The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Her Two Minds

(Hello, again! Her Two Minds is a short story (12,000 words) that falls between chapters one and two of part two.)

Salodor Gatarbalon made a living by sun and stars. Not that he was a holy mendicant that slept in the open; he was a coachman paid for departure and arrival. Though he had a clock in his townhouse, he only slept there, and rose by its chimes to work routes between cities, where he told time by heavenly bodies. Since Salodor lived for precision, and expected it of others, he was more faithful than a maintained timepiece, hitting the stops on his itinerary fifteen minutes early.

Salodor’s punctuality made him contemptuous of holy days, like The Day of Celestial Rain, the annual feast day to mark when Coruna levies heaven’s ghosts as valets, who swap the faithful’s dirty, faded souls for clean, bright ones. This bath of the spirits made Cjantosk materially foul, with Alemor Street trodden deep with horse dung and food scraps from vendors, as well as speckled with bird droppings from flocks that followed the wasteful mobs, scarfed down the refuse, and cawed at the rats scurrying in the alley walls. More to the point, these backed-up lines of sinners and penitential bathers made Solodor late, very late, and he was in such a foul mood that he surreptitiously lifted his seat to reach the black bottle of spirits that might temper his rage.

Salodor despised the clustering monks, who twelve times a year made the widest street the narrowest, and he was still expected to deliver timely packages and happy passengers despite the religious fervor. Why didn’t the prince have the stones to make the monks stage their astral dances and celestial plays in a residential district? If a Corunan scroll said princes and kings must drive coaches on holy days—not as ridiculous as the sententious drivel actually preached—separation of the powers would be law the next day.

Though the brandy was sweet, Salodor was sour, and the coach was steeped in traffic. When the horses fidgeted, he flicked them absently, and one neighed loudly, a peeved shudder shaking its whole head.

When an orchard cart moseyed fifteen feet, leaving a gigantic gap the following driver failed to close, Salodor became very liberal with the Goddess’s name, conjugating every profanity in perverse juxtapositions with the name Coruna. While it was unlikely that he invoked her with these frightful invectives, the ghostly valets must have been frightfully busy changing Salodor’s spiritual raiment, for no sooner did they throw a new gleaming gown on his grumbling soul that cussing made it mortally black.

What prompted this foul stream was the knowledge that this lackadaisical driver was just one symptom of a greater malaise stopping up the thoroughfares of Cjantosk. The everyday virtue of punctuality was scorned to satisfy illusory piety, though clocks could be demonstrated and gods could only be argued. And still the enormous gap stayed, as the drivers jawed about the rising prices of spiritual easements, tulip bulbs and rye.

When Salodor saw a way to honor his commitments and keep the time, he took it, though the thought of these languid fools sending up a streamer of prayers on his behalf into the incessant spiritual traffic incensed him more than the actual traffic. Let no one send his name into the anonymous, amnesiac skies, where it would rattle against the other empty-headed identities raised through prayer to gravitate to their idols.

When Salodor turned his team right, the cut-off queue of traders and travelers was snapped back to the earthly realm to loose a shout just as profane. Seeing the footway was nearly clear, he chortled and drove his team down the narrow sidewalk, clipping awning posts and flattening sale signs.

Salodor went a block and a half before running her over, and another quarter block before he heard the screams and stopped the coach. Though the mother was bludgeoned by the front wheel and dragged the distance, she saved her boy by seizing the running board, so that he was scoured and screaming, but unbroken and alive. Though the mother still clung to the coach, she had not clung to life.

When the running mob seized Salodor, tore his clothes, scratched his face and hands, and bore him aloft, Salodor was soon worse off than the infant, and would have suffered a battering more brutal than the mother had not monks in ceremonial and dance regalia poured from coaches.

The mob threw him roughly down, and cried, “Holy Mother! Pass judgment on this man, a murderer of a mother and her child.”

“I killed no child,” shouted Salodor. Walled in not only by monks and the mob, but coaches and wagons discharging their passengers to have a gander at the villain, Salodor felt like painted threads in a tableau of judgment, like a prophetic tapestry gawked at by gullible pilgrims. Though he had never seen Vania’s work, that was the only Corunan mystery which intrigued him, that this crone might have hung his death on a wall. He wished himself less of a prophet, but could not shake the feeling that he was not flesh and blood, but yarn colored by the tulip fields.

“Having watched you fly down the footway,” said the Holy Mother, “I care not if it was accident or intent.” Turning to her following, she said, “we shall teach him to grieve by installments; take him to the Grieving Mounds, and take me to the mother and child.”

The mob parted to admit The Holy Mother and her cabinet. Two monks knelt, composing the woman’s death rictus into the deceptive peace the religion sold by manipulating the veil of flesh, and another monk soothed the concussed, scraped child, having already bandaged him and swaddled him in her sash.

“Holy Mother,” said Eleita, “I know this woman.” The Chief Librarian took the boy into her arms.

“What was her name?”

“We were never introduced, your reverence.”

“Yet you know her?”

“Holy Mother, I delivered this baby less than a year ago.” (TIMELINE?)

“Take me to the father.”

“Holy Mother, I cannot.” Eleita had such an aggrieved look that Alyana did not bother asking why; the wretch was another orphan mouth to feed, and the faith unlikely to see a return on the investment. Not for the first time, Alyana resented the many dependents upon which religion depended for its existence—the orphans, the poor, the sick—for their everyday clamor not only drowned out thoughts of change, of leading her monkish army to new purposes,

these daily needs also consumed resources and drained vitality. Though each suckling babe or hungry pauper ate little, over history the poor had done more damage to the faith than a hundred Urgus.

Alyana had been looking for some pretext to change this state of affairs, when the two-faced goddess gift-wrapped the driver—but as a joke, or to remind her of her resolve, her other face sneered over this infant worm, mewling for his dead mother’s milk. Alyana hated waste. The butcher taught her how to cut loins and rumps so the whole slab of meat was sold, and all were happy with their purchases, whether the parcels wrapped lean or fat. And as Holy Mother, Alyana taught herself how to work all gifts for good use, and even if it took decades, she would reap a blessing from the babe.

Alyana called over a monk. “That man was drinking. Find his coach and the bottle. If you don’t find the bottle, don’t come back without a cheap bottle of wine.”

“Yes, your reverence.”

Alyana turned to Induro. “Spread the word. I will address the crowd.”

When Induro nodded, turned to his assistant, and whispered the first link in the chain that would draw in the rabble, Alyana took half-blind Menelas by the arm and led him back to the landau, where Eleita and Vania sat across from them.

Because the faith did not like to disclose its luxuries, it stashed them where only the boldest faithless eyes might pry, such as the landau’s nut-brown shell, which concealed walls painted with gold leaf and golden satin cushions topped with silver, azure, and scarlet silk pillows, so that on warmer holy days, the reflective interior was a furnace, accentuated by onerous ceremonial robes and weighty headdresses. Though an iron cooler provided refreshments, its wines and ales were tepid after the prolonged horse traffic. This didn’t stop Induro from pouring white wine in five ceramic mugs, which he passed until all but Eleita partook.

“What a blessing,” said Vania.

“Was it?” said Alyana. “I don’t know.”

“Did you foresee this, weaver?” asked Menelas.

“Of course,” said Vania.

“Heavens, I wouldn’t be so humble if I had foreseen this.” The scribe’s sardonic tone was irksome to Alyana. To the Holy Mother, sarcasm was worse than purposeless, it was parasitic; the deterrent at different times took on the characteristics of caltrops, sandbags, or weeds. Did Menelas not know his leader’s urgency?

“Don’t give me the credit,” said Vania. “Thank the goddess it came to pass.”

