When the summons came through for Kanab to go to Belyos no one was more surprised than he was. He’d learnt many years ago to accept his lot as a rural cleric, and only the best and brightest managed to draw the attention of those in the Empire’s capital. For as long as he could remember, the temple where he lived and worked was all he’d ever known; left as a foundling at the gates, the priests who raised him named him after a particularly well-read head priest from the past in the hope that his namesake might bring him some measure of greatness. This proved to be optimistic; whilst he was considered bright, he wasn’t one for going far in the grand scheme of priestly ambition.
By their twentieth year of life, most aspiring clerics seeking advancement to full priesthood had been out and experienced the world as an assistant to a journeyman priest, tending to the needs of the rural communities around the town that held Kanab’s temple. The Empire’s pantheon was large and complex and most priests occupied an ecumenical role; fulfilling the needs of whichever god a petitioner sought the attention of. Those with a particular talent were usually approached by the temples of specific gods and moved to the larger towns and cities where devotions to a single god were more common. Kanab hadn’t even been outside his own temple on anything other than a minor errand to collect food or deliver messages. He knew exactly why; when confronted with a gathering of anything other than two or three, his mouth clammed up and his pulse raced. Unless he could somehow rid himself of this overwhelming terror of public speaking, he’d never be anything more than a cleric; one whose role was to tend to the needs of the priesthood and not the congregation, a task most had moved on from by their late twenties. Priests needed to be visible and vocal, to send entreaties to the gods and to direct prayer and praise. Kanab knew without a doubt his stammering and breathless attempts would never stand up to public approval, let alone divine acceptance.
Kanab knew nothing of his parents, or even of where his family might originate from. All of the Empire’s citizens were largely uniform in their appearance; dark olive skin, dark eyes and hair and Kanab was no different. Some of the more southern inhabitants, closer to the mountain passes to Sakamorh, might have lighter skin tones, perhaps even light brown hair, but the cleansing of anyone with light skin and yellow hair after the barbarian usurpers were driven from the Empire five hundred years ago made such things rare. Kanab had read that the primitive tribes on the far northern continent had skin even darker than his own, but he put such things down to exaggerated tales of those seeking attention.
His issues with public speaking might have stymied his progression into the priesthood, but that had never stopped him learning. Like his namesake, Kanab had read just about everything the small temple he called home held and impressed the priests with his theological knowledge. Serotheb, the old head priest who Kanab held both a deep admiration and a healthy fear for, had even gone to the expense of bringing in more scrolls from the bigger temple in Nalkeli, just for Kanab. He might never be a full priest, but Kanab was determined not to let down those who’d been his only family.
When not reading and discussing theology with his mentors, Kanab was often given those tasks which were deemed too lowly for the priests, but required more ability than found in the temple’s usual crop of clerics. The temple wasn’t large, but its parish covered a great deal of land and so boasted a dozen priests and almost as many clerics and novices at any given time. Most of the priests were out on their rounds, taking a couple of months to traverse their route, visiting the small farming communities that made up the larger proportion of Arall; one of the Empire’s eleven Elector States. This left the older priests to tend to the aspiring clerics and novices, teaching and training them to one day take up their nomadic role. Kanab had learnt everything there was to learn from that teaching and was often given a list of tasks to keep him occupied whilst the other clerics, often a few years younger than him, received their teaching.
On the day that unusual summons came, it was when Kanab was busy helping the temple’s blacksmith, a dour man called Gyler, fix one of the wagons. They were in the main yard and Gyler had propped the wagon up so he could slide underneath to fix a new wheel to the axle. As he brooked no interference in his work, Kanab’s role was to hand him tools on request and otherwise stand and be quiet. The midday bell rang out and Kanab glanced at the door to the schoolroom and let out a resigned breath as the clerics emerged on their way to the midday meal. Three of them Kanab knew all too well; they seemed to take great delight in constantly reminding Kanab that, despite being a lot older, he had yet to progress any further. They always stopped short of anything too disrespectful, and Kanab was far too mature to let their juvenile scorn bother him too much, but it still irritated him.
“That must be an important job, holding tools, if they’ve let Kanab do it.” The leader of the trio, Daichal, said, as they slowed to pass by. The other two laughed sycophantically. “Hey Kanab,” He said. “Guess who’s heading out with Nashol next month?”
