Chapter 12: The Butcher's First Cut
While Czebek was statue still, his sword flicked left and right, deflecting Eleita’s cuts with clicks and raps so deft that her veering blade seemed to flee the parry. When the torque of Czebek’s ripostes whirled her around, so that she faced away from him, the guard might snicker and tap her head with the blunted sword. His breathless skill was not unlike the nonchalance of a mug-sliding bartender, so practiced as to make the exceptional routine and familiar. Though Czebek’s mastery was common knowledge, and he was one of the first she had asked to be Cjantosk’s hero, he not only lacked the ambition but was indifferent to his own skill. Not the indifference of the virtuoso, but the numb indifference of the apathetic, seemed to be the soldier’s driving motive, so that he deferred to Tilonus and other guardsmen that were more appreciated, though less accomplished at sword craft than he was. If it were not style and skill but compassion and verve that separated a veteran from a hero, then any could be a better hero than Czebek.
As Eleita was not ready to fight two opponents, even if one was a thought problem, that mental hobgoblin distracted her, and when her sword arm swerved wide, Czebek poked her temple. When she dropped the sword to grab her head with both hands, he snorted, “and you thought you were ready for real blades.”
“You’re a wicked man.”
“Wickedly made. Spite’s in my nature.”
“I was joking, Czebek,” said Eleita. “You’re a better man than that.”
“You bring out the better man in me. I couldn’t ask for a better student. That said, though you seem to be catching on, we’ll stick with blunted swords until you learn to keep your head in it.”
“I don’t need to be good with a sword. You’re only helping me keep a promise. Instead of worrying about my progress, be mindful of Janyn.”
“About that. While some his age might learn to fight or speak as a man, Janyn’s still a boy, and showing no signs of being other than a boy. When you say to be mindful, I say, ‘what mind?’”
“To be fair, careless and mindless are different things.”
“Though I sympathize with your hasty vow, I’m feeling the pinch of my small conscience. You expect Janin to kill Urgu when I wouldn’t trust him to trim a hedge.”
“Stick to guarding towns. The goddess will oversee your conscience.”
Cebek sneered. “Enough rest.”
“I’m done for the day. You rattled my skull.”
When Czebek drew his sword up in a salute and fixed his gaze over her shoulder, she laughed wearily, said, “if you insist,” picked up her sword, and raised it en garde. When his pose did not waver, she turned to see the white-haired master of the estate. Not only was Tilonus on the garden path which led to the back of the manor, but he was dressed beneath his station in a corase, red-speckled shirt. “Return to your post,” he barked at Czebek.
“My lord, I’m not on duty, and the monk has paid for the pleasure.”
“We’ve finished,” said Eleita. She now saw that Tilonus’s face was battered, and the spotted pattern on his shirt was blood.
“You’re the monk with the vow,” Tilonus said. “How godly could it be when you take your sweet time doing it?”
“Though it was a binding vow, it was a vow not to the Goddess, but to The Great Mother, who gives me as much license as I require.”
“What you require is rope, to hogtie your martyr to the dragon’s claws,” said Tilonus. “Is a holy vow still binding if you swore it to a mouthful?”
“What do you mean, a mouthful?”
“The Dance of Divine Wells was so miraculous that Urgu rained flesh and tarts on the feast and took the Great Mother as an offering.”
“What?” she said, feeling the stupidity and insufficiency of the single word as she said it.“You speak without sense.”
“The dragon passed so low that his scales flayed the crowd, then dropped the baker’s wagon into the crowd. And when Urgu stole The Great Mother, the mob bludgeoned the butcher to death for saying that it was just. That’s when I got these,” said Tilonus, indicating the bruises on his face.
When Eleita remembered the kindness and generosity of the butcher, she regretted that a good woman died for a careless remark. If she had blasphemed, she had also believed in Eleita’s vow when the monk did not. “While I am sorry to hear this, and I would hear more, you must excuse me, Captain Tilonus. for there will no doubt be a conclave.”
“Indeed there will,” said Tilonus. “With the other one gristle and bones, they’ll need a new hen.”
“The Great Mother is no hen,” said Eleita.
“They might choose you, if I’m lucky,” he said, chuckling, then wincing from the pain of laughing through his bruised face. “The last one was too clever for her own good.”
Eleita scowled, realizing that Tilonus’ gibe touched her as well.
Czebek said, “My Lord, if you’re stoned as a blasphemer, who will dole out my pay?” Despite his forced laugh, Tilonus glared and brushed past him through the kitchen door..
