The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 2: Two-Faced Traps and Lucky Scrapes

“All genuflect.” Induro bore the passage of time on his ample belly.

Two under-acolytes swung bronze-handled double doors to admit pink-clad novices who cast white tulip petals to the winding carpet. When a drummer tapped pip pop pom pop pip pom, harpists and flutists played the opening strings of the uplifting hymn “Day Mothers All.” Three girls in white gowns lifted the train of Mother Alyana’s ceremonial red robe,

Tilonus was dressed in his black formal uniform, as well as a scarlet silken cape, black velvet gloves, epaulets of gold braid, and his ceremonial saber with ivory hilt and gold-plated cross guard and pommel. While he exuded opulence and confidence at the start of the hymn, they continued through all eight holy sestets—rhymed quatrains stacked on rhymed couplets, all in dactylic hexameter—and 576 sung syllables later, Cjantosk’s former Captain of the Guard seemed to sweat double, not only the thick perspiration that greased the lines of his face and clumped in his armpits, but his buttons, cuff-links and sword hilt moistened by the palms of his hands. The trial was about to begin. Not that Tilonus was on trial—he was the plaintiff, though reluctantly put up to it by the Prince. Forgiving Mother Alyana the lese majeste that occurred before her divine appointment would not set the right precedent. On the other hand, if he pursued it to its bitter end, forcing the Corunan matriarch to state in plainly understood words that their faith was above the King’s law, the Prince could take the self-evident treason before his father.

Since Coruna’s law co-ruled with the Kings’ law in Cjantosk, and each of the Twofold Courts held court at their own times, in their own places, and with equal primacy, every Cjantoskan royal and noble would like to revoke the age-old custom. Though a plaintiff would have had protection in the King’s court, the Mother might visit punishment on plaintiff and defendant at once, or the divine scrolls might prefer the apparently wicked defendant to the evidently innocent plaintiff, and Tilonus very much felt himself at the mercy of monastic dogma. Religious axioms often went unchallenged in either court, so goodness and kindness had little stock in Cjantosk compared to religiosity and zealotry. While Tilonus aspired not to be good, he believed moral obedience, not the approval of the goddess, the rightful ambition of the common man. Until peasants sought to please their human betters, goodness, kindness, and the other trappings of civilization would be at a low premium in Cjantosk.

To one unfamiliar with the butcher’s daughter as she had been, you might think Alyana twice her age, for not only was her youthful form covered head to toe, but her head was coiffed in a hood that covered brow, cheekbones, and chin, with only a triangle cut away to reveal eyes, nose, and mouth. As the last ten women that held the holy throne ran to gray, Alyana’s bright red hair might have mocked the exalted office. That said, her blazing, unkempt eyebrows were unrestrained, and those tiny shocks of red contrasted with the grayed heads next to her, as she sat nearly shoulder to shoulder with Induro, Menelas, and Vania. Eleita was not yet gray, but her face was lined with the stress of her new position as the librarian, and perhaps the grief of an unfulfilled vow.

Tilonus steeled himself to his unpleasant task. No matter how many layers and wrappings they threw on her, Alyana would remain the ill-mannered hooligan that owed her rank to being in the right place at the right time.

“Sacred Scribe, tell our brethren of the case tried today.”

“Holy Mother, this is Captain Tilonus vs. Under-acolyte Alyana.”

Tilonus made a long show of clearing his throat and coughing, so that it was impossible for Menelas to proceed with the matter before them, though he assayed it three times, and each time was interrupted by another rasping hack of displeasure or sarcastic harumph.

“Holy Mother, the plaintiff wants to speak.”

“Is that so, Captain?”

“Yes, Holy Mother. As I am well aware of your promotion in the monastery’s ranks, these charges that assume a different legal identity from the one I hold responsible are a ridiculous subterfuge.”

“You mean myself?”

“Indeed. Since under-acolyte Alyana has become Mother Alyana, I would be as much a fool to prosecute a fiction as I would be to tender a case against a past plaintiff, rather than the present.”

“You labor under misconceptions. The monastery has no rank and file, as we are all sisters and brothers serving Coruna.”