Kanab rolled his eyes and turned away slightly, shaking his head.
“Don’t you want to know?” Daichal continued. “It’s me. I’m going out on the rounds. Isn’t that something you should be doing?” The other two laughed again. Daichal seemed about to continue when Gyler slid out from under the cart and fixed the three younger clerics with a stare. From the start they gave, it was clear they weren’t aware the blacksmith had been there and they shuffled off in haste.
“You shouldn’t let them talk to you like that.” Gyler said, looking at Kanab.
Kanab shrugged, “It doesn’t bother me so much, if they want to be childish then they can. I know my limitations.”
Gyler growled and took a tool from Kanab’s hand, “It’s not about you,” he said. “It’s about them showing respect where it’s due. They need to learn that it’s not about what they think. What happens the day they fail to show proper respect to somebody who does care?” Kanab frowned as Gyler shook his head and continued, “I know you don’t care, but it should be your responsibility as their elder to teach them things like this.”
Gyler settled back onto the ground and was about to crawl back under the cart when another cleric came walking up. “Kanab, Archpriest Serotheb demands your immediate presence in his chambers.”
“Me?” Kanab replied, looking apprehensive as the other cleric nodded.
He glanced at Gyler who shrugged, “When Serotheb calls, you’ve got to go.” he said.
Kanab nodded and walked off towards the main temple building, entering through the open archway and to the stairs up to the archpriest’s chambers. He stopped at the door and took in a deep breath. As far as he was aware, he’d done nothing wrong and although this wasn’t the first time he’d been in these chambers, it was the first time he’d been summoned here. All previous visits had been a personal invitation, usually to discuss aspects of theology with Serotheb and other priests. Unable to think of a reason for his summoning, he knocked on the door and waited for a response.
“Enter!” Came a voice from within and Kanab turned the handle and entered the room. The archpriests chambers consisted of a small cell where the archpriest slept and a larger circular room where he studied and talked to other priests and visitors. The centre of the room held a large wooden table with shelves all around the walls filled with scrolls and books. Sat in chairs at the table was the archpriest himself and another man whom Kanab didn’t recognise, wearing armour and a blue tabard. Serotheb stood as Kanab entered and beckoned him over, “Here he is, come on in Kanab.” The archpriest’s voice was clear and melodic, belieing his age. Kanab had no idea how old Serotheb was, rumours put him at about ninety, but Kanab had never heard of anyone that old. Regardless of his age, Serotheb was still vigorous and hale, able to take part in all but the most strenuous of the temple’s chores. His head was completely devoid of hair but his dark eyes were topped with long eyebrows of almost pure white.
“Kanab, this man here is Captain Llunn from the temple of Yaltur in Belyos.” Serotheb said, gesturing to the seated figure. Llunn turned to look at Kanab and nodded a silent greeting, although Kanab got the impression he was being assessed at the same time. “The good captain has brought a most unusual message, one I may have to request confirmation for.” The old archpriest settled back into his chair. “Sit Kanab, please.”
“I don’t have time to wait for you to send a message back to Belyos,” Llunn said, turning to look back at Serotheb. “My mission is important and I cannot be delayed.”
Kanab sat, but perched on the edge of his seat, glancing between the two other men. He was very interested in the captain; he’d heard of the temple guards before, their reputation was quite widespread. Considered some of the best soldiers in the Empire, they recruited only the finest from all over the Empire, rank and titles meaning nothing. Yaltur was the chief god of the Empire, the god to whom all other gods deferred and who was credited with founding the original Empire, nearly two thousand years ago. His temple in Belyos was, after the Imperial palace itself, the biggest and most impressive building in the world. It was unusual to say the least, that an elite solider from the most important religious place in the Empire should visit a small rural temple.
Senotheb seemed unperturbed by the soldier’s impatience, just nodding, “I understand your concern.” He said, “But your orders are not only unusual but almost unheard of. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to confirm them.”
The captain scowled and Kanab thought for a moment the man would dissent, but he just nodded in return. “It’s not a typical request, I will give you that.” Llunn said. He turned his head to look at Kanab, “You don’t look anything special, that’s for sure.”