Though this time there could be no mistake that Czebek saluted her in truth, as he cocked his eyebrow and said “good day, milady,” it was also in jest, for she was neither a lady nor salute-worthy. Since she was too exhausted to match his ridiculous overture, she returned his salute before handing him the training sword, then took the path to the front gate.
As she waited for the guards to winch the portcullis, she saw Janyn opposite the gatehouse, leaning on a fence enclosing a luminous field of orange and pink tulips. She was so angry to see him that she ignored him and walked as fast as she could towards the monastery without looking back.
When singed carts of unsold goods returned from market, the doleful merchants’ ponderous eyes bored through her, as if looking for their profits, and the heavyhearted festival-goers looked as if it was better to be counted among the dead. Though Janyn’s shorter legs lagged behind Eleita’s strenuous pace, she heard him ask for the merchants’ wares, and their blasphemous answers.
At the gates to the monastery grounds, Eleita waited for Janyn, then called him close. “What did I tell you?”
“To stay on the veranda and only discuss the weather. Which is hard when every monk has sage advice for the dumb victim of your vow.”
“Their only purpose of those inside is praying, Janyn.” said Eleita. “They’re not cut out for vows quests, or missionary work. Praying is dull and dreary work best appreciated by the single-minded.”
The boy giggled.
“Single-minded is not simple-minded, which you’d know if you weren’t the latter.” Janyn’s laughter ran to ground, and he gave her a piercing look. “Don’t get me wrong: they’re dull, not dumb. Though you shouldn’t heed them, you should listen to their advice, as who is more likely to have the ear of the goddess, a good for nothing or an expert in prayer?”
“Who cares? Not me.”
“Then remember: weather; veranda. While not necessarily in that order, that’s to be your entire creed here.” Though Janyn grumbled going up the hillside, he sat in the veranda when Eleita was ushered inside.
When two monks arrived to escort Eleita, the taller one bowed, and said ”the conclave waits, and the Well-Lit Path is ready.” This auspicious-sounding passage turned out to be a series of plain hallways unadorned with tapestries or any art of even the simplest symbolism.
In the council room, the conclave gathered around four stone tables facing the empty throne. The Great Mother’s vacant seat was more artwork than furniture, as it was covered with sculptures of Coruna, her consort, her passions, and heroes of the faith, all in high relief, so that reigning in that seat must be uncomfortable due to the protruding stonework. Flanking the throne were four bronze chairs holding The Great Mother’s cabinet of confidants: her secretary, Menelas; the steward, Induro; the weaver, Vania; and, the chief librarian, Cantara. With Eleita and the twenty-six monks comprising the enclave, their total was thirty-one, though shadows tapered from tall wax candles into monk-like silhouettes that seemed to add to the conclave’s numbers.
“You are late,” said Menelas. When the brown-bearded man scribbled on a long, unfurled scroll for over a minute, Eleita wondered what, other than her name and tardiness, was relevant. The sudden quiet amplified scooting chairs, ruffling papers, fidgeting boots, and coughing and whispering monks. “Bring her a chair,” the secretary commanded, and two under-acolytes entered an adjoining room to return with a sumptuous divan.
Induro spoke up. “Read the report again.”
Menelas read, “’Each time the Dark One descended, he ripped something from the ground: people, horses, wagons, and lastly, The Great Mother, the chosen one blessed and holy.”
When Cantara said intoned “deliver the chosen one, blessed and holy,” the rest of the conclave echoed the prayer.
Menelas continued, “The dragon’s scales flayed many when he skimmed the crowds, and the butcher was stoned for blasphemy. All told, Urgu slew nine, another score will die from their injuries, and many wear scars for life.”
“What of the Initiate?”
“She is in the northeast tower. Shall I send for her?”
“To what end?” asked Vania the weaver.
Cantara said, “all those steeped in the mysteries must be present.”
Vania then said, “all must be gathered? Is this an election? Do we not hold out hope for the deliverance of The Great Mother? If not, I must have more time to submit a design.”
“While we’re not commissioning an electoral tapestry today,” said Induro. “we must promote an interim leader.”
“In her fury, the initiate isn’t likely to hear anything but noise.”
“I have authority in this matter, do I not?” said Induro.
“You do, though you’ve never had occasion to use it. More’s the pity.” The steward then ordered the under-acolytes to retrieve her.
“If I may address the conclave,” said Eleita,“why am I here? I am no authority in the mysteries, and can have no say in these proceedings.”
Vania said, “While that was once true, we have heard that you invoked one of her passions. Our tapestries depict less than a handful worthy of that gift. Who taught you that?”