“She’s a perfect messenger, isn’t she,” chuckled Induro.

“Just the right amount of pomp,” wheezed Menelas.

“I have other revelations that might interest the cabinet,” Vania hinted darkly.

“No one cares what you’re privy to,” said Alyana. “Menelas is so old that you’d only be privy to his time in the privy.”

Although Eleita cackled in spite of herself, Menelas seemed truly fretful, and Induro gazed blackly at the weaver; when the largest laugh—a woman’s full belly laugh, that splintered into a social laugh shared with men, and the dulcet peal of a child—rocked the coach beside them, unseeing Menelas scrabbled to his feet, fumbled for the window, and shuttered it.

***

At first, Berulla couldn’t believe her luck as their coach halted next to that upstart and her faithless cabinet. When the commotion emptied the wagons, they sat inside for long minutes until they decided to send Senek. While Urgu was unknown, his human form was flamboyantly unforgettable, compared to the balladeer, whose music may have earned him fame, but made him no less nondescript. Still, to satisfy anyone following his career, the musician came up with a story to account for his absence from taverns, inns, and festivals. He would say he took a position as a tutor with the Duke of Marquata, a luminary so illustrious that he appeared exclusively in song and rubbed shoulders only with metaphors, for Senek had concocted him as a rhyme for cicada.

When the balladeer returned, he had already versified “The Boozehound and the Babe,” aside from a near-rhyme for ‘drunken coachman’ that fit the meter and his reputation for a certain stylish swagger. As Urgu and Berulla crinkled their faces in expressions draconic and draconian, respectively, both vented exasperated sighs, though the former’s possessed a literal heat to underscore his figurative frustration in waiting for Senek to deign to tell the tale. Thinking ‘wrinkled parchment’ snapped into the beat and, more importantly, suited the theme of ruin and death, he brushed the strings of his lyre.

“Beloved,” said Berulla, “if someone died, remember that your lines tend to be comical.”

While Urgu had many reasons for wanting to hear the tale--he wished to laugh after a long day cooped up in a coach smaller than his actual, dragon-sized kidney; it was galling to agree with the crone; and, the ancient dabbler in all amusements detested harmonizing to any chord of restraint--they were outweighed by the gross impropriety of the old comedian composing a dirge, which would end up comical heroic couplets, or worse, limericks. Despite disliking humans, he was not blind to the beauties of tragedy and sentiment. “Perhaps later,” was all that he said.

“Fine,” said Senek testily. “A drunk coachman plowed into a mother and her child, and...”

“Are they dead?” blurted Iola.

“Patience, little heartflower.”

Berulla looked out the window so neither Urgu nor Senek would see her rolling her eyes at Senek’s sappy diminutive. She was not his real daughter, nor had he any sons or daughters, but since she was young enough to be his granddaughter, and he was a rotten spoiler by nature, he fell into the fiction of being her grandfather, and spoiled her at every opportunity. “The mother died. As his painful wounds will certainly scar, I’d say fortune favored the mother, if the boy lives.”

When the passengers returned to their neighboring coach, and Berulla heard Vania’s distinctively acerbic tones say, “What a blessing,” Berulla shushed Senek, and they eavesdropped on Vania’s insinuations of omniscience. Alyana’s indecorous reply provoked their rollicking laughter and the slamming of the shutters.

“I’d like to see that tapestry,” Urgu said.

“You can see it anytime you like,” said Berulla. “We don’t have any way of stopping a dragon from taking to his heart’s content.”

“We?” Though he was human-formed, Urgu’s snort still raised the temperature in the coach. “You haven’t been a monk in a while, and if we count your heart, you’ve never been one.”

Berulla turned her head and sighed. She had less interest in feeding dragon fire with argument than with her flesh. There was little point, as he would never change his mind; not that she was any different in that regard.

When Senek strummed the lyre, at first she thought it a new instrumental, and on realizing it was music already composed for “The Boozehound and the Babe,” she did not know whether to be irritated or impressed. But that was the way of Senek. He never did anything half-assed, and though he wasn’t quick to do them whole-assed either, it was not for lack of talent. When he told her he memorized fifty new verses every day, she could not believe it, and when he demonstrated by singing them in the tub, she begged him to keep them to himself. Not that they weren’t exquisitely wrought testaments to his genius, but these filthy and profane ballads, like the divine herself, deserved to be unutterable and ineffable, and by his silence, she was able to tread lighter over his priceless gift.

As their coach rumbled and rolled, Iola stood on the seat to look out the window, slipped, and bruised her elbow. When Urgu rang the clapper, the coachman shouted, “yes, my lord?”

“What’s happening?”

“What do you mean, my lord?”

“Is it still safe for your cargo of ladies, troubadour, and gentleman?” That Urgu declined to refer to Senek as a gentleman both pleased and peeved Berulla. Although she liked to hear Urgu knock the minstrel, if the dragon could not converse without disparaging some soul with a red hot burn, it was only an accident of dragon fire.

“Yes.”

“Yes, WHAT?”

“Yes, my lord,” the coachman sighed sardonically.

“No, you road apple, give me more than that. Why are we moving all of a sudden?”

“The monks left, my lord.”

“They left? We came here for a Holy Day, did we not, Berulla?”

“Urgu, do not abuse the poor workman, who is only trying to get paid for a day’s work.”

“He’s not poor—he’s a coach richer!” When Urgu understood that his guests wished to attend the festival, he instructed other captives to fix the broken coach in his hoard. As the dragon was so parsimonious that he did not wish to part with his hard-hoarded gold, and he had no interest in keeping a coach in the hostage village to encourage vacations and facilitate more sincere escapes, he chose a coachman, then gave the man the refurbished coach and his freedom.

“If it is a Holy Day, my lord, the monks will go to market square.” The coachman spoke with a low, languid drawl.

“I could have told you that,” said Berulla. “There are stages for dance and theater.”

“Stages?” When Urgu pinked, Berulla didn’t know what it signified, for this was not the dragon’s natural body, but a magical proxy for a monster. She was too embarrassed to ask, but intensely curious to know, whether this blush, as well as his smiles, frowns, and other expressions, corresponded to their human equivalents, for if so, Urgu seemed downright flirtatious at times, though he leered equally at sweets and pastries, and reserved his most suggestive grins for commodities and gold. It was as if Urgu used human facial features not to hide his dragon self, but breathe life into draconic drives.

“Yes, stages.”

“That sounds delightful.”

“It’s a romp,” said Senek.

“Since I am known at market square, I may be persuaded to perform local favorites, or share my newest compositions...if you’re not unwilling, my lord.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” said Urgu.

When Berulla felt the need to grimace, she turned to the window, which crawled slowly past peddlers bearing rolled tarps jam-packed with goods, and fires roaring in vendors’ stalls constructed solidly, for all their ephemerality, from lumber or layered stones. There were flatbread bakers venting the scent of bread and garlic, sandwich sellers layering cold cuts, cheeses, spinach, and tomatoes, soup vendors ladling noodles and broth into paper bowls, and macaroon makers baking their sweetstuffs on metal sheets, where all could watch the sugars and coconut brown and mingle.

It wasn’t that Berulla hated Senek’s songs or grew weary of his pleasant voice; she simply envied his talent so much that she loathed the sight of it, for having been in the limelight for decades she was loath to cede it even to her lover and only friend. For though he was one friend more than she ever had, and she valued Senek’s friendship, it was hard to stand his singing, since she no longer sang to her flattering coterie or her wworshipful multitude. For the sake of his affection, at first she forced a smile; then she smiled absently; then she adopted a dreamy, faraway look; then she settled in a look that might pass for meditative; then she practiced the look until it became like a sign she flashed; then she stopped looking; now, she looked elsewhere. Though he could not be blind to it, it was a testament to the honesty of his love that he did not bring it up.