“Me? Special?” Kanab echoed, confusion in his voice, glancing between the two others.
“Now Kanab,” Senotheb said, reaching out to touch him reassuringly, “The captain here has brought instructions from Belyos. From the temple of Yaltur and the High Priest himself. They are asking for you to go to them.”
Kanab just stared at the archpriest with disbelief, “Me?” He managed to say.
“Yes, I thought the very same thoughts,” Senotheb admitted, “But the letter appears to be genuine and very specific about whom they want. No other explanation is forthcoming, unfortunately, and the good captain is just the messenger.”
“Very specific,” Llunn confirmed, “Cleric Kanab alTur, to be collected from the temple at Drin and escorted to Belyos and the high priest of Yaltur.”
That was his name, even down to the title given to him instead of a family name due to his status as a foundling. Kanab looked at Senotheb with bewilderment, but the old priest just shrugged. “I do not know why, Kanab. I have heard that truly exceptional priests get the call to serve in the capital but...” He left the rest of the sentence unsaid and Kanab knew what he meant. He was anything but exceptional, and not even a priest yet. “I was hoping to get some confirmation of this request, to ensure they are indeed asking for the right person,” Senotheb continued, “This is no reflection on your abilities Kanab, you are a fine cleric and might make the priesthood one day.”
Kanab nodded, unsure of what to say, or even how to feel. If it was true, then this was a great honour, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe that they had got the right person.
Llunn leant forwards, “What would it take for you to confirmation?” he asked Senotheb. “I cannot stay much longer than two days. After that I shall depart with Kanab, confirmation or not.”
“It is an exceptional occurrence, and I’m sure the temple of Yaltur will be forthcoming with the resources, so I was going to send an express message with the Post.” Senotheb replied. Kanab’s eyes widened; the Imperial Post was widely used to send messages around the Empire, but an express message would cost a small fortune. It meant the dedication of a series of riders all the way to Belyos with little or no delay between stages.
“That’s still too slow,” Llunn objected, “Such a message would still take almost a week to get there and back. Tell me archpriest; would it really be so detrimental to this temple if the message is wrong? Is this cleric so important to the running of the place that you cannot spare him for a few weeks? If it is indeed the case of mistaken identity, I shall return with him personally, but we must depart as soon as possible.”
Kanab looked at Senotheb, his hope growing slowly. Llunn’s proposal was a rational one; Kanab’s duties in the temple were not unique and his learning as a cleric was comprehensive. The only thing that tempered Kanabs rising enthusiasm at going to Belyos was the prospect of meeting and having to talk to lots of new people.
Senotheb must have sensed Kanabs mood as he smiled at the cleric before nodded to Llunn. “So be it,” he said, “You may leave with Kanab in the morning. If, as I suspect, this is a mistake, you may bring him home with little more effect than broadening Kanab’s mind about our great Empire. Such a thing would not do him any harm.” He turned to Kanab. “This is a great opportunity for you Kanab,” he said, “It could give you the confidence that you so sorely need. Do not squander it.”
“I won’t Archpriest, I promise,” Kanab stammered, “Thank you.” He stood and bowed a little, “By your leave I shall go and prepare.”
“It’s a long ride to Belyos, cleric,” Llunn said, “And we won’t be stopping much. Make sure you have everything you need.”
Kanab nodded as Senotheb stood. “Make sure you come and see me this evening, Kanab,” The old priest said, “And be discrete about whom you talk to about this. I wouldn’t want the other clerics thinking this is typical activity and getting their hopes up.”
Kanab bowed again and retreated from the chambers. Once outside with the door closed he let out a long breath. He was going to Belyos. A personal summons from the High Priest of Yaltur. Shaking his head, he walked, almost in a daze, to the residential building shared with the other clerics. Most clerics slept in a communal dormitory but because of his age and experience as a cleric, Kanab had his own cell, although it lacked a door. Privacy was something only priests were entitled to. He sat on his cot, staring at the wall and only vaguely registered the ringing of the bell that signified the end of the midday meal. It was only when his stomach growled with displeasure at being neglected he roused himself from his thoughts. Frowning that he’d missed the meal hour, Kanab stood and decided he’d go and chance getting something to eat anyway. Then he’d have to see about packing his few belongings.