“Holy weaver,” said Eleita, “since I am only a wandering monk, sent as the Light wills, my duties take me across Cjantosk and to its neighbors. When a devout worshiper opened her home to me, she showed me scraps that her late husband robbed from a saint’s tomb. These pieces of our religion were her only consolation, as I had ministered her husband’s rites of death. Though the fragments seemed a fine prayer selection, which I remember and use often, those common sentiments of our faith contained nothing original. I invoked the Passion with one of those It was one of those invocations.”
“The goddess inspires not only letter and word, but mind, pen, and page. These scraps may have concealed a prophet’s lost mystery in common prayer.”
“I don’t understand....even if the inflections differ, the words are the same.”
“How many ways can I say hate or love? I hate this chair, and I hate Urgu. Do I hate them equally? Do I want the chair slaughtered for crimes against Cjantosk? Certainly not. Meaning is invested in words, not the other way around.”
“Forgive my impertinence, but that’s nonsense,” said Eleita. “Meaning isn’t ensouled in words, nor are words baptized in meaning, and I reject any other sophistries in advance. If a prayer calls a Passion when only one of us speak it, it isn’t something hidden in the printed or spoekn words, but that Coruna marked one as an act of faith.”
“Does your arrogance carry more weight than our mysteries? I think not. Your powers stem from this inspired scroll.”
“The point is moot,” said Cantara, “as the scrolls are clear. We cannot choose even a temporary leader without summoning all those versed in the mysteries. Whether her gifts mark a blessing, a transgression, or divine whimsy can be tabled for later discussion.”
Alyana arrived between the under-acolytes, as if they escorted a prisoner and not one of honored rank.
’Enter with our love. Have you heard the news, Alyana?”
“Only the little this one told me,” she said, indicating one of her escorts. “But why was I called, when I have only blasphemies to mutter under my breath?”
“But are they blasphemies?” asked Menelas. “If your wrath is pure, you might be right to think such thoughts. If we accept that your sisters acted in righteous indignation when they stoned your neighbor, we can only allow you to express yourself in like manner.” The secretary’s tone was so aloof that Eleita couldn’t tell if he was joking in bad taste, patronizing, or in earnest.
“Though I am not on the cabinet, and having not studied the secret scrolls, am the most unworthy member of this conclave” said Eleita, “you have overstepped, Menelas. Her mother died this morning. No, not died—she was killed violently by those in your care.”
“Do not think me flippant, miracle worker,” said Menelas, with undertones that were at least slightly sarcastic. “I mean what I say. Justice seeks equanimity.”
“Short of stoning the killers’ mothers and fathers, there is no equal response.”
“You know nothing of justice, monk. Be still. Alyana, we must nominate an interim leader. Your presence was required, as having mastered the nine secret scrolls, you are in your rights to nominate yourself.”
“Given my freedom, why shouldn’t I leave and never come back?”
“Do you know the common proverb, there’s no better candidate than one who scorns the job? Disinterest serves fairness. But let me appeal to your interest for a moment. Have you considered that the Mother oversees all discipline and punishment in the monastery?”
“Revenge won’t tempt me, and doing harm won’t make her whole.”
“In a world without justice, your mother died in vain. Don’t think of it as revenge, but a way to make her death meaningful.”
“I’ve only been one of you for six months! Why do you want me in the Mother’s chair?”
“If one of us becomes Mother, and The Great Mother is not rescued, we will serve in that capacity until death. Better that one who is young inherit it, just as we nominated The Great Mother when she was little older than you, and a little more corrupted by the world. And though we are old, and comfortable in our roles, if you choose a new secretary, steward, chief librarian, and weaver, we are ready for retirement.”
“Which is not to say we wouldn’t like you to have the benefit of our counsel, just as kings bred and schooled to the role reign better than usurpers,” said Induro. “We are here to serve, and have already decided in your favor.”
Eleita felt pangs of jealousy. Though Alyana girl wrapped and sold pigs’ rump less than a year ago, Eleita might soon bow every time she saw her.
Though Alyana felt like a playing piece on a complicated game board, the rules were becoming clear. Despite their words, these old monks were accustomed to their high positions and would be more likely to groom her as a mouthpiece for a coup than to relinquish power. And in doing as they wanted, Alyana would remain under The Great Mother’s heel, even if the former monastery leader passed through the belly of a dragon.
“I would form a new cabinet, starting with Eleita, the only one who’s met my questiions with answers.”
