The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Chapter 5: Tapestry Road

When the cracked wood echoed at Eleita’s knock, dogs barked and scratched at the door. She waited, then waited some more. She knocked again, then knocked some more.

“Down, mutts! Who is it,” The dogs whined as the deadbolt clicked back. The butcher was still in her night clothes. “You? What priestess gets up this early on a workday? Come in.”

“Thank you. Though I shouldn’t bother you at this hour, the goddess wills it.” When the butcher lighted the firebox of her brick oven, then set a copper kettle on, Eleita continued. “Although it’s not the reason for my visit, I wanted to thank you properly for all your help.”

“I’m surprised to hear it, as I got the truth out of Alyana about what a thorn she was. Not that I’m sorry, as those bandits are a rot on our community. Not that I’m proud of her, either.”

“‘Thorns wound the careless for their misdeeds, but remind the faithful of their vows,’ Eleita quoted. “Which describes not only Alyana, but my reason for coming today. Can I talk to her?”

“You might. Might I ask why?”

“Her conviction impressed The Great Mother, who extends an invitation for your daughter to become acquainted with our mission and ministry.”

“I feared as much. You’d take my good right arm? My only child with any sense? No. Get on with you.”

“Your daughter is of age, is she not? Do you deprive her of this grand calling?”

When the butcher’s youngest pulled in a wheeled, wooden dog, painted red and yellow, he looked at Eleita and she smiled back.

“Maybe he’ll be more help,” said the monk. “Where’s your sister? Is she working?”

“Don’t speak to her!” exclaimed the butcher. “Yes, Alyana is working. Though I’m not the praying sort, and don’t claim to know what is right or certain, I think she’ll have the good sense to say no to a monkish life. If you are grateful, leave her be.”

“Though The Goddess acknowledges the risk you took, you should be grateful. Though your coin and children were returned to you, Coruna wishes to pay you in spiritual coin--your daughter’s enlightenment.”

“Yes, we’re brimming with miracles, such as being so angry I could spit nails. Get out.”

Eleita stood and curtsied, then left the door open behind her. When she passed too close to the butcher’s pen, her boots and hem were muddied. There were pigs feeding, piglets wrestling in the mud, and pigs sleeping in the sun, which occasionally peeked through heavy clouds. There were more pigs than should be allowed.

Though the shop’s back door was open, Eleita thought it too presumptuous to use if the butcher thought her a child thief, and she headed for the front door.

In the alley between the butcher’s and the coffee house, a boy looked straight at Eleita, as if he had something to tell her, then ran around the front of the coffee house. Though Eleita was curious, she ignored the boy and entered the butcher’s, where she was the last in a line of wives, restaurateurs, butlers, and the stewards of other kitchens, all clamoring for beef, pork, lamb, and bacon. While generally Eleita didn’t mind waiting her turn, she felt that the invitation from The Great Mother outranked the shopping lists of those in front of her, and walked to the head of the line.

“Well met, Alyana!”

“Eleita! Hi!”

“I bring a message,” said the monk.

“A message? What is it? From who?”

“It’s for your ears only.”

“Have a seat, and we can talk when I kill the line.” She handed a finished order over the counter, then started wrapping a pork shoulder for another customer.

Though Eleita moved to the back of the line, she did not sit in the benches, but stood, statue-still and statue-silent, as she waited for Alyana. Watching the younger woman hack at the gore, she wondered how many wounds Mank had felt before a blow tore dead flesh. While some slashes were murder, others only butchered his corpse, for four of his seventeen sword wounds would each have been enough to kill him. As there were countless contusions from kicks after he fell, Eleita could only hope the first mortal wound killed him, and not the fourth. While this train of thought usually led to melancholy, today was different, perhaps because Mank’s death was receding in memory, whereas the punishment of the bandits was fresh. When she was jubilant that the bandits suffered for their butchery, and she was inspired by ways they might be further scourged, she stifled the unseemly and unsettling exhilaration, which could only lead to self-condemnation or insanity. Having counseled more than one murderess that joined the monastery expecting absolution, only to find not a shelter for sinners, but a trying ground, Eleita knew that the wicked forgave themselves much easier than Coruna, and thinking themselves clean, were prone to heaping on sins of pride and sanctimonious judgment. By comparison, more innocent novitiates, such as Wencia, were clean scrolls upon which the goddess wrote her will. In the commentary on the Corunan sacred scrolls, past theologians had divided the monks into those that were burdens, and those that were gifts. Which one was Alyana, The Great Mother wondered. Had the butcher’s daughter intended Norrik’s death—in which case she already owed a debt to the Goddess, the letter of which would be paid—or did she became the edge of Coruna’s sword in that moment, and work the divine will?