Later that evening, sometime after the evening meal, Kanab made his way to the archpriest’s chambers as requested. The day had passed in a blur, even the recurrent snide comments from Daichal and his cronies hadn’t dented Kanab’s mood. There had been a fair bit of murmuring about the presence of Llunn at the high table at suppertime. The captain had removed his armour, but his bright blue tunic and belted sword stood out amongst the brown and grey robes of the refractory’s typical occupants. Kanab had picked up various conversations about the guard’s reason for being here, but was satisfied that none of them were about him.
“Enter,” came the reply when he knocked on the door to Senotheb’s chambers, and Kanab entered, closing the door behind him. The archpriest was seated at his table, some scrolls spread out before him and he smiled at Kanab widely.
“You wished to speak to me.” Kanab said, standing by the door.
“Yes, I did. Come, sit.” Senotheb said, pointing to a chair. As Kanab sat, the old priest watched him. “I trust I didn’t offend you by suggesting this unusual summons might be a mistake?” he said. “It’s not that we don’t value your work here, but until you can learn to master your fear of speaking, you’ll never be a priest.”
“I know, master,” Kanab said, “I was not offended. I know my place in this temple.”
“Yes, you do,” Senotheb said, “You have accepted your place here with humility that some others would do well to emulate. However, you must understand that to go to Belyos is a great honour; an honour that no other priest at this temple has been accorded. I wished to speak to you before you leave so that I could educate you as to what to expect.”
“Have you ever been to Belyos master?” Kanab asked.
Senotheb smiled, “Yes, once, many years ago,” he said, “It is a place unlike any other, an anthill of humanity. It is not regarding the city itself I wish to teach you about.”
Kanab supressed a feeling of disappointment; the archpriest was a great storyteller and speaking of his experience in the Imperial Capital would have been a marvellous tale. Instead he nodded, “What do you wish me to learn master?”
“Tell me what you know of the gods, Kanab, and their relationships.” Senotheb asked, leaning back in his chair.
A frown flickered across Kanab’s brow; this was first year novice teachings. He didn’t see how it related to his trip to Belyos but he did as he was told. “The children of accursed Turbal led the fight against the tyranny of the Usurpers and are worthy of our praise; Yaltur and his wife, blessed Hikis, founded the Empire, his brothers and sisters and children rule alongside him and the Three sustain the world; Tanab of sea, Mesoh of earth and Dicac of sky. These all are the Inheritor gods and they protect and sustain the Empire.”
Senotheb nodded, “And the others?”
“The Lords of Order judge the dead, their children take them. Lysek for the righteous, Niynar for the heinous, Doyom for the rest,” Kanab recited. “These are all the gods to whom we pray.”
The old archpriest nodded again, “Do you know of any others?” Kanab blinked. There were others, but they were not often spoken of. Senotheb gestured, “I know you know of more, continue.”
“There...” Kanab paused, but continued, “Before the Usurpers were the Primae, whom accursed Turbal imprisoned and overthrew and blessed Hikis freed, and there is Tistal, who stands alone but sees all that is to be.” He pressed his lips together, “And there is Nexi, The Unspoken One, of whom we do not speak, lest the god of discord strike us down.”
“You are well read,” Senotheb said, “But what is the main thing you can tell me from all of that?”
“That we have a lot of gods.” Kanab replied, in almost a jocular fashion and was surprised when Senotheb clapped his hands together and smiled.
“Exactly,” the archpriest said, “We have a myriad amount of gods, and the bigger the city, the more gods people build temples to. We are fortunate here in that we tend to the needs of all of the Inheritor gods and even pay our respects to the Lords of Order when the occasion arises at funerals. When you arrive at Belyos you will see a temple to each and every god, save that of The Unspoken One and Tistal the Teller.”
Kanab’s eyes widened, “That would be a lot of temples in one place, master,” he said, “Why not worship as one, like we do?”
Senotheb smiled, “Ah, there is the issue. Politics, Kanab, politics. No one wishes to give up their place in the scheme of things and being the priest of a temple in Belyos gives one a remarkable amount of authority. Where we take an ecumenical course, those in the Imperial Capital play a complex game of power and politics, where the fortunes and favours of the gods wax and wane.”