“And some sit in better chairs,” Tilonus’ cough had dried into a raspy titter.

“Allow me to ease your apprehensions,” said Mother Alyana. “Whether our traditions consider Under-acolyte Alyana and Mother Alyana the same, we would rather advance divine law than retreat behind that fiction.” This set the courtroom to murmurs and whispers, as many believed the Holy Mother, would dispose of this postponed case with the plainest legal expediency; instead, she appeared to relish this moment, as if she had savored the idea for several years.

The monastic court had no intercessors. After plaintiff and defendant spoke their own mind, the council conferred openly, then ruled unanimously, As it was understood that the Holy Mother and her cabinet must render a unanimous verdict, mistrials did not happen, and as it could not be imagined that having failed to persuade their holy regent of a reasonable course of action, the cabinet would not in the end give their reluctant assent to an immoderate one, justice was dictated as the Holy Mother decreed.

Tilonus was under no illusions as to the council’s inevitable answer. While Tilonus demanded justice, he did not expect it, hence his reluctance to submit Alyana, despite that his lost cause was the preferred outcome to the Prince and the King, so that they would have a pretext to urge the aristocracy to take action against the clergy.

Tilonus presented first. Accustomed to brushing off others’ inquiries of that day, as Tilonus did not want it common knowledge that he was beat and chased by a young woman, Tilonus took this opportunity to vent, tongue-lashing not just Alyana, but Urgu, the riotous, monkish rabble, and the Corunan religion, whom he accused, in a spittle-laced polemic, of being both too permissive and too severe, even lambasting the Day of the Divine Wells, calling it “a pretense for masked, animal mating, in which Cjantosk apes its two-faced divinity and her promiscuous flood of consorts.” It was the kind of secular scolding heard from wizened atheists that not only have never feared god, but had their fear of man swallowed by their advanced age.

Though Alyana could care less what Tilonus thought, and the cabinet had heard worse over the decades, the council was incensed by Tilonus, and she wondered at his game. It was as if Tilonus played the part of a suicidal demagogue who exhorted the mob to spill his own blood. Though she did not want a riot in her own court, her temporal power relied on her cabinet, who were drowned out by his deafening rant, and her own voice was so small that she could only wait him out, hoping he might exhaust his vocal chords.

As his unrelenting rant intensified, he played to his audience, exaggerating every detail like a born comedian, and when Alyana was among the lampooned, she reddened, less from embarrassment than fury that Tilonus brushed past his part in Ezelia’s death. Despite this anger, she felt the fervor of his words as if it were her own, for she desired justice against those who had slain Ezelia, and it was inarguable that they had showed the lack of restraint of which he accused them. What exacerbated this sense of injustice was that a few of her mother’s slayers were in the indignant council, despite her efforts to frustrate their promotions. But though she would never forget their faces, it was Tilonus’s smug face that she dreamed of striking.

What emboldened her to interrupt was the realization that just as she revisited her mother’s death many times, Tilonus also relived that day from the selfish perspective of his own petty grievances, and he sought not justice for Ezelia, but satisfaction for his own minor injuries and the slight on his honor.

“Yes, yes, yes.” When Mother Alyana shouted over him, all faces turned. “The court hears your complaint, and compensates you for the egregious assault on your person. Menelas, record a two hundred coin debit to satisfy the plaintiff.” The murmurs intensified. “As to the damage to your honor, though reputation is ephemeral and as hard to measure as the finer points of theology, the court is impressed with your bravery. As you have no qualms about persecuting me for a scuffle when you participated in my mother’s murder seconds before, some might say foolhardy or brazen.”

“While the Goddess does not count it a crime to kill a blasphemer, your mother spoke the profane words, and I merely held her fast so that she did not escape your monks.”

“Blasphemy is open to interpretation, but not by you. For a lay worshiper to interpret the scrolls is also blasphemy.”

“Would you order me struck down?” Tilonus asked, taken aback.

“Why, will you hold yourself fast?”

After a long pause, Tilonus said “Holy Mother, forgive my impertinence. I have voiced my complaint, and yours is the judgment.”

Alyana glared until his eyes turned downward. then said, “Councilors, speak.”