“I’m ready,” When the last customer in line made their purchase, Alyana stepped away from the counter. Her younger brother and sister continued to chop and wrap parcels. “Ensen and Luru can manage from here.”

“Are you sure,” asked Eleita. “Your mother says you’re indispensable.”

“I hear that every day—when I mention changing my life, and when Ensen runs the till.”

“Maybe you are meant for more. For a higher calling.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“Is it, Alyana? Are you meant to be a butcher? Are you like your mother?”

“I can only hope. She is so much more than me. But though I am my mother’s child, I have always wanted something for myself alone, if that’s what you mean. Something mine. Something new.”

“Nothing is new, Alyana. Most are happy to do their duty, or if they hear the Goddess, what they feel is noble or good. Will you be happy selling pig flesh, raising a family, serving the Goddess, or living by some undiscovered talent? With your adventurer’s feet and head for counting coin, you could be a renowned traveling merchant, and accumulate fabulous wealth.”

“I’ve had little time to daydream, as when I’m not sleeping, eating, or working—no, that’s it, that sums me up. That’s why I wanted to help you with your vow.”

“You could come with me now and find your own purpose.”

“Though I don’t know my own wishes very well, I’m not pining to be a monk. My life is hard, but you know the saying—better the devil you know than the god you don’t.”

“Would you at least speak with The Great Mother?”

When the shop door opened. the butcher glared at them both. “If you go, I won’t see you again.”

“Mama, we see monks and priestesses all the time.”

“And f I do see you, you’ll be one of them. Months from now, after your initiation, when I finally do see you, it won’t be you.”

“What would you have me do? It would be rude not to go, since The Great Mother herself invited me.”

“Go then, but not with my blessing. Not that you haven’t done alright without it. When you’re a high elder and I’m petitioning for last rites, remember that I’ve done good by you.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” said Alyana. “I’ll be back tonight to cure the bacon.”

The butcher’s reply was to look down and begin slicing cuts of ham.

***

Eleita and Alyana walked in silence. Seeing the boy from the alley, shining the boots of the coffee shop’s well-to-do patrons, Eleita asked, “Do you know him?”

“From time to time, I see him shining boots as he’s doing now. He has one pair of pants, and wears one of two different shirts; otherwise, boot-brushes may be all that boy has.”

“That’s unfortunate,” said the priestess, not as if she sympathized, but as if it was a statement of fact. One with so little must be unfortunate, whether in her eyes, or those of the Goddess.

“What does Coruna say about the poor?” asked Alyana.

“That’s a good question to ask The Great Mother.”

“Don’t you know what Coruna says about this or that? Wise men of other faiths usually can’t wait to hit me with a practiced verse.”

“Even a monk may not become overly familiar with the sacred verses. Our scrolls are divine mysteries that The Great Mother reveals verse by verse throughout the holy calendar.”

“That wouldn’t satisfy me.”

“There is more to life than satisfaction. Before the dragon, many thought themselves satisfied. Now that discontent echoes in the streets, we can see that satisfaction is like other illusions, a mirage that fades--in this case, the narcotic effect of material goods.”

“Other than enjoying your work and the love of friends, what else is there to a happy life but the joy of a hot ham, a cold beer, or clean sheets?”

“Did you not feel the brush of a higher purpose when your knife cut the bandit’s throat?”

“What do you mean? How could it? I didn’t wield the blade.”

“Could that not have been you, instead of Wencia?”

At first Alyana did not respond, and when they passed one city block, and then another, the monk did not prod her. After several minutes, the butcher’s daughter said, “I thought about killing Norrik. Though I knew it was wrong, it seemed necessary. We didn’t have enough horses, and couldn’t trust a strong and capable criminal to ride double. With him on foot, we were slowed down, and if we let him go, retribution would reach us before we reached Cjantosk. But though I kill pigs and cattle by trade, it is different to kill a man.”

“Is it?” asked Eleita. “My duties require me to attend to the dying. When you kill a pig or cow, does the light fade from their eyes? Do you hear the suspiration of their final breath?”

“Yes, and yes. But I haven’t argued with a pig about whether a man is good enough for me, like I have with my mother.”

“They don’t talk, but do they cry out?”

“Is it your duty to question my vocation? My life choices?”