“It seems rather wasteful, master,” Kanab observed, “Surely they could do so much more working together.”
Senotheb sighed, “Yes they could, but people will be people. I tell you this that your arrival in Belyos, even though you are an unordained cleric of a minor ecumenical temple in the countryside, will cause ripples in an ever-changing pond. If it is indeed you they wish to see, it makes you unusual, and unusual is important. Be aware of the part you have to play in their games of power.”
“I will master.” Kanab said, but this introduction to the power games at the heart of the Empire unsettled him a little. His excitement was now tinted with apprehension, not enough though to put him off the visit.
Senotheb spoke a little more of the various people involved at the highest levels in Belyos; from the High Priest of Yaltur, Horr, who’d issued the summons, to the Emperor himself, Til-Lautor. Although Kanab doubted very much he’d ever meet such an exalted figure. After an hour or two, the old archpriest shooed Kanab away to his bed. “You have a very long trip,” he said, “You will be missing your cot here before long, I guarantee it.”
Once back in his cell and lying on his bed, Kanab closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but knew he’d struggle so it was a surprise when the dawn bell awoke him. A moment’s panic gripped him as an irrational thought flickered through his mind that Captain Llunn would leave without him. He grabbed the small bag that contained his entire worldly possessions and sprinted out of his cell.
“What’s the rush?” Daichal called after him, “Forgotten that you’re on breakfast duty?”
Kanab ignored him, knowing that if it was all as expected; he’d never have to listen to Daichal’s disrespect again. He burst from the dormitory building into the courtyard causing Llunn to turn his head; the captain was still saddling up his horse and there was another, still unsaddled horse, nearby. “Nice to see you’re eager,” Llunn said with the barest hint of a smile, “But you’ve time to break your fast before we set off.”
Slightly embarrassed, Kanab set his small pack with the other bags that Llunn had gathered containing the rest of the journey’s supplies. “I thought I was late.”
“I figured.” Llunn replied, “Go get something to eat. We won’t be stopping until later this afternoon. I want to get back to Belyos soon, but there’s no urgency. We won’t be setting off until it’s fully light.”
By this point, others had begun to emerge from the dormitory and a certain amount of interest was being directed towards the armour-clad guard and the horses. Most expressions were of just general curiosity towards the continued presence of the temple guard, something that in itself was unusual. A few, and Kanab wasn’t surprised to see Diachal being one of them, had expressions of incredulity that the guard was interested in Kanab, let alone that Kanab’s pack was with the luggage ready to go. None of them were so bold as to challenge Kanab in front of the guard however and they all trooped off towards the refectory for their morning meal.
“I said go and get something to eat,” Llunn said to Kanab, “You’ll only be able to eat in the saddle until later this afternoon, so make sure you get plenty to fill your belly.”
Kanab nodded and with a certain level of reluctance, headed over to the refectory. He knew as soon as he entered the room he’d be the focus of attention and, despite the words of Senotheb, it would be impossible to disguise the fact. Eventually it would be known he’d left with the guard. Sure enough, his arrival in the long room was accompanied by a turning of heads and an increase in the level of murmuring. Kanab made his way down the room between the two wooden tables that stretched the length of the hall and to the hatch to the kitchens where the clerics and priests received their food. Kanab paused in surprise when he saw the archpriest himself serving the food and the old man gave Kanab a wide smile.
“Ah, Kanab, good. Llunn has sent you to get something to eat before the journey, yes?” Kanab nodded as Senotheb passed him over a plate with rather more food upon it that was typical for a morning meal; chunks of bread and butter, a selection of cut fruit and a few slices of carved ham. “I knew you’d need more than the usual fare,” Senotheb continued, “Make sure you eat it all, no one should bother you whilst you’re eating as well.”
Kanab smiled in gratitude, “Thank you master,” he said and made his way to the end of the nearest table, settling into an empty space on the bench. The clerics and priests around him continued to eat their meals, although he could tell quite a few of them were aching to ask questions. Evidently the presence of the archpriest was discouraging enquires. As his meal was larger than normal, it took him longer to eat it, washing down the food with cups of the watered down wine that was typical. By the time he was done, the refectory had emptied and Kanab was about to take his plate to the kitchens as normal when Senotheb appeared from behind him and took the plates from him.