Vania spoke first. “Unless we kill every rich fool, I advise clemency.”

“Clemency is not for plaintiffs.” Eleita’s world-weary look said that she had studied for this day, though the succinct but bookish remark seemed less the observation of a trained mind but the natural dividend of her torturous investment into her new role as the librarian. It was as if the books talked over the monk.

“Forgive me,” said Vania. “I misspoke. Holy mother, I advise mercy. We’re no angry mob, but a learned court.”

Menelas opined, “Holy mother, do as your heart instructs, as you will live with the precedent established today.”

Alyana scoffed. “Your sage council is ‘do what I want?’ As I’m certain to do that anyway, you’re just hedging your bets. I’ll be damned if I make you look good when I do as I please. Advise me in truth or recuse yourself, scribe.”

Tilonus was white-lipped with fear and fury. Not only did he shiver to hear the cabinet decide his fate, but he was enraged that their attention was not on his humiliation but on a line he crossed in his legal argument. His trembling hand found the hilt of his sword, though it was a cold comfort when all the doors and the cabinet were flanked by armored monks.

Induro muttered, “do nothing, your holiness.”

Alyana snickered. “Is that your wisest counsel?”

“Yes it is,” he said, sotto voce, so that only the cabinet, Tilnous, and the first row of the council could hear. “And here’s why. Stoning him invites civil war, clapping him in irons makes us cowards, and any smaller spite begs for like treatment.”

“If he deserves to die,” she fumed, “and it is in my power, then he should die.”

“There are ways,” he said, “and there are ways. I said do nothing, I did not say not to act. Let him leave with his coin.”

While Alyana mulled it over, silence roared in the courtroom for long minutes: council members shifted in their seats, coughed, and adjusted the folds of their gowns; benches creaked, Eleita poured and loudly gulped a glass of water, and the most dissonant rustle in the quiet was the susurrus of Menelas’s scribbling. When Alyana stood, gathered the train of her robes in her fists, and stormed towards the door, the armored acolytes hastened to open it, and her novices followed, thinning out the crowd in the council chamber.

Induro said, “Menelas, note the Holy Mother’s verdict. Captain Tilonus, you’ll receive your judgment shortly.”

“At your leisure, of course.” Though Tilonus intended airs of magnanimity, he sounded hollow, as if the Holy Court deflated his arrogance. To avoid the exiting crowd, he left by the side doors, ignoring the outcries of the cabinet and councilors, and after turning right, then left, in an attempt to double back to the main corridor in advance of the crowd, entered a hall hung with unimaginably debauched deeds woven in the most lurid colors.

Though Tilonus treated his guardsmen several times to his favorite brothel, this hallway’s outre, lascivious tapestries were in such a solemn, sacred style that his flesh crawled, and his fear of Alyana was occulted by a sublime terror of the Corunans. While he admired the dark spirit of these images in spite of himself, hypocrisy’s twofold ambiguities were too twisted for his sincerely moral mind to unravel. Not that Tilonus was sincerely good; on the contrary, he knew himself to be evil. However, while there is a world of difference between those that know themselves to be good and those that know themselves to be evil, they inhabit the same moral universe, of absolutes and opposites, of right and wrong, of dualism and dialectic. Though Tilonus took pride in his sins, and did not excuse them, he would never make holy icons of his gratification. To see the Corunans were not only relativists, but polished their fusion of the sacred and the profane into a slick heaven of their own fancy, was an abomination to a simpler mind, and Tilonus knew then that he despised the two-faced pretenders to the holy. Finally, the Corunans had revealed themselves worthy of being crushed by his heel.

Lacking that power at this juncture, the Captain barged between the burly monks guarding the entrance to the sacred hall, darted through the crowd milling in the entryway, then shoved the heavy oaken doors to step into the light of day.

When Tilonus realized he was babbling to himself, he stopped, but continued to think in babble such tautologies as good is good, evil is evil, life is life, death is death, the dead die, the living live, the good die, the good live, the wicked die, the wicked live, life is death, death is life, good is evil, evil is good.