“Forgive me. I can be bull-headed. I was still arguing that it is not that different to kill a man.”

“You’re a holy woman!”

“I’m a devoted woman, no holier than you.” They crossed a stone bridge over a narrow, rapid stream. No more than twenty feet across, this untrafficked tributary of the Peachwine was so deathly fast that its waters churned white. “But I know my place and my purpose. Do you?”

Alyana considered this, then said, “that’s why I’m coming to hear out The Great Mother.” The young woman’s voice was soft but clear like a stage whisper. With no one else in earshot, it could only be that she feared hearing the truth herself.

“That’s good. If you were older, you’d be blinded by wickedness—or goodness—and unteachable.”

“It goes without saying that wickedness is bad, but goodness as well?”

“You’re putting words in my mouth. If it is Coruna’s will, your gift for turning an argument could be turned to serve her ends.”

“If I’m teachable, you mean.”

“If you’re devoted.”

In city blocks blasted and charcoal stained by dragon fire, paint peeled from charred buildings, and smoke smell lingered. But the charred ones were the lucky ones--some buildings were wooden skeletons, and others were ashes. From black tents damp with dew came the clamor of displaced families making do: the clatter of pots, the scent of coffee, burnt toast, and roasted meat, and the backtalk and singsong of children.

“Why now?” asked Alyana. “Look at them. How will conversation, introspection, or speculation help them? If I have time outside of my labors, is it better to sit at the feet of The Great Mother or help these poor people?”

“Giving them purpose would serve them better, and teaching them to serve the Goddess would serve them best.”

“With all that was taken from them, you’d take their liberty too?”

“It is not what we have, but what we do, that makes us what we are. We become wicked through wrong action, and righteous through right action. The wealthy become penurious by counting money or charitable by adding up good deeds; the poor will also run crooked given the wrong direction, or become blessed on the divine path.”

When the sun fell on the tulip fields, their reds, pinks, yellows, and purples tinted the mid-morning sky, but today their hues were subdued by melancholy patches of grass where hungry townspeople had picked blooms to sell for coin. Though Urgu had spared them, the luxurious fields, that were both the pride of Cjantosk and a tourist attraction that drew travelers from across the realms, were thinned to two thirds their former glory.

“Unbelievable,” murmured Alyana. “Who will come to see the beauty of Cjantosk if we cut it to buy bread?”

“Rumors of dragons no doubt cowed most of the tourists,” said Eleita matter-of-factly.

“Rumor? The dragon is a fact.”

“Is It? I think the dragon’s more lively than a fact.”

“That makes no sense. If the dragon isn’t a fact, it isn’t real.”

“Histories walk like giants over the ages, crushing truths and lies under foot.”

“What does that mean?”

“Realities need readers. Facts die when rumors are believed.”

“Are there no facts?”

“Show me a fact, and I’ll show you a believer.”

“Your point of view isn’t just eccentric, it’s unnatural. Could those left homeless by Urgu live their lives by that?”

“I see. You’ve never taken a leap of faith.”

“Only twice. The other day, when I knew I must accompany you into the woods, and today, leaving a day’s work to hear out The Great Mother. I could have gone my whole life not thinking myself important enough to be noticed by The Great Mother.”

After leading Alyana through the gate into the vestibule, Eleita bowed to two other monks in resplendent ceremonial garb. Golden sashes were draped over the shoulders of their white gowns, and their collars were thick, ruffled stacks of silk.

“Sister Eleita,” said one of the monks, “we were instructed to wait for you. We will escort The Great Mother’s guest.”

“Thank you,” said Eleita, bowing to the monks. When she turned to Alyana, the younger woman could see a hint of a frown as she said, “Forgive me, Alyana. Though I would like to continue this conversation, I have many duties before today’s rite, for which I’m not yet even properly dressed.

“Today’s rite? What’s today?” asked Alyana, but as Eleita walked down the corridor, there was no sign she had heard—aside from the monk’s great haste in her departure.

“You’re late,” said one of the monks, a short woman of imposing breadth. Her thickness, combined with a white gold ceremonial cowl which jutted inches above her scalp to flare over her brow, then swoop down over her eyes, made her seem much taller. Her companion, whose small features were nearly obscured by the cowl, was also so slender that Alyana could not determine if the monk was man or woman.