In turn, she never shattered his illusions, never admitted that she daydreamed of the day she relinquished him to return to her throne. She would have sacrificed not only his love, but his very being, if some hellish divinity had entreated her for his body and soul. Did he not know their relationship was a fiction produced by circumstance, that his love was merely willed love, dutiful love, not felt love? Surely no passion would have suffered scorn so easily.

“What do you think, Berulla?” asked Senek.

“I was watching the sellers set up in the market. Tell me again, Senek.”

“What do you want to eat?” asked Urgu.

“That vendor is as good as any. He at least has some theatricality in his performance.” This food seller juggled flaming spits to cool roasted meat, a practice that hastened the crackling of the skin while the meat was barely warmed and bloody rare. “You’re used to mouthfuls of blood.”

“You ought not to be so light with me, Great Mother.”

“I’m neither Great Mother nor grandmother, despite Iola.”

“I’m not even human.”

“Nor a man.”

“Have a care, woman!”

“A man has a heart, dragon. If you had one, you would take Iola home. What is your plan should we meet her family in the crowd?”

“Men have a charcoal heart that’s more ash than fire, and women light theirs so often that who they love goes up in that puff of affection. While her parents may have been sad, now they’re happy with the ones they have, and neither will know the other on sight.”

“You mean to cover our appearance.”

“That was never in doubt, cenobite.”

“You’re wrong about women, you know.”

“I know no such thing.”

“The goddess will make you pay for those remarks.”

“My love,” said Senek, “you go too far with our host.”

“We needn’t perpetuate Urgu’s illusion here, in our home. The goddess is our host, and he’s our keeper.”

“Who cares?” said the balladeer. “All my life I prayed to join the king’s retinue. Did I not get my wish?”

“Urgu’s no king.”

“My love, he has land, castle, and village.”

“Then he’s a lord, at most—a bandit lord who was never invested with a title. And his walled village goes straight up in the air like an asylum.”

“You’re calling us inmates, even Iola?”

“Never mind, Senek,” said Urgu. “This furlough has her in poor spirits, for it’s a brief and inauspicious term compared to her reign.”

Iola peeped up like a chirruping bird. “Don’t tease The Great Mother—The Goddess is watching.” Like any Cjantoskan older than five, Iola remembered The Great Mother presiding over not only High Holy Days, but all secular holidays, as the guest of honor.

“Watching does nothing,” said Urgu. “I’ll clarify—watching changes nothing for the better, though ages rot, wither, and die under my long-lived gaze. Though Coruna’s sight will outlive me, our staring contest might last a century before I noticed the time, and if the goddess rests her eyes on me, I won’t become holy or good. If she watches me eat Berulla, I’d become gassy before I became repentant, and she’ll see this past priestess passed again before I do a good deed.”

They were eating the meat juggler’s kebabs—grilled beef, bacon, and lamb, alternated with roasted red peppers, artichokes, and herbed potato—when the crowd once again encroached on the coach. As a murmur rustled through them, some unfurled blankets on the sidewalk and others simply sat on the curb, while lords and monks watched from coach windows and merchants pulled down the gates of their wagons to lay in their wagon beds.

“What’s happening?” asked Iola.

Urgu crowded the coach window. “I see her—the replacement you recruited.”

“What replacement?”

“I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know, considering how often you’ve moaned her name.”

Berulla shouldered Urgu aside, shaded her eyes, and squinted, and though she could not make out any faces, celestial robes milled in the foreground of a luminous backdrop cut from wood painted with a dozen silvered stars and a smiling, cherubic sun radiating twenty-four spokes of gold, vermilion, silver, and azure. “She’s getting ready to speak.”

“She? You don’t know her name either.”

“Of course I do. Though I initiated Alyana, I would never have promoted her so far—

while she was a good hand with a knife, her mind was good for nothing but steadying that hand.”

“Ssh!” said Iola. “They’ve started.”

“That’s just the drama,” said Berulla. “Pff. I’ve seen it—been in it—dozens of times before.”

“Why is everyone laughing?” said Iola. “I thought it was a drama.”

“Divine things are often spirited and funny, child. Drama means only that it’s in earnest.”

“Ssh!” said Senek. “I’m trying to hear.”

“You’re just hungry for ideas,” growled Berulla, “and monks will feed your wit faster than anything.”

“Can’t you be quiet, Berulla?” Urgu had not stopped scowling since Berulla’s verbal jabs; she did not know how dragons became so ancient, if they never stopped being babies.

“Fine,” she hissed.

Though they were a hundred feet from stage, by climbing on the coach roof they could see the gyrating dancers streaming hand in hand in eight spiral rays from the central dancer’s soprano piping, which alternated divine, glossolaliac trilling--like birdsong in rhymed meter--with lucid verses that alluded to Corunan secrets.

Senek snickered at the lewd miming of the passions in the spiral train; though most monks were in their celestial gowns, several wore resplendent mother of pearl codpieces on blue robes to signify Coruna’s male-aspected passions, and their counterparts wore cinnabar gowns under breastplates enameled with exaggerated breasts. All but one were women, and the man danced in cinnbar. As they whirled around each other clockwise, they gyrated widdershins, and this symbolic sex-play elicited roars from the audience.

As the spiral pattern expanded, the dancers leaped into the audience without breaking rhythm or missing a step, and though the celestially-garbed were received respectfully, the passions were leered at, catcalled, and groped, though the latter offense was swiftly rejoined with blows from celestial staves. While leers and catcalls hewed to tradition, groping was a transgressive, irreligious contribution from Cjantoskan youth.

When the spiral reached the streets bordering the square, the pattern contracted,

and the dancers retraced their steps back to the stage, where they stood by height,

and with squatters before kneelers, and the final row standing, the joined robes presented an image of Coruna haloed with her solar aegis.

When this image of Coruna parted, one male passion and one female went on all fours, making for Mother Alyana a human throne from which she addressed the crowd.

“The Celestial Rain is falling,” Mother Alyana began, and the people roared and hooted, hoping to hurry her to the licentiousness that followed holidays. As The Goddess held the hands of sinners and saints, they mingled lustfully in these days of divine abandon.

“The Celestial Rain is falling,” she repeated, “and we will never be clean.

Death strikes like charred, coal-black lightning, just outside of this square. Though the Celestial Rain falls, we will never be clean. Though the ghosts weep, they do not wash away. Can water or tears expiate blood?”

“No!” the crowd shouted, answering the age-old call of another lust, the bloodlust that craved sacrifice.

“No,” agreed Alyana, “only blood expiates blood. What of a mother’s blood?” Though inciting a crowd to violence was hardly holy work for the Holy Mother, she had mastered a mother’s patronizing tone.

“Seven times!” roared the crowd.

“Seven times,” said Alyana sourly, so that it was not agreement. “I say seventy times seven times. Load the rag with enough blood to wash out this murder once and for all.”

“Seventy times seven!” roared the crowd.

“Urgu,” said Iola, “I’m frightened.”

“What is going on?” asked Urgu incredulously. “What is this seventy times seven?”

“Only a number,” said Berulla. “It holds no significance for our faith. She’s working up the crowd. She’s up to something.”

When Alyana stepped into the crowd, she was borne aloft by eager worshipers. As if concluding the dance, the rest of the monks leaped to mingle with the crowd, which rushed past vendors, rocked coaches, and caused those encamped on blankets to scurry into alleys or join the surging throng. Berulla heard their horses shudder and neigh nervously at the approach of the wild swarm, and as they passed, the coach swayed and the cacophony was so overpowering that for three minutes Urgu, Berulla, Senek, Iola, and the coachman screamed, and it looked like they only mouthed words, for nothing could be heard over the human torrent.

