
“I’d hate to think you did know me and still tried to oust me to the street.”
“Isn’t the dance good for business?”
“I won’t know,” she said, and locked the door. “If you’re here to talk, sit.” When the butcher sat, Tilonus took the bench adjancent, and neither looked at the other. While Tilonus gazed at what he could see of the dance through the clustered mob, the butcher looked at her hands. With these good hands she’d slaughtered, skinned, and parceled thousands of hens, pigs, cows, and sheep, and occasionally an obscure game animal--twice a peacock, once a strange winged lizard its owner insisted was a dragonling, and once a unicorn foal, its horn shattered by the arrow that pierced its head. Though the dead feel no pain, she refused to butcher the centaur that had fallen in a trapper’s snare. From the waist up it was a youth no older than Alyana; its face and chest were garishly painted, its long mane was braided, and the knife drawn neatly across its throat was murder. Though she had chased the trapper from her shop and called the guards in a shaking voice, they would do nothing to a Cjantoskan citizen that had only slain a dangerous beast. When the poor horse-boy received no justice, she wanted to butcher the trapper then and there, so that all saw their blood was the same red. Strange or magical, all the beasts she butchered bled the same, and her hands now seemed a darker shade of pink than the rest of her.
“How unlike you,” said the Captain of the Guard, “to send money packing and prefer to talk.”
“Customers pay. Trash needs swept out the door,” said the butcher. After a short silence, the butcher added, “And I don’t celebrate festivals anymore. The goddess owes me a feast day. Maybe you haven’t heard.”
“Of course I’ve heard. After shopping at all the stalls in market square, my kitchen staff return with a load of groceries and gossip. They stop here twice a week, between feeding the garrison and the mouths at my own home. Of course I’ve heard,” he repeated. “Though I sympathize that you’ve lost a daughter, I must set a pious example...”
“It’s working,” she interrupted.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard her sarcastic tone. “Isn’t it a blessing to be chosen?”
“Am I blessing the pig when I choose one? Or is a blessing more like stuffing a goose? If so, I’m crammed full of blessing. So much, I could burst. I’m just so angry, Tilonus! Angry, unbearably sad, and alone.”
After an awkward pause, he said, “You have other children.”
“They’re just noise, Tilonus. She was the only one I could listen to.”
Tilonus looked taken aback, not used to this much honesty, whether from the butcher, or any other Cjantoskans, who treated the Captain of the Guard with a guarded deference. “While I am, as a rule, not a doting person, I’m pained to hear a mother slander her own children. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s more disturbing than ordering a thief whipped or executed.”
“Stuff it, Tilonus. Aren’t your children all in service? It’s easier to be proud of your children when you’re not shoulder to shoulder with them, watching their haphazard cuts.”
Tilonus snorted, his eyes agleam with the laugh he swallowed. “Though I do not stand with them, I am proud when I see them lock ranks and triumph. We all serve,” he said carefully. “I see many fine cuts in your shop. May my sons’ cuts be so generous and accurate. You should use more liberal cuts when measuring up your children.”
The butcher glared. “I’ll cut this short. We’re closed, Tilonus.”
When the butcher unlocked the door, the guard captain turned before stepping into the milling crowd. “Until next council, then.”
The butcher fumed. Though the butcher liked Tilonus well enough, It was hypocritical of Tilonus to judge her when he set a high standard for his own children, and when he promoted them over others—over other fathers’ children. Coruna herself did not love all their children equally, but The Great Mother was worse than the nepotist or the goddess, for the monks’ high priestess stole the children of others.
After she walled off any thoughts, good or bad, of the monks and their goddess, she covered the meats, hung her bloodstained apron on its hook, and changed her work boots for her worn shoes. When she locked the windows and doors and stepped out the back door, the lilting pipes, strummed strings, and the murmurs of the crowd echoed in the brick and cobble alleyway, and she hastened her step.
As the scent of offal lingered in her nostrils, the sweet-smelling aroma of warm pies tugged her towards a baker’s wagon, where festival-goers bought breads, rolls, muffins, cookies, and tarts. The tarts were the most popular item, and there were such a great variety, not only apple, cherry, and blackberry, but cinnamon currant, pear, and date, that most eaters bought one for each hand. The crusts were so hardened with glaze that they held together though only wrapped in a little parchment.
More divine inequity, she thought—why shouldn’t a butcher’s smell as good as a baker’s? But she knew the answer. If bakeries smelled like slaughterhouses, cupcakes might taste like blood, and even good and evil would soon lose their distinctiveness. Truth to tell, she was happy to have the job no one wanted. Until the goddess had taken the treasure of her heart; now she saw good and evil as the same dissolving red glaze. Good and evil gave people a taste of judgment, an appetite for judging their neighbors.
“It’s good to see you,” winked the baker . “What will you have, Ezelia?” Though Marcelus had a foul mouth in private, he spoke evenly with customers, and she heard this practiced composure now. When Alyana joined the monks, he stopped coming to her for bacon, ham, and tripe for his sweetmeats, though she knew her prices were better than any other butcher on this side of Cjantosk. Had she known this was his cart, she might have sought elsewhere to fill her belly, but now she had seen the delectable treats, and the line had whetted her appetite.
When several moments had passed, Marcelus said, “can’t decide? How about tarts? Here, Ezelia.” He handed her two tarts, one of which had slits crusted with black jam and the other with cinnamon sugar. “There’s no charge. I’m happy to have your patronage.”
