Part II, Chapter 5: The Sacred Center and the Profane Peace
Since Urgu’s last tantrum burned swaths through the tulip fields and dried up Cjantosk’s tourist trade, those gazebos that were now charred now stood derelict, save for the Grand Gazebo, which the Corunan cabinet still used for a few open-air meetings in the Summer months. Mother Alyana waited in the Grand Gazebo with her most hard-bitten monks, all of whom concealed swords or axes under their robes. Induro stood beside Alyana, and on a freshly-painted white bench, Menelas quivered though the day was balmy.
“Where are Eleita and Vania?” demanded Alyana. Despite orange and yellow tulips blooming to her left, and their carriage horses grazing on new grass tufting through the blackened ground on her right, the Holy Mother’s mood contradicted the tableau.
“I do not know, Your Holiness,” said Induro, his brow furrowed deep. “They should be here.”
“If everyone did as they should, we could move on from did to done,” said Kanar. Despite the mild acidity of that remark, the wizard seemed serene and imperturbably calm as he played Corneo with the corpulent, brown-bearded Vituro, and the willowy, white-blonde Cylayni. Both apprentices wore sour scowls, and only Kanar seemed to enjoy the game.
“You could leave,” said Induro.
“Yes,” agreed Mother Alyana, “While you are vexed by waiting, your apprentices seem even-mannered and better suited for this simple transaction.”
“Of course not,” said the wizard, who smiled and seemed to take no umbrage at Alyana’s veiled insult. “I’ve taken longer turns than this, and I don’t mind playing through to the end.” When Alyana promised access to the monastery library in exchange for what only the wizard could provide, Kanar had quickly followed through on his promise. When Alyana’s eyes lingered on the wooden box, bound with rope, Kanar said, “for another such sum I could create an installation for the monastery.”
“You know that I must decline.”
“Do no theologians honor play or amusement?”
“Worship is our all.”
“Is that what we’re doing? Worshiping?” He chuckled.
“This is peace-making,” said Mother Alyana. “Peace is conducive to worship.”
“If the promise of peace brings Urgu here, why was my presence required?” asked the wizard.
“What are you insinuating?”
“Nothing,” said Kanar, raising his eyes. “I’m just trying to peek at your cards.”
She laughed. “you could never know my intent better than I do.”
“No, but I recognize a theme.”
“If you’re trying to offend the Holy Mother,” said Alyana, “use plainer language. You’ve missed several times.”
“Holiness, I craft games. If games have no theme, players have less motive for shuffling papers and pieces. What’s your motive for shuffling me around? Not worship or peace. You want something.”
Her face reddened. “It serves me right for pulling the wool over a wizard’s eyes. Also, I had thought you would not speak to me in this way.”
“I speak to the Prince this way. Even if I had no magic, I would still get away with it, for I am a known eccentric and my skills in my small field are legendary. I make diversions, and the rich crave diversions.”
“Since monks desire no distraction from their good works, why risk talking like that to me? As you implied, monks are humorless and do not play games.”
“Since you recommend caution, I decline your leading question. Also, he is coming.”
“There’s a glint in the clouds, and his shadow comes over the field. You’ll see him momentarily.”
Since witnessing Urgu’s flaying of festival-goers in the market square, it was all Mother Alyana could do to keep her seat, and not to shriek and flee when she glimpsed the soaring dragon, and when its vast, sinuous bulk overcast the gazebo, she crossed her arms over her shudder, though the shade thrown by the beast was warm. Its talons pinched a large wooden basket, which it lowered gently before alighting to the ground to send a quiver through the gazebo floor. The last stroke of its wings gusted dust and dry tulip petals before retracting to its sides.
As an older man, a young girl, and The Great Mother—Berulla, she reminded herself--- climbed over and down the walls of the basket. the dragon’s serpentine nail and neck retracted, and its coils contracted, seeming to compress Urgu into his ruddy-skinned, red maned human guise.
Urgu entered the gazebo ahead of his passengers, then bowed stiffly to Mother Alyana. “Your holiness.” He lilted the greeting, as if to emphasize it was for decorum only.
“Now that Urgu’s here, we can begin,” said Mother Alyana.
“Is he? What a delightful paradox,” laughed Kanar. “For while Urgu is here, the dragon is not. Though Urgu is not here in the flesh, since he’s changed his skin, we can’t deny he’s arrived in body and spirit.”
"A body and spirit,” muttered Vituro.
“That’s not a paradox,” said Cylayni. “That’s just a semantic game.”
“Don’t spoil it,” scowled Kanar. “Semantics is an unlovely word compared to paradox.”