***

The Iron Grape was an old Cjantosk institution—one of the oldest. At any given hour, and at this given hour, upstanding citizens upturned beer bottles and wine glasses and tipped into drunkenness. Though imbibing does not make one a drunk until proven habitual, they were so soused that you could safely label them inebriates. Half the inebriates wore the prince’s colors, for with room and board covered, and a modest duty, they poured out their surplus of money and surfeit of idleness at The Iron Grape.

Though mobs are, as a rule, less restrained than inebriates, and batter not only others but themselves to satisfy their demagogue, the door opened gently on an Iron Grape well-stocked with booze and inebriates, for Alyana insisted this holy action be observed with discipline, so that neither prince nor king might cry disorder or riot.

When monks filled The Iron Grape, the establishment had the look of one army

hosting a better trained, more motivated, and outnumbering army.

“Which of you are the drunks?” Mother Alyana called out.

Despite the tension, this patrons received this as if she was a schoolteacher and they her unruly students.

“It’s me!” squealed one.

“No, I’m the drunk!” roared another.

“Don’t listen to them! Holy Mother, relieve my wicked urges!” This one leered at the young Holy Mother, and grasped at the air with his hands.

“Take my lust, too!”

“Bathe me, Holy Mother!”

Those who were neither bold nor boisterous laughed timorously--until the hecklers were struck by celestial staves, driven punch drunk to the floor, and spilled more red than their cracked wine glasses.

“Take them. Whether the religious learn sincerity, or the secular learn sobriety, the Goddess will be honored.”

After the reeling inebriates were dragged out, there were less than a dozen left, not counting the bartender, who ejected everyone, locked and barred the door, and shuttered the windows.

When Alyana repeated this performance in several bars bordering market square,

the monks led fifty inebriates in their wake before the bars sobered up, and barricaded the doors and windows.

“Induro, send a message to the quarry,” said Alyana. “Tell them to deliver all the stone they have.”

“That could be a lot of stone, reverence.”

“We’ll use it. Eleita, take over.”

“How do you mean, Holy Mother?”

“How do you think? Do you think I mean you to ascend the Sunlight Stairs? Lead this mob.”

“Yes, eminence.”

“But only to the hill. They will not set foot in the monastery, not even the veranda.”

“Yes, eminence.”

“Holy Mother,” said Vania, with a disapproving look, “what of the audience?”

“What of them?”

“The icons must be acted, and the verities enacted.”

“Sun, moon, and stars will spin whether we dance to their invisible music.”

“The portents must be performed.”

“Why? Such vainglorious displays attract the impious, not the faithful. If Coruna rained miracles for a month, the irreligious would only become superstitious by appeasing her, and before the year was out they would relearn how to reward bad behavior with sin.”

“Have mercy on those who look to us, Holy Mother. Not for the sake of the heathen but the pious, do not strip them of this reward.”

“It’s no reward. Our faith is too puffed up as it is. But do as you wish. I’ll leave you the dancers.”

When the monks migrated from market square to the bystreets, the rubberneckers and rumormongers followed, so that although Vania conducted the holy dances of The Day of Divine Rain, and the zealous sang along word for word to the beloved Spirit Dramas, the thinning crowd proved unfavorable to business, and many sellers packed their wagons or rolled their carpets and left the square.

Once it became really sparse, a new element arrived, an ugly element of rowdy inebriates, though as the day was now bearded by a long shadow, one could no longer deny the inebriates were drunks, for the flow of alcohol eroded their jocose smiles into saggy frowns; flushed with menace, they had the demeanor of manic clowns.

“Where are they?” This one’s drunken face was a more morose mask than his companions, and his shout and swagger blurred the grimace to some inhuman point between tragedy and comedy. When a monk came in reach, the bully’s balled hands seemed to lob of their own accord, as if fists tend toward faces once they’re made. The monk’s celestial staff tore his cheek as it laid him out.

Though only a few dancers heard Vania’s murmur, the others were well-trained at shadowing improvised steps, and in a tight procession, dropped from the stage, slipped through the crowd as easily as butterflies, and darted down an alley.

When the drunks followed, raging, shouting, and throwing bottles that broke to leak a slug of backwash, the monks turned to ply their staves. Were the drunks less drunk, they might have routed, but as they were numb from drunkenness and dead to the staff-blows, they rushed the monks until they were bludgeoned, split, and tore by the resilient wood of the celestial staves.

The monks turned from the unpleasant chore nearly untouched, though a few collided with the benumbed drunks and complained of the stench of alcohol and pipe smoke.

***

Though most knelt willingly, a few drunks sobered to the cause of their own righteousness, and stood indignantly until the backs of their knees were thwacked by celestial staves.

The fifty drunks were in two ranks shadowed and flanked by hundreds of monks, while before them stood Mother Alyana, her holy cabinet, and several dozen armored monks.Behind this entourage were five stone piles, which might have resembled cairns if they were smaller, or a quarry if any larger. Barred windows and doors, however, left little doubt to the heaps’ sinister religious purpose.

“You can’t keep me here!” The shout came from one of the mounds. “I appeal to the prince! I appeal to the king!”

“Rattle his bars,” Alyana said acerbically. The shouts turned into yelps when staves struck not only the bars, but his fingers.

Alyana spoke to the crowd. “While I wouldn’t call the Grieving Mounds a pillar of the faith, these stone cells have been here as long as the monastery. They were once sufficient to chastise our handful of reprobates, but by week’s end they will multiply to ten times as many.”

“I’m with him,” interrupted one of the sobering drunks.

“Me too,” said another. “I also appeal to the prince.”

“Though the king is beholden to our ancient compact, I may send him a message if you wish.”

“Yes.” The sobering drunk’s face was ruddy with exhaustion and glossed with perspiration. “I wish it.”

“Guvanta,” said Alyana. “Get his tongue.”

Though Guvanta was not especially burly, her face was an unsmiling hawk-sharp wedge, and she was fearsome enough. When she unsheathed the long, gold-edged dagger, it trailed a gleaming chain to its scabbard.

The sweaty drunk turned to run, and the monks behind him struck his knees and ribs with their celestial staves, then pinned him to the hill. Another monk nearly lost her finger prying his jaws for the gory delving of the gold-edged dagger. Blood oozed from his mouth, not only from the slice, but from nicks at the corners of his lips from clamping the blade with his teeth. Though most of the other bar patrons turned away from the gruesome deed, a few protests were answered with cracks to the chest.

“In lieu of your bloody rant, I’ll send him this. Though the message should be clear, I’ll let the prince’s mood interpret it as period or exclamation point.”

Though Alyana could not bring herself to smile, her hot breath was excited, like laughter, and her vision clear and bright. An undeserving man made a better example to the remnant. Let none judge themselves clean. She turned to Guvanta. “Get this to the prince before the message dries.” When the monk wrapped the bloody tongue inexpertly in a handkerchief, Alyana snorted, and added, “Your Holy Mother could make a tidier parcel than that.”

As Guvanta attempted a refold, the Holy Mother gestured. “Throw him in a grieving mound. Would anyone care to add to the message? Your manhood might make a less vague punctuation mark, not that we should shout at the prince.”

At the quiet, Alyana allowed herself to smile. Though she remembered the other drunk, she allowed his silence, as now his eyes were open, his ears would be quicker to hear, and he would be the first to prove his loyalty.

“Though you escape this fate,

Coruna’s blade will not spare any of you.”

“Please, your reverence.”

“Eminence, spare us!”