“Remember what I said Kanab,” The archpriest said, “Belyos is a fascinating place, but you will be a tool in people’s political games. Make sure you do not become a pawn.”
“I will be careful master, thank you.” Kanab replied, bowing his head.
“Now go,” Senotheb said, ushering Kanab from the room, “Llunn is ready and waiting to go.”
Sure enough, outside Llunn had finished packing and saddling the two horses and was sat on one of them waiting for him. “Mount up and we’ll be off.” The guard said, gesturing to the other animal.
Kanab looked with trepidation at the horse. He’d ridden plenty times, but only ever on a donkey and as he mounted his horse he was acutely aware that his technique probably left a lot to be desired. Llunn didn’t seem to have noticed and once Kanab was mounted, clicked his heels and slowly made his way from the courtyard and onto the road outside, Kanab following. Whether through sheer accident, or some ploy of Senotheb’s, in the field next to the road, Daichal and his cohorts were busy weeding the vegetable patches and Kanab couldn’t help but smile to himself as they stared in disbelief as he rode past them with the temple guard. Perhaps that, he thought to himself, should discourage them from commenting on things they knew little about.
For the first hour or so of the journey, Kanab enjoyed himself. The weather in the Empire was almost always mild. Aside from further up into the mountains and the north of the Empire around Keltas, the climate gave warm summers and cool winters, rain was regular but not frequent and violent storms were almost unheard of. As it was the beginning of spring, today it was fresh and cool; the early morning mist burnt off by the sun with white wispy clouds streaked over the sky. They passed through the nearby village and began to head north, further now than Kanab had ever been from the temple in all the years he could remember. This part of the Empire was nearly all fields and small woods and it was the monotony of the journey that got to Kanab first. Llunn seemed to be able to doze in the saddle and only roused when they came near other road users; typically wagons full of produce, or the odd farmer moving from one field to another. Kanab had no such talent and before long, the boredom of the travelling became mixed with the ache from being in a saddle for a long time.
It was this combination of boredom and being uncomfortable that became all Kanab was aware of for the next few days. They only stopped once during the day, usually a few hours after midday, to water and feed the horses and to take a break for necessities. They stopped for the night in one of the many villages on the road, sharing a room after eating what was, after the fare of the temple, a substandard meal, and rose at dawn to continue on their travels. Llunn wasn’t very talkative and Kanab gave up trying to engage him in conversation after the first few attempts resulted in nothing but monosyllabic answers. In a futile task to stave off the boredom, Kanab began to imagine what was awaiting him in Belyos, dreaming of inspiring architecture and deep theological debates, although the last words of Senotheb tempered his excitement somewhat.
After the first week, they crested a hill and Kanab got his first view of the Inner Sea, the body of water around which the Empire lay. Further down the road, Kanab saw the buildings of what he could only assume were the capital of Arall, Nalkeli. “It’s massive.” He breathed. In his mind, he knew cities were large, and he was also aware that Nalkeli was small in comparison to what Belyos would look like, but seeing it in front of him was something else.
Llunn chuckled, “Nalkeli isn’t a big town.” He said, “But I suspect it’s the biggest town you’ve ever seen. Am I right?”
Kanab nodded and his eyes swept the huddled buildings surrounded by a low wall. He tried to count them but they all blurred into one great big stone and wooden whole. “How do so many people live together without fighting?”
“With difficulty,” Llunn said, “But ultimately, everyone has something to gain from being here so no one rocks the boat too much. Nalkeli here has about twenty thousand people.” Kanab stared at Llunn, not believing that so many people could be in one place. The guard smiled, “Belyos has a million.”
“A million...?” Kanab’s mouth dropped open and he suddenly felt extremely small and insignificant. The prospect of being surrounded by so many people hit home. “I... I can’t...” He looked at Llunn with wide eyes.
“Don’t worry,” Llunn said, “You’ll be taken care of. The temple of Yaltur is quiet; one of the advantages of being the founding god of the Empire. There’s a ship waiting for us in the harbour, Belyos is a few days sailing away.”
Kanab pressed his lips together but wasn’t convinced. For the first time he began to hope that Archpriest Senotheb’s belief that this was a mistake was actually the case. In a few days he’d find out for sure.