“That would be your prerogative,” said Induro, “though it would be wasteful not to exploit The Great Mother’s trusted advisers, who are your greatest inheritance.”
“Can I decline this honor?”
“While a mother is beyond reproach, a monk must account for striking a lord of Cjantosk.”
Though Alyana’s dark grief was at the forefront of her mind, she still savored hammering that lord’s face. After council, Tilonus had dined at her mother’s table and though there was no love between the two, just a mutually reciprocating politeness, at times they had seemed friends.
“The coward held her fast to set himself apart, so that he would not be beaten.”
“That may be, but seizing a sinner is no crime in Cjantosk. Striking a lord or an agent of the law is.”
Eleita said, “Alyana, I feel your loss. Conclave, hear my petition. Consider me for this honor, and I shall appoint Alyana my steward so she might avoid punishment in that high post.”
The council of monks grew deathly silent, so that the scribe scribbling away on his scroll was all that was heard until he came to the end of transcribing Eleita’s statement and the silence that fell after it. There is only so long that a writer can describe silence, however, until he must come to a full stop, and Menelas did eventually put down his pen and look at Eleita.
When the conclave grew deathly silent, the scribe’s scribble was all that was heard until the end of Eleita’s statement, when Menelas put down his pen to look at the monk. “I would agree that the butcher’s daughter might serve well as steward, for she reads, writes, and is familiar with number. Coruna knows that my arm grows tired at times. But you? While you are honorable, kind, and a favorite with Cjantoskans, your poor judgment is legendary. You recruited a child to your vow and think a vain speaking sword a match for Urgu, the scourge of our realm for three generations, and who knows how many other nations.”
Alyana frowned less from fear than from the effort of her decision. The butcher taught Alyana that one of two cleavers would cut to the marrow of most things: one was a blade, and the other her brain. She rattled that mental cleaver now, testing the ideas at hand to see which parted before her reason, which were vaporous vanities, and which were only common sense walled in with obdurate rhetoric. Which is not to say that the suggestions which yielded to her intelligence were good ideas. Just as veal and rot were both soft to a blade, good and evil were equally palatable to the brain, and it was up to each person to choose their cuts and portions.
The first suggestion was that she could decline, and Eleita would assume the position of Mother, no doubt muddling through it as she muddled through life, while doing her best to protect Alyana. This seemed an unlikely hope all around, since however willing Eleita was, the other monks would be loath to nominate an outsider, regardless of Coruna’s favor.
The second possibility was that upon Alyana’s refusal, the new Mother would not guarantee Alyana’s safety. Third would be to assume the role of Mother though her faith was thrust on her by ritual murder, and that indoctrination was uprooted by a fresher, more meaningful murder that blighted the ground of her being.
Her last consideration was the small pity she felt for the monks. Though the monks deserved a Mother whose faith was clear, if they demanded the butcher, they would take the meat that they were given.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’m glad you agree.”
“Not that. I’ll be your backbone, for the here and now or as a lifelong vocation.”
Menelas wrote as he answered, “Hmm. We’ll strike backbone from the official record.”
Cantara, Induro, and Vania ignored him, and stared straight through her. Cantara cleared her throat. “This is not to be taken lightly.”
“I would never take this burden lightly. And as I won’t dismiss any of you, you will lighten my load. I’ll need a fifth chair for Eleita, so create a new ministry.”
Cantara looked at Menelas, as if to ask him silently is this your bailiwick or mine? “We don’t make new rules, Mother Alyana. We keep records and follow the old ones.”
“Follow the old ones, say the gray-hairs. Menelas,” said Alyana, as if talking patiently to her lackwit brother, “start a new scroll. Call it an addendum or an appendix. No, to give it divine and scholarly authority, call it “Holy Postscript Concerning the Ministry of the People.” Shouldn’t one of my ministers see to the wants of the people?”
Eleita’s face whitened. She already had responsibilities, and even if that title described her current career, labeling it made it all the more onerous. Perhaps she would like a new direction after this vow? The vow! “Mother, what of my vow.”
“Am I not Mother? I release you from this foolish vow to undertake our new and important work. If your protege is not welcome at his father’s shop, the monastery has need of a printer and paper maker.”
Vania said, “It would be wise to reconsider abandoning this vow. In the holy scrolls, neglecting a vow provokes a Passion to visit pain, sorrow, and desolation on derelict monks. Moreover, Eleita’s sincerity of vision and holy passion may have prepared her to receive her miracle.”
“What miracle?” said Alyana.
Menelas said, “Eleita called upon one of Coruna’s Passions, which was unheard of for generations. We thought it lost knowledge.”