“Those in the prince’s red and black, choose your side.”

“We choose the good, Holy Mother!”

“I choose the good.”

“I swear to live a holy life!”

“That choice was taken from your hands,” said the Holy Mother.

“We will force a holy life from you one way or the other. Good or Evil is the choice of cattle who avert their eyes from Coruna’s bared blade. Those who see the slash must choose a side of that holy blade: the Grieving Mound, or the cloth.”

“Reverence,” snapped Induro. “Coruna’s strictures are harder for men. None of these sots meet our requirements. Unless you mean they are all virgins, or willing to forswear women?”

“I forswear!” shouted one of the men, but none joined his clamor when he was silenced by two staves.

“We have need of strong backs and sword hands. I do not intend them for high position.”

“They will give our faith an unpleasant face.”

“Let them wear hoods.”

“Reverence, hear the cabinet on this whitewashing of our dogma.”

“Whitewashing is a strong word, steward,” said Alyana. “Especially from one sworn to uphold my words. Say no more, lest I find a new steward. But to prove I am not insensitive to our ways, they will fill a new order of my devising.”

“Eminence, the cabinet...”

“Was heard through you, their representative.”

Once the train of dancers trotted up the hill, breathless from their holy day performances and the half-run from market square, Vania minced past the kneeling inebriates, her mouth set in a flat smile.

“The sun has not yet set, weaver,” said Alyana.

“Then why is the hour dark?”

“My way is bright.”

“Then do not be surprised at your long shadow.”

“Vania, we are not at cabinet. Do not speak so to the Holy Mother,” said Induro.

“I have nothing to hide,” said Alyana. The gurgling scream of the maimed drunk carried from the grieving mound. “Coruna’s light will shine.”

“When the Goddess shines, all will see,” said Vania. “I glimpse her brilliance even now, and must capture it on my loom.” The weaver bowed, then walked in the monastery with her train of celestial dancers.

After the prince’s soldiers took the vow, the other drunks were allowed to vow or depart. Perhaps because they suspected another trick, most swallowed their pride--with a supreme consciousness of their tongues--and took the vow. When the three that would not swear left with their tongues, the tale spread like wildfire in Cjantosk.

***

Salodor was such a habitual inebriate—which is to say, a drunk—that he had woken in his coach every third day for the last two years, and he can be forgiven for thinking that the situation in which he found himself. While his new living space was puny, the slices of light streaming through the barred embrasure were similar in size to those admitted by his shuttered coach window. In every other way, the Grieving Mound suffered in comparison to a coach, as there were no wheels, no direction, and no booze locker; though his coach was softened not only by velvet cushions but sateen pillows, trimmings he had acquired at great cost to attract a loaded clientele, his rough, blanketless palette was not even dignified by a sheet. Only an unlined wooden box would have bruised a corpse more than this scatchy cot, although to be fair, most coffins were more cushioned for their passengers. It was the stiffest surface imaginable for one sleeping above ground. stiffer not only than the proverbial board or the metaphorical corpse, but stiffer than the sorely contused and concussed Salodor.

Since he could not stand without scraping his brow on the cold, grainy stone, he stooped and hobbled around his shoulder-high prison, finding only the unbudgeable door and an ancient green copper chamber pot that smelled fouler from tarnish than use even after his overlong, urgent squeeze of urine. Salodor wiped his hands on the cot, turned to the door, and shoved heavily, thinking to force the door from its jamb as silently as possible, so that he might flee to the capitol and complain to the king. He strove in quiet agony, but found the door immovable; though the wood frame was jambed in jumbled stones, and should yield to such exertion, somehow the cairned stones were less yielding than mortared stone or laid brick, and even the unfinished, resinous, and raw wood resisted his strength.

Though Salodor had no skill at arms, living around wheels and horses made him brawnier than most, and he hadn’t met the beast, post, axle, or jaw that could withstand his assault. When the grieving mound beggared his muscles, he battered the door, at first pounding with the fleshy heel of his fists until they were bludgeoned, then thumping with his palms until they tore, then hammering his knuckles into the dogged grain until their flesh split. Having already lost his grasp of reason, Salodor cared not if he lost his firm grip on reality.

Though his fists throbbed with flashes of not only pain but numbness, murmurs and laughter outside his door renewed his frenzy, and he seized the sloshing chamber pot in his cracked, bleeding fingers and, in three rapid strikes, crushed it against the door. Though the door was gouged by the toilet, the soft, tarnished copper folded against the obdurate wood, pinching his fingers and drenching him in his own waste, so that he dropped the twisted metal and sputtered, “let me go!”

“You only had to wait,” came the muffled laugh. “Mother Alyana scheduled your renunciation for today.”

Though renunciation might have sounded ominous to a thinking man, and Salodor was not unintelligent, and cunning moreover in his assiduous schemes to gain material comforts, he cared neither for monks nor their jargon. He would have given no thought to any foreshadowing word, not even dismemberment or disintegration. Even a plain threat like death would only have made him sweat harder and bleed more in his efforts. So when they extracted him from the Grieving Mound, he had not the aspect of a fearful penitent, though he was far from happy, and when he wasn’t swearing, grumbled that they should get on with the affair.

He might have thought it a shed if its opening didn’t point skywards. The way it was constructed, in vertical sheaves bound with wire, and with a wooden lid leaning against the barrel, seemed familiar, though at first he could not place the resemblance. Then it struck him—the monks built a giant wine cask, so gargantuan that it seemed a different animal entirely.

“What is your name?” The young woman was wrapped in ornate silver and carmine robes tied with an azure sash speckled with golden stars; even Salodor knew her headdress was once The Great Mother’s, for the crinkled halo of golden wire strung with silver and carmine silk was worn by the monks’ spiritual leader at the feet of any representation of Coruna, and at every public appearance, mirrored the divided face of The Goddess.

“Salodor.”

“Salodor, you have hurt your hands.”

“You think I did this to myself? Did I put myself in that cairn?”

“I do not think you are ready for this blessing, Salodor.”

Salodor froze. More than anything, he did not want to go back in the grieving mound. “Forgive me, highness. I am a rough man.”

“You will call me that never more.” She cackled. “I too am a prophet. If you are ready for your renunciation, step inside.”

When the monks tipped the barrel so that the mouth faced Salodor, it seemed vaster. Though at least ten feet around and fourteen feet high, and larger than the Grieving Mound, he felt like a parcel freighted coach to coach.With the only other option being to return to the mound, Salodor stepped in with his questions, and no sooner was he inside than the monks clamped the lid and righted the barrel.

“When judgment flows through you, Salodor,” the muffled monk said, “your spirit will be clean.”

After a few knocks tamped a spout through the lid, a few drops fell, then a crooked trickle, straightening into a drizzle, which widened into a gushing pour. By the sweet aroma misting the barrel staves, he knew the monks’ red wine, which he had often lauded as their only worthy spirit. He craved a swallow even as he saw death in the rising shadow. When a few inches wet his toes, it stopped; then it began again, this time only water.

“Keep the ratio right. One in four should make a libation pleasing to the Goddess.”

When the deluge continued, one in four streams was sweet, sticky wine, and three were water.

“We might find nothing inside but wine,” the young Holy Mother cackled. “And if his renunciation is pure, a resurrection.”

Even Salodor could no longer deny the moment of his demise. Now rib deep in water and wine, when he pounded on the barrel, he sloshed more than he smacked. When he thought to rush the wall and tip the cask, it was too late, for the drink was too heavy to upturn.

He heard the hooves before they did, since their clip-clopping tremor shimmied through ground, staves and liquid to translate into a nonstop knock renewing his desperate shouts for mercy and help. When the downpour ceased, he stood shoulder-deep, and with what little leverage he had, flailed weakly at the barrel.