As Alyana followed the monks through the monastery, so preoccupied was she by her conversation with Eleita that she took no notice of their bearing. Corridor snaked after corridor, at first hung with innocuous, brightly colored tapestries depicting benevolent Coruna, with the sun as her halo, bestowing rays of light, rain, and the holy fire of her benedictions on her creation and its people. Many also depicted her consorts and believers clothed in white aura. While most depicted mythical events, and some were set in the land of the gods, others depicted local events in historical Cjantosk, including one she recognized immediately as the reverse of the Cjantoskan flag, which depicted Coruna descending from heaven, signified by clouds rolling aside like scrolls, to bless the settlers of Cjantosk. Though she saw this image daily, she never knew its inspiration hung on the monastery wall, twenty times the size of the flags that flew from the city walls.

Alyana stopped in front of a tapestry that pictured Urgu flying over a patchwork of city and dragonfire.

“We’re still late,” said the heavyset monk, with a sigh of exaggerated exasperation.

“What is this a picture of?” asked Alyana.

“This isn’t a tour,” the monk grumbled, “and I can’t give sight to the blind. Ask the Goddess.”

Alyana ignored the monk’s rudeness, and asked again. “That isn’t from last week, is it?”

“Thinks a tapestry takes a week,” snorted the heavy monk. “I could be Great Mother.”

“The image—yes,” interceded the slender monk with a feminine voice, “or so our interpreters believe. The tapestry was woven ten years ago by our sacred weaver, Vania.”

“What do you mean? Was it hanging blank for ten years?”

“Vania isn’t an artist. She couldn’t draw a line in the mud, take the past as her subject or craft cloth. She weaves futures.”

“She’s a prophet?”

“She’s a weaver,” said the monk simply.

When the heavyset monk again roared, “we’re still late,” Alyana kept her next question to herself.

What did the verses mean that were embroidered at the bottom of each tapestry? How long did you have to be a monk to learn their archaic alphabet? How many wandering the grounds knew what these said? In a few more minutes, she stopped caring about the tapestries’ ancient messages when the tapestries themselves became moodier. At first the tone shifted from bucolic to melancholic, with visions not of joy and happy worship, but of heroic deeds, sacrifices, and the suffering of Coruna’s worshipers. The first truly frightening picture portrayed a sword-wielding, muscular, monk swinging three heads by the hair in his other hand. This one seemed so out of place that it again made her stop short.

“Can you read this?”

“No, but we call it “Mystery of Benuro,” said the thin monk.

“The Great Mother is waiting,” barked the stocky monk.

“Was he a monk?” asked Alyana.

“Ask The Great Mother.”

After The Mystery of Benuro, the tapestries continued to confuse and horrify: a bare chested male monk nursed a hatchling dragon; a torch-bearing monk lit a stacked pile of wood nymphs; perhaps the most fearsome images were the countless tapestries that depicted human appetites, even the most licentious and lewd actions, with the solemnity of hallowed rite. While Alyana was neither widely nor deeply read, and she had not the erudition to articulate her burning question—were all these icons as canonical as holy writ?—her instincts told her not only that something was wrong, but, more importantly, nothing in the monastery was right.

The labyrinth of corridors ended in an iron door, flanked by two tapestries. On the right side, The Great Mother sat on a throne of skulls, and a throng bowed, kissing her feet; on the left, a monk laid on a wooden table, circled by sisters bearing candles or knives—the weaver’s colors were so faded it was impossible to tell The monks stopped, then half-turned, so as to flank each side of the door.

Curiosity of the bizarre gallery, which accelerated quickly from venerated miracles to holy horrors, had brought her this far, but now fright subdued Alyana’s curiosity, and she neither wanted to enter the presence of The Great Mother, not to take a single step more into the monastery. When the thin monk held open the door, that everyday politeness dispelled Alyana’s anxieties, and she walked in.

In the dimly lit room, priests in white robes and gold cowls sat in ornate, high backed, chairs, gray robed acolytes stood, and The Great Mother sat on a throne of skulls that was very much real. Coruna’s pontiff wore blood red vestments and a fine golden circlet from which shining spokes curved to support a golden disc several inches wider than her head that was etched with solar rays and the beatific face of Coruna.

“It reveals, and by blinding conceals; by it we judge, or fall into shadows. Of what do I speak, butcher girl?” Despite the woman’s soft tones, the riddle frightened Alyana, who desperately wanted real answers. It was like another painted horror in the corridor of mysteries. The Great Mother waited patiently, then answered for Alyana: “Light.”