“Forgive my not knowing the mode of address for dragons,” continued Mother Alyana.
“I won’t,” Urgu said emphatically. “Nor this buffoonery. It matters not, however, since you are not in my care.”
“I wanted to see this with my own eyes,” said Berulla. “An initiate one month, and Great Mother the next.”
“They call me Holy Mother. Out of deference to you, and hope for your return, no one calls me the Great Mother,” said Alyana.
“And here I am,” she said.
“Though your feet are on Cjantoskan soil,” said Alyana, “the dragon has not renounced his claim, Berulla.”
When Berulla’s eyes narrowed to hear her former initiate speak so informally, Alyana sat down next to Menelas and Induro joined her. Neither of Berulla’s former cabinet members looked at her.
“Won’t anyone introduce me?” asked Kanar. “Mr. Urgu, I was excited to hear of your interest in my games.”
“If I am civilized enough to take part in these table sports?”
"Civilized?There is no such thing. All the peoples of the world are divided into those who do or do not play games.”
Urgu laughed, a rich roar that belied his borrowed human form. “Though you may accept that lie yourself, it only holds true in the bite of your own intellect. Like a yapping dog, you love the sound of your own voice.”
The color drained from Kanar’s face, then flooded back as the wizard mastered his rage. “Let us cut right to the deal.”
“Within this airtight wooden tote are several of my games. It pleases me to know you will enjoy them and join my list of famous clientele.”
“Other than satisfaction,” said Urgu, “what else are you getting?”
While Kanar thought about taking the high road, the dragon didn’t miss a trick. “The monks will admit me to their library.”
“There’s nothing there for you, wizard,” the dragon said flatly. “Any spells have been mined.”
“I am satisfied with my magical lore,” countered Kanar. “and hope to find clues to ancient games.”
“Self-perceived holy people may not be too self-important to divert themselves with games between prayers, but they certainly wouldn’t write about it.”
“How would you know, and why do you care?”
“I’d like both my trade partners to be honest. If you’re deceiving yourself, or they’re deceiving you, that hidden agenda doesn’t bode well for the future of our endeavor.”
While not villainous enough for a cackle, Alyana’s snicker was pathologically long. “Settle your wings, dragon. Though your anxieties amuse me, we treat you with honor. Though your past aggressions give us cause to be underhanded, we seek only peace.”
“The ill treatment went all around, and as to honor, drop the act. I’m not giving you any chances, monk. Those who have every reason to do something, don’t have any reason to act opposite. Though I was in favor of this trade a moment ago, your cryptic speech annoys me, and now you must assure me that all cards are on the table.”
At the long pause, the other attendees of the parley shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“Though I wanted to broker it when peace was ascertained,” said Mother Alyana, “there was another object desired today. Not one of general interest, civic interest, or religious interest, but of special interest to myself.”
“What could that be, pray tell?”
“She who you brought with you.”
“Doesn’t she have a name?”
“You know she does. Berulla.”
“Considering your once respective stations, your request doesn’t seem entirely honest. Can you clarify your subject, to be certain that an innocent person doesn’t fall under my draconic gaze.”
She seethed. “The former Great Mother.”
“While I have no interest in making you squirm, I shall belabor until you understand. Since Berulla is in my custody, I not only bear power over her, but responsibility. If you intend to author her end, then in any exchange of favors I am more an agent of the executioner than an agent of peace. Though agent of death is not an unusual role for me, I resent your pigeonholing, as like all living things, I seek new forms.”
“What could she mean to you? Why keep her if she has no value?”
When the red-maned man shook with laughter, for a moment it seemed that the dragon’s mask slipped. “You can’t tell a dragon that what has no meaning has no value. While careless, despicable humans call trash that which doesn’t glitter with signification, dragons’ scales are just, and weigh all material things, not only what has meaning to us, but the meaningless, from trinket to trivia. Contrary to human logic, we assume meaninglessness only apparent and transitory, not intrinsic and permanent, and we ascribe measure to every note in the grand composition. To selfish humans, the world is a junk yard to salvage, but to dragons, it is a plenum rich with treasures. And as acquisition precedes understanding, the having of things can penetrate their mystery. But if you require me to justify keeping Berulla, consider her the centerpiece of my hostage collection, which I’ve curated with care and reflection.”
“That’s preposterous,” said Induro. “By this logic, we should retain every lint ball and broken oar.”
“Do you call your Great Mother a dust mouse or a rudder?” Urgu snickered.
“She’s not my Great Mother, though at one time I reverenced her. Do you reverence anything? I think not. If there is nothing profane to you, there is nothing sacred.”