At first, their words were loud and incomprehensible—thrice warped by drink, barrel staves, and a diminishing pocket of air.

“Mercy!” Salodor sobbed a sawing, jagging sob and fumbled his fists against the staves, which only purpled the bruises on his hands. “Please.”

When the liquid sloshed left, drowning his ear and spurting in one nostril, he sputtered the watered-down drink and gasped just before the barrel crashed, his head bouncing on the side, then ramming into the lid, which popped open from his headbutt and the slogging wine, spilling him onto the grassy slope. His slippery fall was stopped when his tunic was wrung in a metallic grasp.

When he was righted on his feet, the water and wine sludge, flecked with cloudy, speckled dregs and his own drool and mucus, flowed from his nose and mouth, and he choked, cried, and shuddered between the armored guards, who looked away, one with a blank look and the other with a tortured grimace that Salodor found immensely relieving, for this was not contempt of his moral ugliness, but of his physical disgustingness, which the coachman found perfectly natural. If a weepy, puking wretch clung to him for help, he would cuff the loathsome creature, then banish the repellent sight with a strong, savory dinner and a glass of sweet, red wine.

But when Salodor pushed away from the guards, Blank-Face smote him with his mailed fist, he fell to his knees reeling, and the bile from the dry heave mingled with blood dripping from his mouth.

“What was that?” Salodor heard. “I’ll tell you—that was a day’s pay. Pick him up. That man’s a citizen.” The voice was older but snooty, with an air of levity out of place in an elder. Salodor’s eyes cleared. He knew this man, if not by name—the Captain of the Guard, a notorious drunk, cut-up, and bordello patron.

“Are dead men citizens?” asked The Holy Mother.

“He’s not dead, thanks to me.”

“In the eyes of the Goddess, he is already condemned, and his citizenship vacated by death.”

“Holy Mother, you go too far. Though you try people in your puppet court, only the king grants and repeals citizenship.” The Captain of the Guard leaned from his steed, seized a monk’s cowl, and yanked, revealing one of his former guards. “Corporal Gatarn. Though that’s a closer shave than you’ve ever had, you’re out of uniform, derelict of duty, and depending on the disposition of this attempted drowning, perhaps an outlaw, rebel, or other seditionist. You disappoint me, Gatarn. Report to the barracks for punishment, and I may be indulgent. What say you—ten lashes, with the soft whip reserved for adulterous noblewomen? It somehow seems symbolic.” The man snickered.

Tilonus, that was his name. When Salodor had the misfortune to beat him at cards, Tilonus swore for ten minutes, and drunkenly threatened to have the man exiled, when his lieutenant, a grizzled warrior named Czebek, talked down his superior and made good on the bet.

Mother Alyana said, “we claim him by right of ancient pact.”

“You have no right,” said Tilonus. “He’s my man. The prince’s man. The king’s man. But he’s no monk. What do you need him for--your cult already has a handful of token men.”

“We have every right. The Corunan provenance precedes the army’s.”

“Then he has no right. He’s already sworn, and forswearing is treason, punishable by death.”

“We’re all punishable by death in the end.”

“Save it for one who cares. I plan to live forever, or at least longer than you, Alyana.”

“Have a care, Captain. It is not outside my rights to hear you use my honorific.”

“I know you changed your bloody apron for a Holy Mother hat.” He gave a jerky, exaggerated curtsy, doffing his red and black helm. “There, I honor thee.”

“Captain, leave Gataran and take Salodor. Certainly your prince also craves his death, and we do not want to be overly zealous in taking the honor of his execution.”

“Do you think so?” growled Tilonus. “He might spare the man for the sake of a point. I would.”

“Look behind you, Captain,” said Alyana. “I do not think that verdict would be popular.”

Hundreds had gathered at the base of the hill, waving signs, and not hastily slapped together signs, but with perfect letters printed under images of broken bottles and the dual-visaged symbol of Coruna. As their leader was a middle-aged man with ink-stained hands and apron it seemed they had come straight from the press with the letters and pictures still wet.

“I can’t hear them either,” said Alyana, “but I’m guessing they want blood.” Turning to Salodor, she said, “you can go now, if you wish.” When Salodor backed against the sticky wine barrel, the Holy Mother cackled. “Second thoughts? Drowning isn’t as bad as being pulled limb from limb. That man is Jansen Dawes. If rumors are true, you have an acquaintance in common. Not that you saw her good side.” Alyana cackled again. While half her cabinet backed away, the weaver only snorted, and the old scribe was too frail to do more than lean a little farther away on his swaying staff.

“Kill me, you old hag,” spat the coachman. “This show isn’t necessary.”

“On the contrary,” said The Holy Mother, “it’s very necessary. You’re the example Cjantosk desperately wants.”

“Against drunkenness,” he scoffed. “Pffah. That’s every man, as well as half the women and a quarter of the children.”

“I could care less about drunkenness,” said Alyana, “which does not diminish your value as an example.” She turned to Tilonus. “Why do you wait, Captain? The sun sets, and justice hasn’t been done. I doubt they have the temerity to assault the prince’s man, though they won’t have any compunctions about your quarry.”

Tilonus was riding up and down the ranks of monks. “I see a dozen of my men here. No—more than a dozen. Who do you think you are?”

“My lord...” started one of the monks.

“No, not you,” spat Tilonus. “I know who you are, Trakanto. And those I don’t know I can deduce from the roll. No, I meant you,”--he gestured contemptuously at the Holy Mother--”who died and made you king.”

““Tilonus.” Holy Mother Alyana used the Captain’s name for the first time. “I’m shocked you would suggest such a treasonous outcome. Remember you said that, not me, when you make your report. We will also write records of this day.”

“Yes, monks have scribbled for millennia, hence our present situation. I know what I’d do if I was king.”

“Do it then.”

“I’m not king. That said, the prince requires Salodor by any means, so by order of the prince, and in the name of the king, command your militia to support my men.”

“While that’s very strategic,” said The Holy Mother, “if I let that be written, it will establish a precedent; as you’ve said, what was once written is the source of all your ills today, and I won’t have anything untoward written today dictate Coruna’s will for a thousand years. Though these monks bear arms, they will not follow the prince’s orders, whether he goes to war or wages war on his own people.”

“How prudent of you,” said Tilonus. “Salodor, get on Zekar’s horse.” Tilonus gestured to a man with a youngish face, a graying beard, wiry arms, and a relaxed straddle on his horse. When Salodor mounted, his neck, arms, ribs, and stomach ached with the effort, and even when he had settled in the saddle, his middle twinged under the shifting animal. “The rest of you, flank as best you can. What are you doing? Take positions left and right, and draw your swords.”

“Swords have not been drawn on this hill for a hundred years,” said one of the Holy Mother’s cabinet. While her hair was, if not graying, watering down to a bilgewater brown, her face was young and her build trim.

“As it was my first decision as Holy Mother, I still stand by making you Chief Librarian, though you rarely come to my defense, you’re without a leg to stand on yourself, and you miss our lost leader. You’re like a three-legged puppy chasing a butcher with a bloody steak in each hand from the grave of his owner. I can’t help but pity such a cute, thankless brute.”

The librarian didn’t respond. As Salodor turned from The Holy Mother’s retort to keep his eyes on the sign-swinging mob, the coachman didn’t see her reaction either.

“Advance!” When Tilonus pointed his sword and twitched the reins, his horse walked down the hill, and the footmen marched close behind.