“Stop the blasphemer! He has seen the mysteries!” Tilonus did not need to turn his head. As he ran, he started panting almost immediately, for his old body was winded that morning just by donning his armor. But as he panted, he laughed, feeling himself newborn in the relief that someone glimpsed the evil buried in his heart. Not that these ninnies would know his evil if they saw it. He would be damned if these illusion-mongers would judge him by their meaningless scrolls, slay him for seeing them clearly, and make him another woven window into their double-dealing marketplace of desires.

Hearing hoof beats, he unsheathed his sword, cut a passing rider’s saddle, shoved him to the ground, saddle and all, swiveled onto the horse’s back, pulled cruelly at the reins, and kicked the beast into a gallop.

“Stop him!”

When three peasant alms-bearers grabbed at his legs, Tilonus slashed the hands and the blade flowed red. For a minute, the screams was all he heard, but when hoofbeats drowned out the wounded wretches, he knew the monks still followed, and kicked and struck the horse with the sword’s hilt, prodding for what would make this horse sprint. Though he knew not this horse, the horse knew not its way, and he had no saddle, Tilonus had lived a quarter of his life on horseback, and soon stretched his lead, so that they were a few hundred feet behind him when he arrived at his manor.

Though Tilonus did not know the standing guard’s name, the man hastily unbarred the entrance for his master. “Quickly, man,” yelled Tilonus, “close it again,” and upon dismounting, he helped the guard fasten the gate.

When one monk made as if to throw his spear between the bars, another struck him, saying, “fool! Will you leave your weapon on the grounds for the prince to see?” When this leader turned his horse towards the way they came, the others followed in a brisk gait.

“What is your name?” Tilonus asked the guard.

“Krunyr, my lord.”

“Krunyr, round up those in the barracks and on the grounds, armor and arm yourselves, and meet me in front of the stables.”

“Yes, my lord.”

For twenty-five minutes, Tilonus’s estate swarmed with guards donning armor, girding weapons, and saddling their horses. Tilonus then surveyed his troops, and commanded them to correct every mark of slovenliness or disorderliness. Thinking he may not be the first to make his case, he would at least make the finest presentation to the prince.

Two courts in one day, mused Tilonus. While he didn’t believe in divine concurrence, he did believe in secular superstitions like astrology, numerology and luck, and began to think an unlucky day had befallen him.

Though the royal estate’s public wing was closing for the evening, including the throne room, the court room, the tea room, and the gallery, Tilonus was gratified to find the prince still in his royal seat, and strode down the carpet puffed up by the feeling that he had bettered his enemy that day, not only in his escape, but in the blood he spilled, and now in this proud display before the prince. “Your highness,” he said, “I bring news.”

When the monumentally obese prince raised his head, which was tremulously weighted with several chins, the effort looked very grave, so it was all the more surprising when his voice was young and strong. “Oh, Tilonus. Tell me tomorrow, after breakfast.”

“Your highness, this pertains to our earlier meeting,” said Tilonus, eyeing the clerical staff that may or may not have been let in on their liege’s conspiracy.

“Can’t it keep?”

“Don’t you remember what day it is?”

“Rude,” said the prince, wrinkling his brow. “Of course I do. And I’ll remember tomorrow.”

“Your highness,” Tilonus started, when a Crown Guard sprinted nearly the full length of the room, though he slowed to a march at the very end, stamping his feet and the pole of his halberd when he came to rest. Though the guard’s wide eyes bespoke some alarm already, he waited until the prince’s unsteady head bobbed in his direction before blurting, “your highness, they’re at the door!”

The Prince paused, as if absorbing the guard’s panic and exhaustion. “Good man,” the Prince started, “you’re in my castle. There’s no reason to fear.”

“No, your highness,” said the guard.

“No?”

“I mean yes, your highness,” said the guard. “I’m not afraid.”

“Then tell me, lieutenant,” said the prince, “the reason for your outburst.”

“There are monks at the gate.”

“Give them alms,” said the prince. “Do not interrupt me again.”

“Hundreds.”

“That seems steep, but if it is for a good cause...”

“No, my liege. Hundreds of monks.”

“Did you interrupt me?”

“Surely not, your highness.”

“Surely not hundreds of monks, either,” said the prince.