She continued, “Coruna’s first mystery is the duality of the light that casts shadows on her creation. Creator and destroyer; redeemer and author of damnation; revealer and concealer; Evil follows Good in all things. Moreover, Coruna the illuminator lays at the heart of all decisions. When a monk arrives at the butcher shop, and asks Alyana to meet The Great Mother, she can accept the honor or refuse. What most do not know, and you grasp at by instinct or accident—it remains to be seen—is that in every decision, every action, there is also the opportunity for illumination, to receive the divine wisdom.”

“On your way,” The Great Mother continued, “you questioned many concepts that we do not contemplate until the final cantos, the crux of our faith. Alyana, you have a clever and unafraid mind. Fear of intelligence, whether of the thoughts of others or of your own judgment, is the highest fear and the hardest to unlock. The innumerable prejudices of the world stem from small minds’ inability to open the door to their own intelligence, which sounds through the closed door to be misunderstood as fears, and remain a tomb of buried enlightenment. Though you passed through many gates and doors on your way to this audience, before you is the first of many more gates and doors, all of which you may enter, or forebear now from entering. You may also enter any door you wish in the monastery, though some are preceded by tapestries depicting Coruna’s most sublime terrors. First, however, I have another question.”

“Some theologians would say your virtue attracted the eye of the Goddess, while others write that we do as Coruna wills. To what do you account that an hour ago you sliced meat in a butcher’s shop, and came to stand here?”

Alyana was dumbstruck by the monks’ opulent finery. She had never seen monks dressed like this. While wool-clad monks like Eleita collected alms and food for the poor, prayed for the dying, healed the sick, and exhorted those in need of inspiration, at the end of the tapestry road that celebrated decadent mysteries and evil futures was not the cream of Coruna’s hidden wisdom, but monks that looked more worldly than landless knights and petty nobles.

“Alyana,” said The Great Mother. “Are your actions unanswerable?”

“What should I account for? I lead a simple life.”

“Liar. Life is violence.”

“Do you hate me? What have I done?”

“Nothing. Nothing but work, which is not sacrifice.”

“Why should I sacrifice?”

“Wrong question. Try again.”When a side door opened, the sumptuously garbed monks rose with a rustling swirl of silk and satin, and Wencia entered, dressed simply in her everyday robes. Though the dust of the ancient road and the woods were cleaned from Wencia’s garment, Norrik’s gore remained as a rust red stain. Wencia also struggled to take in the lavish trappings of The Great Mother and her retinue, then turned to face Alyana. The monk held the butcher’s knife, still caked with blood.

“The question of good or evil is simple: not ‘why should I sacrifice,’ but ‘who should I sacrifice,’” said The Great Mother. “Are you the feast or feaster? Martyr or murderer? Or are you the altar?”

Wencia’s eyes were red from weeping. When she opened her mouth, a horrific stammer—part weeping, part laughing, and part gibberish—dwindled to an intelligible murmur of “Is this your knife?” When Wencia lunged, Alyana backpedaled, bumping into an acolyte, who grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her back to plow into the crazed monk, and though she kept her footing, it was only by grabbing the other woman’s wrists that she prevented herself from being impaled. Both the acolytes and their resplendent superiors had circled Alyana and Wencia.

Alyana sobbed, “why are you doing this?”

“The opposite of self-sacrifice is not selfishness,” said The Great Mother, with the air of someone who was continuing a lecture, “It is murder.”

“Help me, somebody!” cried Alyana, and though Wencia still circled her with the knife, it now seemed that Wencia’s sobs were in answer to Alyana’s.

“Kill or be killed,” The Great Mother bade, but the next verse of her sermon was drowned out by shouting monks, who cheered as they might at a cock fight. As Wencia sliced Alyana’s forearm, dribbling blood wet her sleeve.

The Great Mother’s even voice cut through the clamor. “You know your self through self-sacrifice...”

Alyana grabbed Wencia’s wrist, then yanked, meeting the taller woman’s chin with a headbutt so hard she felt teeth rattle through her skull.

“...but you know power by sacrificing others.” finished The Great Mother. Alyana knew the handle of the butcher’s knife so intimately that when Wencia’s grip on it slackened, Alyana’s hand darted to seize it. Her next move was one ingrained by long hours over a blood-stained block. The red gap opened in Wencia’s throat by this butcher’s reflex.

As blood blackened Alyana’s good shoes, she stared at the dead woman. When the monks grabbed her arms and seized the knife, her body was as limp as cloth, and her face felt numb, as if it was a painted image. The Great Mother put her thumb in Wencia’s blood to mark Alyana’s face with a pattern she could not see.

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