While he had worked around horses his whole life, Salodor thought a military man should know the horses wouldn’t keep to a stately place on a slope, but would soon trot ahead, the better to keep their footing. And this is precisely what happened. When Tilonus swatted its flank with the flat of his sword, the horse loped several yards ahead of the footmen. In a hail of wooden signs, Zekar slumped forward, Salodor was knocked from the saddle, and Tilonus wheeled his horse, then wheeled his blade left and right, riving peasants and merchants.

Salodor staggered to his feet, his scalp loose and flopping, and Tilonus dragged him over the saddle, then rode hard for greater Cjantosk. Through the streaming blood Salodor saw the soldiers slashing the mob and parrying signs with shields.

After seeing red, he saw black.

***

The next morning, holy day stragglers awoke in tents, coaches, and wagons, and on bedrolls and stretched blankets. Though there weren’t as many as the year before, there were still a sizable mob stirring and anticipating a renewal of the Divine Rain. Soon their numbers were bolstered by returning local residents and new pilgrims, including a caravan of rug merchants that made a complete circle in market square before their wagon train blocked the vendors on the western trade road. Sales were so slow that the obstructed merchants only grumbled to eac other, while hoping his rich wares might attract buyers. The foodies in the blocked line cooked their wares, then stood in front of the caravan to sell directly to passersby.

By lunchtime, the only amusements were food and drink, with no sign of the holy day dramas and dances resuming, and the sun goddess showed her sterner side as the sun bore down to swelter the square, which soon boiled with curses, bellyaching, and sunburned faces.

Though she complained about her back until they let her use the extra seat as her footstool, Berulla woke with a stiff posterior and aching shoulders. Moreover, she was deathly cold from the chill wind whistling through the damp coach, so that even the nape of her neck was wet with dew. Though she had begged the dragon to take a room in an inn, Urgu demanded they sleep in the coach.

When the window light struck Iola’s eyes, she woke immediately, stretching and flailing her arms and legs like a person four times her size, sticking her fist in Urgu’s neck—not his real neck, Berulla reminded herself, but his human neck, more like a shirt collar or other garment than flesh and blood—and her toes in Senek’s thigh.

“Close the shutters,” muttered Senek, then scrunched into his seat and leaned into Urgu—whose fake human flesh may as well serve an honest use as a pillow, Berulla told herself wryly—who shoved the musician back, then stood to open the coach door.

“There’s nothing but disappointed people waiting for a canceled festival.”

“I’m hungry,” whined Iola.

“I’ll get something for us,” said Berulla.

“I think not,” said Urgu. “Senek will go.”

“Senek isn’t awake yet,” said Senek, “at least not all of the way.”

“I’ll go,” said Iola.

“Send the girl,” yawned Senek, and Berulla kicked him. “Fine. I’ll go.”Senek smoothed and re-tied his tunic, then donned his new hat—a broad-brimmed blue hat embedded with copper scales patterned after tulips—and stepped into market square.

Despite the cold morning, the rush of bodies soon delivered him in a cold sweat to the holy stage, where the Weaver and her dancers paced the heavens’ symbolic steps. When the resumption of the holiday bloated the mob, Senek had no elbow room, and could only mince and sidestep to a food stall, which trailed a bustling line despite the festivities. As harps strummed, pipes lilted, and the horn held a note at once mournful and hopeful, the line lifted their heads like a rapt audience.

Their rhythm locked like a series of gears, the dancers seemed to spark silver and gold as their celestial robes mingled. Each dancer twirled, then joined hand to hand in seven spiral arms, seven tentacles of monks sometimes undulating into the audience from the central Weaver, sometimes flowing back to the stage in a squid-like motion, and at all times circling through the audience.

Though impressed with the showmanship, Senek pushed his way to the head of the gawking line. None complained, as all were mesmerized by the dancers except one ordering fried fish and roasted carrots. When Senek attempted to brush past, this hungry man staved off the balladeer with a shove, and while Senek’s first thought was indignation, he composed a calm expression and kept his chest pressed to the hand. “There’s no need, friend; I thought you were gazing at the dancers.”

When the elderly man merely took back his hand and stomped away with his fish and carrots, Senek ordered as much food as would fit in their largest box.

“We would consider it a kindness if you brought that back, sir,” said the vendor, who then smiled on the next customer.

At Senek’s knock, Urgu opened the coach door, and the travelers fell on the food with gusto.

Berulla’s life with Senek and Iola was comfortable, but having sat at Coruna’s feet on the throne of the Great Mother, only one thing satisfied now. No longer bound by Corunan precepts, she could eat as she pleased, not only the roasted carrots which were beneath a Great Mother, but the fried breaded fish, which might have been served, but in such a thoughtful portion that it was nearly invisible. While being the Holy Mother was amusing, she did not like being treated like a caged beast mastered by diet and restraint, as if they alternately whetted then curbed her bloodlust.

She wolfed down the fried fish, savoring the last bite, but couldn’t bring herself to swallow more than a bite of the roasted carrots.

When a murmur shuddered the crowd, the coach seemed to tremble in their collective flinch, and Urgu snapped open the shutters to shouts, shocked cries, and an unsteady silence.

“I don’t understand you humans.” Wheen the dragon snorted, the temperature in the coach flared. “Though it’s exactly the same out there, some weep, and others sneak into alleys and side streets.”

“Then it isn’t the same,” said Berulla.

“Something happened,” said Senek. “And as music only moves a rare bird to tears, something’s either ruffled their feathers or singed their nests.”

Urgu’s eyes narrowed and his nose wrinkled. “Ugh. Metaphor again. If they were dragons—or better, yet, balladeer, if you were—you’d hear crystal clear lamentations articulating the passionate grief a soul wants to make known. Grief isn’t a time for sulking, but communing with those that care. If you hadn’t invented your soul-guzzling deities, turned your eyes to their vain, dark displays, then invited them to put on their shadow shows in the place of speaking the truth of your small hearts—phaugh! Humans!”

“I want to know what’s going on, dragon,” said Berulla. “And speaking of vain displays, consider us persuaded. You miss your kind; no one felt more than dragons, or deeper than dragons; our gods were born from shame and resentment of the honest joy of dragons.”

“I learned sarcasm before you were born, priestess,” growled Urgu. “Still, very droll.”

The four travelers exited the coach to find half the crowd averting their eyes from the dancers, and the other half stretched out into obeisance, their lips and noses groveling in the gravelly steet while the dancers pirouetted through the crowd.

“What was that?” asked Senek. He put an arm around Iola.

“I didn’t see anything,” grumbled Urgu.

“Did that woman disappear?” said Iola.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Berulla, then she saw it. The hem of a dancer’s robe brushed a spectator’s leg, and he winked from existence.

“What was that?”

“I saw it,” said Urgu. “Priestess, what miracle is this?”

“This is no miracle,” said Berulla. “It is dark magic.”

“Though I’ve never seen your mysteries, hag, there’s as much darkness in a sun as light.”

“And though I’ve never met a wise dragon, they are said to exist.”

“Show us a miracle, then, wise woman,” said the dragon.

“In my debased state, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to beg anything of the goddess.”

“How does being kidnapped and betrayed by your own kind corrupt a noble soul?”

“Twice over.”

“Surely the goddess looks at your heart.”

“How would you know? You haven’t thought of her since our last theological discussion.”

“How often must I think of her to make you vanish?”