“At first, I thought it the whole religion,” said the guard. “Your higness, they’re screaming for him.” He pointed at Captain Tilonus.

“Is that what you meant!” said the Prince, laughing at Tilonus, a fruity big bellied laugh that made Tilonus queasy, for though the Prince was shining with glee, he sounded hollow, like a glass figurine holding light that yields nothingness when shattered.

“Yes, that!” snapped Tilonus, “Your highness, not only was I denied justice, but my defense was deemed blasphemy.”

“Did you outrace the stones, or do monks have poor throwing arms?”

“Your highness, do you make light of my inconvenience?”

“Tilonus, don’t take this the wrong way,” the Prince said, “but your death would have made an excellent pretext for war on the monks.” The Prince’s wide, unctuous smile and eyes wet with laughter offended the Captain of the Guards so much that he began to think usurping thoughts; in fact, his thoughts were so full of usurpationthat he cupped the pommel of his sword and tapped his fingers on it lightly.

“If my escape disappointed you, you’ll be pleased that they seek my death for stepping in the wrong hallway.”

“Which verse does that transgress?” scowled the Prince.

“Those that implore not to let outsiders see the abhorrent heart of their two-faced goddess: ritual murder, ritual crime--every depravity, sanctified.”

“Guardsmen. Help me up,” said The Prince. When they helped their Prince lumber to his feet, he said, “show me this rabble.” Propped on the two guardsmen, he walked the length of the throne room, wincing occasionally during a voluminous roll so slow that fog drifted faster.

At the doors, the guardsmen paused to let the Prince catch his breath. then continued into the great hall that led to the north tower, where the narrow steps were nearly too tight a squeeze for the prince alone, and the two guardsmen ascended behind him, both propping and pushing with their shoulders squared against the royal posterior. When the Prince’s shadow blotted the stairwell, Tilonus feared to stand behind them, and gave them a respectful margin before ascending.

On the third floor, the Prince heaved and shuddered as he leaned into the wall while the guardsmen unlocked the door to the gatehouse roof. Once they again took their crutch positions, they helped him to the wall, where the prince leaned on the ledge of an embrasure. When the prince’s head bobbed, and his shoulders sagged, Tilonus thought the prince might topple to the ground below and satisfy the monks’ taste for blood, but the prince only fought to catch his breath, and was perhaps startled by what he saw.

It was as if the monastery tipped, spilling human waves to pool at the prince’s gates, and those numbers, which could not be guessed since the throng wrapped around the castle both ways, were swelled with hundreds of lay worshipers from Cjantosk. Many bore quarterstaves, and all were wrapped in plain, brown traveling robes that could have concealed knives, swords, or even crossbows.

The Prince was not equipped for the sight of an angry religious mob. His father’s prosperous and peaceful reign had prepared him for happy rabble, and he had become so moribund through meeting these low expectations, though he had obtained a reputation for wisdom through the application of common sense in the court room and through wit borowed from wide reading. “Back! Take me back!“, he shouted, then pushed aside the guards as if his words had no meaning. Despite the great alarm that inspired him to flee without the benefit of his human crutches, in his quaking descent he rocked back and forth and side to side, but could not increase his ponderous forward momentum. “Captain Tilonus,” he called, puffing.

“Your highness.”

“Your thoughts.”

“Arm the battlements,” said Tilonus. “We have not the men to disperse that crowd.”

“No, Tilonus. Your thoughts on escaping this castle.”

“Your highness,” said Tilonus, adopting a sanctimonious tone, “my duty is to the King and the royal family, including your high and exalted person.”

“Imbecile,” gasped the prince. “What are your thoughts on effecting my escape from this castle?”

Tilonus’s first thought was to say that they didn’t have the manpower to bear the prince away either.

“Your escape, highness? You needn’t fear. Without engines of war, they can’t breach our walls.”

“Pretend it’s your duty to answer me, Tilonus. Oh, that’s right—it is.” The Prince seemed tipsy with rancor. “Which is the proper reward for your services, Tilonus? Feeding you to the mob, or letting you tame this rabble while I attend to royal duties?”

Not for the first time, Tilonus wondered if the guards would help him usurp the throne. As always, what answered his question was the realization they hated him more than the prince.