“Would we not be blessed many times over if everything was holy? Forgive me, I am getting carried away with the joy of bantering. I shall answer you in truth. While dragons use a more scholarly mode of classification than the rude dichotomy of good and evil, there are some things that are so tedious that they give rise to the common proverb that if it tries your patience, burn it. I admit this aphorism isn’t representative of our best minds, and if I took this common sense approach, I would dissolve this false skin, burn the gazebo, melt your bodies, and incinerate what remained, for you sententious hypocrites test my patience severely, save the wizard, whose naivete amuses me.”
“Why rank Berulla so highly?” sneered Alyana.
“I pondered that at great length when I received your invitation. Handsome calligraphy, by the way.”
“That was Menelas.”
“While you are kind, Holy Mother,” said Menelas, “we both know it was my assistant.” Urgu ignored this exchange. “If a king’s ransom is seven times his weight in gold, how is he valued after assassination, abdication, or usurpation? If a virgin princess of legendary beauty mobilizes legions and ships navies, will they loiter or rout when she’s deflowered, disowned, or scarred? What is loyalty but satisfaction ransomed with a knapsack or cargo hold weighted with gold, and not true value? Human friendship is little better than this, with one party suffering from a poorer exchange rate, and resenting the friend they’ve kinged with their admiration. I nearly drowned swimming in this human thinking, and decided that I would follow the draconic adage that meaning moves lesser mortals, but a dragon’s heart seizes gold like a spark knows the light. Name a price, little Mother, and if I like it not, never raise the subject again for fear of your own destruction, the immolation of your faith, and the incineration of your city.”
Silence held sway as Mother Alyana chose her words. When she attempted to speak them gracefully, she stumbled on the reply: “Forgive me, Urgu. While it is my heart’s desire to have closure, I did not know my heart’s desire was deposited in so strong a bank. If you are willing to forget this subject, perhaps your asking price may come to me in a dream. Let us proceed to the matter at hand.”
“Though I am unpersuaded of your sincerity, blame my long-held prejudice that humans have a lying tone. Get in the basket,” Urgu growled. Alyana was so startled by the potency of the dragon’s command that her backside raised a few inches from the bench; when she noted his gesture to Berulla and her companions, Alyana sank back to her seat.
Urgu continued, “As to our negotiations, they are already decided. You persuaded Kanar to yield fabulous treasures, which I am excited to enjoy. Meticulously designed, hand crafted, and magicked tabletop games are no doubt the most honest use of humans’ meager intellect. I am quite satisfied. You shall have your fifteen years of peace, after which I will entertain a similar bribe, given that an apprentice learns to rival their master’s art after the wizard’s departure.”
Kanar said, “as I am hale and strong, and not given to vices, I will be at that meeting, Urgu.”
“You think I meant metaphorical departure? Foolish human.” Though Urgu stepped into the tulips to shed his human form, and blossomed tail, neck, scales, claws, and snout, he did not judge the distance perfectly, and as the middle claw on his left foreleg stretched to full size, it impaled Induro. When Urgu snared the basket with his tail, and his right claw batted out to seize Kanar, the dead priest slid from the talon onto the gazebo’s floor, and blood spouted on the painted wood. Then the dragon slipped into the air.
They stared first at the dead priest, then at the dragon leaving with his prize. As Vituro and Cylayni were no war wizards, their first firebolts burned furious, but proved aimless, and their subsequent shots fizzled in the wake of the dragon’s increasing distance. When Alyana and Menelas regained their composure, they waved their hands to indicate that the wizards should stop.
“No,” said Menelas. “Better to lose the wizard than the peace.”
“If this newly minted treaty is real,” roared Vituro, then he blanched a little. “Holy Mother, forgive me.”
“With respect to her holiness, and reverence to our great city,” said Cylayni, “we will do as you say.” The apprentice panted from the exertion of expelling fire, and though she mastered herself with a few breaths, her composure was still wrecked—her ash-white complexion livid with rage, her lips drawn tight, and her nostrils shuddering. ″Though we will not attack, do not expect us to sit still as our master is abducted.”
“That is exactly what I expect,” said Mother Alyana.
Though Cylayni ’s eyebrows arched like striking cobras, she only said “Vituro, come with me.”
When the armed monks raised axes and swords, Cylayni opened her hand on a sphere of nebulous energy, which snapped like a soap bubble when the hilt of a sword struck her skull. When the apprentice slumped to her knees, another monk clubbed her with his axe handle, and she fell on her side.
“Make sure she isn’t dead,” said Alyana, “and restrain the other one. I wouldn’t want to dry up Cjantosk’s pool of wizards in one night.”