Berulla had no answer to this, and was likewise perturbed by the annihilation of those brushed by the dancers. In her tenure as Great Mother, she was presented with a number of strange powers, many of which were uncanny, but few practical; one researcher found wax-sealed scrolls lettered in gold leaf with several dozen mystic prayers; her new librarian found scraps ripped from tomes predating the cataclysm, folded, then squeezed between the pages of a folio, in an endeavor to save the most potent enchantments from the oblivion of forgotten history. The greatest of these divine enchantments summoned a gleaming sword that for a few minutes fought your enemies, but though Berulla had no shortage of enemies, there was also no shortage of swords or swordsmen in Cjantosk, and she was not impressed at magic that duplicated, with great concentration and no small effort, an effect which she could command and see fulfilled in seconds by simply saying “bring me her head.” Not that divine power was of no use or nothing to fear; she had prayed confidently before her flock and seen prayers banish sickness, blindness and lameness of limb; she had also prayed vain prayers, and watched these thoughts of vainglory gradually fulfilled in exact terms that she would prefer interpreted by a more merciful deity. Lastly, she half-believed in some rumored miracles, such as the Passion Eleita had not denied summoning, though the librarian shuddered thinking of the holy Being and described it only as “a huge divine warrior.” Despite beholding a vast number of divine effects, she had never heard of this annihilating enchantment, an invocation that banished flesh and blood elsewhere.

“This is something else,” said Berulla, “either abomination, or human sorcery masquerading as holiness.”

“Why doesn’t the Goddess protect her image?”

“My lord Urgu,” said Senek, “when Berulla denies knowledge of this unholy oblivion, to then ask what is known only to the goddess, whom we interview only when we step off stage once and for all, seems less speculation than blasphemy.”

“Who will hold me accountable? The fallen Great Mother, the Goddess, or you, musician?” The illusion of the man dissolved around Urgu’s mouth, where Berulla glimpsed a thread of dragon in the snarl sparking tiny tendrils of flame behind teeth of supernatural whiteness and evenness, stoked likewise in a pit of darkness. No human had such a coal-black chamber for a mouth, nor did the temperature rise when humans uttered burning words. The hot air seemed to flicker as it was drawn towards him, as if for a moment a hint of the dragon’s real gravity dimmed her vision and a specter of his real shadow shivered, marking the beast’s mammoth boundaries displaced from reality. The unreality of the moment struck her with terror, for they were overshadowed by the impossibility of having a conversation with a sixty foot dragon in a twelve foot coach. One angry thought and they would be splintered with the walls.

“Do not think me so bold,” said Senek. That his voice did not quaver in standing up to the dragon made Berulla feel warmer at center, but she composed an aloof face so the musician might never know it. “I am no dragon’s keeper, nor my noble lord’s. But should we not fear the immortals? When I sing of eternal things, I leave them where they lay, venerated and accursed alike. I neither prove nor disprove gods or hells, but only write of their appearances, as if they were trees, mountains, or kings. So should my lord see these things, meditate on them, and do as he will. Sooner renounce a tree than rebut a god, though both are equally heartless to my verse.”

“Is that so?” mused Urgu. “What would you sing if you lived another eight hundred years? Still, I have the utmost respect for you, much more than you would have for a mayfly.”

As the spectators fell back to blankets, coaches, and storefronts, the dancers rewound their spiral with a sashaying dance, their hips and shoulders swaying in counterpoint as they circled back to the stage. When the monks stooped turning counter-clockwise, their bright robes flooded the stage with stars, suns, and moons, as if the stage became a galaxy of celestial bodies in the split second before the monks vanished, leaving the plain wood grain of the stage.

“Where did those foolish monkeys go?” asked Urgu.

“And the vanished people have not returned,” said Senek. “This is a mystery.” Though he seemed to muse, he looked no more troubled than when he was composing notes and rhymes.

“Mysteries in mysteries,” said Iola.

As the audience realized the vanishment of loved ones was not part of a show but reality, frantic wails rang in the market as the bereft stumbled through the crowd.

“What is Alyana doing? She must answer for these mysteries,” said Berulla, “or the reputation of the Goddess will suffer in Cjantosk.”

“Whether it is gods or their worshipers that have no honor makes little difference,” said the dragon. “If a religion has interest in something, they will keep it for themselves; zealots pool not faith, but greed, in changing things to suit their interest.”

“You could supplant religion with dragon in that thought,” said Berulla.

“That would make it a compliment,” said Urgu. “And for that many humans to come together in writhing greed and have the power of only one dragon makes it a very weak compliment, one to which that dragon-shaped human pyramid would certainly take umbrage, and vomit bile instead of fire.”

“Is it not easier to believe only Alyana worships her self-interest?”

“Easy, yes, but lies are easy-going. When I bloody my claws, they are neither more nor less to blame than the rest of me; when she is believed, heeded, and obeyed, her ill will becomes their ill will.”

When a contingent of guards marched into market square, Urgu muttered, “have you had enough sabbatical, or is there some new exhibition of human suffering to attend?”

“What do you think of our chances to enter the monastery unobserved?” asked Berulla.

“Too many there know your face. Choose another location.”

“My lord,” said the coachman, “the prince sent guards by every street. We must leave now.”

“We have nothing to fear,” said Berulla crossly, “surely.”

“While I have nothing to fear,” said Urgu, “my protection only extends so far. I can intimidate them, and lend you courage, but not lend you dragonscale or dragonfire.” To the coachman, he added, “lay in our route, good man.”

“You sound like one dreaming a new religion,” said Berulla.

The coach edged down the crowded thoroughfare.

Urgu laughed. “Forgive my impertinence, old one, but it sounds wiser than yours. I might suspect you were a dragon for saying that to my face, for that remark so mixes the unwise with the wise that you have aged past the point that spirits become liquid fire.”

“I refuse to take that as complimentary.” Berulla’s face pinked. “If you intended it as an insult or to terrify me, you will have no satisfaction.”

“While sailing over a high bar satisfies a champion, stealing a better seat delights the crowd. High standards frustrate the idle majority who dangle from them, who contemplate a roll in the smug mud of deception or steal unearned satisfaction by lowering the bar. That said, we are both intelligent, despite the vast disparity of years...”

“Despite my appearance,” said Berulla, “I am older than ancient. The Goddess has preserved me.”

“Your indolence and sarcasm says otherwise. You assume your use to her has ended. If so, why has she not started the clock?”

When Berulla had no answer for that, Urgu continued: “As I was saying, despite the disparity of our years, I think we see eye to eye. Only ideal goals satisfy the intelligent. Once we conceive some purpose, we must achieve it. Am I wrong in thinking your attitude is not of one settling to her lot, but of one biding her time for a triumphant return to her lofty position?”

“While I am happy,” said Berulla, her eyes and smile shifting to Senek and Iola, “you are not entirely wrong, as my powers deserve a wider audience.”

“Your powers are as washed out as you are. When you see Alyana, do you not sense that you missed your moment? Are you not jealous of what she fulfilled?”

“She is a tyrant,” Berulla said, with a grimace of displeasure on her face.

“Something draconian burns in every tyrant, inspiring not only fear and moral outrage, but jealousy of their empires, thralls, and trophies. Their brute force is so unnatural that it seems not only monstrous, but magical.”

“You would have me admire the unnatural?” said Berulla.

“You should, for in her defiance of nature she is like you and me. Though I built my dollhouse, and you upscaled your monastery so much that one could say you built it with your own hand, no sooner did Alyana inherit your political base than she exploited it as capital, to acquire more power. Is she in earnest, though, or is it a political experiment?”

“Why call your hostage village a dollhouse?”

“Why call your political capital worshipers? It’s a way of dressing up your toys to beautify the ugly reality.”

“You presume too much, dragon. Under my leadership, the Corunans never plotted to usurp the prince or the king.”

“Take no offense, for I only answered your question.”

“With a question.”

“And you’re never known to do that, are you?”

“Why don’t we ride in quiet?”

Urgu’s response was to flounce into his cushion and kick his feet up onto Iola’s seat.

The guards slouched at their posts as the coach rolled free of the square.

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