“I live to serve, my liege. You need not concern yourself with the details, as the reins of your escape are in my hands.” Though Tilonus infused his tone with as much sugar as he could, it came out bitter as black coffee. Coffee. On the battlefield, he had killed to appropriate a shipment of coffee from the capitol, and he would have literally killed for it now. “You,” he said to the guardsmen holding up their corpulent Prince, “if the rear gates are not clogged by monks, effect the prince’s escape. If you find a few, cut them down, and then effect the prince’s escape. If a congregation bars the way, and you deem them killable, kill them, then effect the prince’s escape. If you deem them unkillable, escort the Prince to the throne room and lock the doors.”

As the Prince and his guards lumbered off like a three-legged behemoth, Tilonus beckoned a lithe, small-featured guard with nimble eyes. Though he had a most un-guardlike build, the prince required a literate guard in his personal retainer, as well as one that would satisfy the prince’s other requirements, suspected Tilonus.

“Krunyr,” he said, “meet me at the north gate with apot of coffee.”

In minutes, Captain Tilonus stood alone in a castle besieged by zealots that wanted only to stone him to death. Stepping back into the tower, he took the steps to the sixth floor. Finding the door to the battlements locked from the other side, he continued to the eighth floor, then propped open the stepladder there to push through the trap door to the conical roof.

Tilonus had survived battles in part by learning the trick of banishing thoughts of injury or death, but as he breached a door used only by workmen to sway in his unbalanced armor on a steeply slanting roof he felt queasier than he had on any battleground. While it was a ninety foot drop to the ground below, to his left the battlements were only twenty feet below. Though as a young man he might have risked hanging from the tower roof to cut the drop to fourteen feet, he took one look and went back in the tower.

Though the eighth floor had become part attic, with dented armor pieces, crates of old dishes, silverware, and the prince’s retired evening gowns, there was nothing helpful in the bric-a-brac. So he dragged a mattress from the seventh floor barracks up the steps, where he strained to fold and shove it through the eighth floor window. Though satisfied when it landed on the battlement, he could not follow it out the window without hazarding a head first landing, so he returned through the trap door to the conical roof, where he dangled over the mattress. Fearing to land feet first as well, he pushed against the wall as he let go, hoping to land on his back so that the mattress might absorb most of the distributed impact, and his armor take the rest.

The mattress hit back as solid as stone, rattling him head to toe. Though a tooth chipped, he tasted blood, and his shaking hands slipped three times as he tried to push himself off the mattress, when he finally stood, he felt none the worse for wear. He then trotted several hundred feet over the battlement to the southeast tower, where the door was locked, but the key still in the lock. He thanked his luck for this one small favor, then put on his most steel-eyed face, hoping to deflect any inquiries from the guardsmen inside by virtue of his high position.

When he stepped into the southeast barracks, two dressed-down guards sprang from a game of Chavoru to a salute, but he descended the stairs without acknowledgment. Though this would be his last day as Captain of the Guards, it irked him to see their breastplates in pieces on the bunks and not properly racked, an offense for which he had fined these men only last week. Which is not to say that if he were here tomorrow they would not each receive twenty lashes for dereliction of duty during the monks’ demonstration. Knowing that it was now someone else’s problem, that this was his last, stinging scent of barracks sweat, put spring in his step until he arrived at the third floor door. For with the gates watched by the monks, no windows or embrasures lower than the third floor, and the towers’ entrances facing the interior yard, this requisition room was his exit. No sooner did the aged clerk sway to a shaky salute than Tilonus ordered him out of the room, then dragged the desk to brace it against the door.

After Tilonus took off his armor, weapons, and boots, he backed out the window, holding onto the ledge until his bare feet found the mortar lines between the tower stones. Though he told himself it was only twenty-five feet, when he slid his hand down to pinch the trace outline of a brick, he lost his nerve—and his grip. This was when his coward’s reflexes did him credit, and his luck spent it. For in the split-second before the fall, and he leaned into the wall, squeezing and straddling the tower as he scraped down the stone to tumble to the ground, scratched, battered, and bruised, but not too broken to walk away.

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