Ezelia took the tarts, and having no words, attempted a smile; when that failed, she fled the line to sit on a cartwright’s doorstep.
While the first bite of gooey berries folded in glazed crust was delicious, and for a few moments she was deeper in pie than in her dark thoughts, a sour foetor rolled in on a warm wind to spoil her last bite. The sky blackened, then flared, when sunbeams glinted on dragon scale.
When the shadow of Urgu’s enormous wings skimmed over market square and its thoroughfares, it was as if a cloud passed fleetly over Cjantosk, only this cloud cast a sweltry, broiling shadow.
As if the dragon was also attracted by the aroma of loaves, pies, or human enjoyment, Urgu dragged the baker’s wagon for yards, and the horse that was hitched to it pulled people into a screaming pile, before the tackle snapped, and the dragon lifted the wagon over market square.
When Urgu’s claws unclenched, the butcher gasped and sidestepped the crashing wagon, which crushed another hapless woman, her hands still full of uneaten tarts. Wood fragments bowled over a dozen more, and smaller wagon pieces whizzed by, one nicking Ezelia’s ear.
When the dragon glided low for another pass, and the festival milled screaming, stones flew from the street, roofs, and windows, where the elderly and shut-ins that did not go to the fair had piles of cast-offs waiting for the dragon. Futility had turned to simmering desperation for these old-timers, that through many generations of draconic desperation had become inured to Urgu’s attacks. Stones, broken mugs, rusted kitchen pots, and cracked chamber pots clattered off dragon scale, but the dragon surely felt the clamor of so much debris, and he swooped up again, then madly plummeted so close that his scales flayed those on the street, and blood and slivers of shredded skin showered the festival. Dozens of these wretches died mid-scream, and when he again ascended, the dying remnants of a few more were stuck to his underbelly, just tatters and gobbets and screams, that flaked away when he dove towards the market square stage. Flame rolled down, and cinders and embers roiled up in smoky clouds. She dashed back through the alley, yelling “Alyana!”
When the dragon ascended, clutching a robed figure. even the butcher’s old eyes, could see the oblong, golden Goddess mask on the lithe dancer, and she ran into market square, sweeping her arms in a vain gesture. “Let her go!”
Snarling, Urgu expelled a single puff of fire that would have charred her to the bone was she not pulled back.
Tilonus dragged her thirty feet to her shop door, then swept her pockets for the key, and just as he was about to unlock it, the dragon turned from the carnage and flew away without a backwards glance.
Ezelia struggled against the guard captain. “Let me go! That was Alyana!”
The festival, strewn with bodies that were skinned and smoked, looked like a slaughterhouse. Some were flayed by dragon scales, and many were roasted; moreover, countless more were battered or scorched but lived, and none in the market square were not at least singed and stamping and smacking at flames.
Though the fire had not touched her door or walls, her sign had caught fire and not only was it blackening, but it was in danger of spreading through her store. When Ezelia went to the well behind the shop, Tilonus followed, as well as a monk still robed and cowled in dance plumage, the fabric miraculously untouched.
When the monk said, “I’m here,” in her beloved daughter’s voice, she saw that Alyana’s cinnamon-brown eyes peeked through the cowl. They were shaken eyes that seemed disturbed beyond what she had just seen, as if they were scrawled on the hood like the embroidered celestial symbols.
The butcher handed them each a bucket of water. Not having a third bucket, she took her work boots from the back room and filled them as well. Running back to the front, she found the guard captain, the monk, and a few neighboring merchants had already doused the fire. The monks that survived the fire—some in dance costume, and some in ceremonial robes, all singed—sobbed, shouted, argued, and prayed.
Ezelia turned to Alyana. “I thought you were lost. Twice lost.” When she hugged her favorite child, she stiffened, then swayed woozily.
“Mother,” said Alyana, “though I love you greatly, I have duties.”
“Your duty is to your mother,” shouted the butcher.
“Yes,” said Alyana, “my duty is to The Great Mother.”
“Where is she now?” accused Ezelia. “What will she do?”
“Nothing,” said the butcher’s daughter. “She was carried away by Urgu.”
Tears of sadness and frustration mingled with tears of joy when the butcher whooped at the top of her lungs “Praise Coruna!”
When one of the costumed monks motioned angrily at Ezelia, the rest picked up rubble or smoldering wood. Though some were clad as dancers, and the rest in ceremonial gowns, all now bore warm, makeshift weapons. Though Alyana waved both of her hands at them, and stepped in front of her mother, they shuffled towards them, then picked up their step. “Mother! Go inside and lock your door!”
When the butcher looked at the onrushing mob of monks brandishing fragments of market square, she moved toward her shop, but Tilonus seized her arms from behind her and held her fast. “Don’t--” said Ezelia, kicking back and twisting her elbows into the guard captain.
“Let her go!” Alyana pummeled Tilonus with her balled, darting fists until she was pulled back by the monks; though the guard captain bled from the nose, lip, ears, and temple, he had not let go of Ezelia. When the rocks and sticks fell, one cracked his hand as she was bludgeoned to a non-human shape. Alyana wept, then squalled, then twisted and roared in the monks’ grip. When the butcher’s daughter became more and more savage in her grief, the many battles of Tilonus were unwound, and he pulled free from the monks and ran.