“Not lost knowledge, but lost faith,” corrected Eleita. “Faith cannot be lost or tattered, unlike a scroll.”
Alyana said, “if her worthless quest was the crucible that forged her faith to serve me, it has served its purpose. And should she not forswear this vow if her Mother wills it?”
“You are not Mother yet,” said Induro. “If there are other nominations, present them now.”
When none raised their hands or nominated another, Alyana was first unbelieving, then thrilled, then frightened, thinking she had agreed too quickly to what must be an onerous task that was more responsibility than privilege. After each monk’s vote was collected in a straw basket, Menelas either tallied the paper strips at a glacial pace due to his advanced age, or he enjoyed making a show of it, occasionally looking up to smile at Alyana. It reminded her of something the butcher liked to say of Alyana’s indolent brothers, when they quickened the work day with a contest of increasingly slapdash cuts: uselessness exaggerates usefulness.
“All but one voted for Alyana,” said the scribe, “and the dissenter abstained.”
“Was the vote blank?” asked Cantara.
“They wrote ‘no one.’”
“Which mattered not in the end,” Alyana said.
“Clearly not,” said the librarian, her face twisting into a moue.
“Is that it?” asked Alyana.
“No,” said Induro, slowly and emphatically. “New mothers must be acclaimed.”
“Isn’t that a formality?”
“No. The acclamation is extremely important, not only for you, but for all of us to renew our authority before the other monks. The scribe sends announcements and invitations to temples, monasteries, and waypoint shrines; the steward plans the feast; the librarian pens an entry in the Corunan Codex; the weaver divines a portent from the mood and energy of the crowd, to celebrate the auspicious event in a tapestry; and, if you add a Minister of the People, you can introduce them to the rabble that flood the temple.”
Eleita said. “Whether the event is private or public, and whether or not we observe the traditions of Mothers past, she’ll still be Mother.”
Vania said, “That’s true. As observances multiply, so do opportunities for unforeseen accidents to fuel superstitions. I was a little girl at the last acclamation, when an acolyte, scarcely more than a girl herself, collapsed into a seizure, and the assembly dispersed halfway through the ceremony. The weaver at the time—my mother—found it hard to put a good spin on that weave.” She chuckled. “But despite the inauspiciousness of that event, until today Coruna blessed Berulla’s reign. Though I haven’t seen that tapestry since.”
“It’s in the library,” said Cantara. “The Great Mother...I mean....” She looked at Alyana, then continued when she realized her gaffe had not offended. “Berulla entrusted me with the tapestry.”
“Can I see it?” asked Alyana.
“While I was asked not to display it on pain of death,” said Cantara, “once you are acting Mother, your request can be obliged.” While the stiffness of the librarian’s delivery might have been a signal that Alyana ought not ask this favor, that reluctance only enticed the new Mother to unveil the venerable portent.
“That will not be necessary,” said Mother Alyana, “as I am persuaded that the cabinet might lose its usefulness if it grew overlarge. I relieve you of your onerous task, and Eleita will be my new librarian. Cantara, your years of service will always be appreciated.”
Church historians would come to call this The Butcher’s First Cut, as Cantara had been a voice of moderation in The Great Mother’s cabinet, a tonic to The Great Mother’s excesses, as well as those of the cabinet.
While Alyana learned how to be severe from Induro the Steward, how to fulfill the letter of the sacred scrolls from Menelas the Scribe, and how to fear portents from Vania the Weaver, Eleita was not an exemplary librarian. While a good missionary, a quick study, and a fast reader, Eleita was more comfortable letting her feet wander than her mind, and adjusted to her new calling with difficulty. That said, Eleita’s promotion carried with it the authority to appoint Janyn her assistant--a position to which he never aspired, but acquiesced moodily—and as the library was the largest monastery wing, there were many nooks in which to practice swordsmanship, once Czebek was smuggled in under monk’s robes.
As time passed, a peace seized Cjantosk harder and wilder than Urgu ever gripped it, as if The Great Mother’s death so satisfied Urgu that a draconic like appetite for drunkenness and licentiousness hatched in the city. When Eleita could not locate the old acclamation tapestry for Alyana, Cantara claimed it lost to time, and the new Mother soon bade her librarian to hide the new one. Perhaps Vania’s eyes were going, for though Alyana’s ascension was at noon, the background was black, and as if raising their arms in acclamation opened wounds, the monks were woven from varying hues of red. No matter where Eleita concealed the tapestry, the image haunted her, soon supplanting her memory of the day.